Las Vegas, Ghost Towns, and Crimes of the Past: An Interview With Chris Abani

Author photo_Chris Abani (c) Chris Abani

Look at Chris Abani‘s new novel The Secret History of Las Vegas and you’ll find familiar ingredients: a veteran detective doggedly pursing an unsolved case; a morally compromised central character; a figure who knows more than they’re letting on. But in Abani’s fiction, elements that might border on the archetypal are deconstructed: here, the buried history of Las Vegas and the aftereffects of apartheid-era abuses in South Africa converge, and the lives of Abani’s central characters will be forever affected. This my second time interviewing Abani, following one conducted in 2007; his fiction never fails to go in unlikely places, and to illuminate a host of lives tormented by the past and, in some cases, their own present circumstances. I checked in with Abani — who will be in conversation with Victor LaValle at Community Bookstore on January 30th — via email to learn more about his latest work.

What first prompted you to write a novel set largely in Las Vegas?

When I first came to the US in 2000, I took a weekend trip to Vegas and was blown away by how much like a third world city was – and I mean 3rd world in the sense of expansive, liminal, contradictory and excessive. LA had the same properties but Vegas took the excess to another level. I knew then that I wanted to write about it. But it was another trip to a nearby ghost town and the fact that there were artists living there off the grid that really confirmed it for me. An occupied ghost town and the city of vice and possibility – it almost wrote itself.

The Secret History of Las Vegas juxtaposes characters affected by the US government’s nuclear testing with those traumatized by the abuses of the apartheid-era South African government. Do you find there to be direct comparisons between the two, or were the parallels more general?

I am always interested in socio-political dimensions when writing. When I came here I kept hearing Americans talk about how free they were. And this is true to a very large extent but there is something about unchecked government power that takes on almost the tyrannical. I saw traces of that tyranny hidden in plain sight here. So I played with that as I juxtaposed apartheid era South Africa with the United States because it is important to understand excesses of power, cruelty and human rights abuse as a human problem, not a non-American problem. I also feel more concerned about America’s heart of darkness the longer I’ve lived here and because I live here I feel compelled to explore it compassionately. There are obvious parallels between both places but not in a simple comparison but rather in a complex sensitive dialogue. It is precisely America’s freedom that allows me to write a book like this but also a tunnel vision belief in that freedom allows excesses of power to go unchallenged. I have no answers, just questions.

The basic structure of the novel involves the investigation of a crime — yet I’d argue that the bulk of the book subverts what might be considered detective-novel tropes. How did the storyline evolve as you were writing the book? 

I think that all my work – all my novels – are variations within the genre of noir. My first novel was a thriller and as a kid I devoured all the detective novels I could. But I also read the Russians – who brought an existential melancholy to my work, Baldwin who interrogated humanity, South African photo novels which had a grit to them, American comic books and Japanese genre bending writers like Kobo Abe. I feel that noir was a truly transformational form, perhaps the most important literary form from the last century. I grew up in the 20th century (sounds so cool to say that) so perhaps I’m naturally drawn to it. I subvert everything – tropes, language even form and genre – but not for fun but simply because I am truly looking for better ways to say what I want to say. This book evolved from the idea of conjoined twins trying to murder each other, then it became a picaresque spectacle of the freakish, then a novel about Johannesburg, then one about Vegas before settling into its current shape. The heart of the book though is driven by the theme of unlikely and complicated friendships and love. So maybe it’s also part Harlequin romance. I just wanted to write a book I would love to read and be proud of. A book that would at turns entertain, at others disturb but which in the end is a good yarn. That’s what its all about in the end – a good story.

Do you tend to only work on poetry or prose in a given period of time, or do you find yourself alternating between the two?

I tend to work on two to three projects simultaneously – fiction and poetry, or fiction and non-fiction, or fiction and screenplays or even fiction and photography. I completed a book of poetry (Sanctificum), two screenplays (Fela and The Queen of Katwe), and several essays (prose and photographic) while writing The Secret History of Las Vegas. I do it cause I’m a workaholic and also to keep things fresh. I switch back and forth constantly.

Since you mentioned comics, I’m curious — have you ever tried your hand at writing for that medium?

I do love comics. Growing up they were an integral part of my life and constituted about forty percent of all my reading. My friend Kachi Akoma, who is now an architect in New York, and I made several comics as kids. He was and still is a pretty amazing artist so he did all the visuals and I did all the stories. I have taught Comics and The Graphic Novel in my MFA classes, both as literature as well as workshops on how to make them. I would love to do several but so far it’s been mostly talk. I have ideas but haven’t fully engaged with them. Maybe soon.

Part of The Secret History of Las Vegas involves radical Downwinders; how much of that came from reality and how much was accentuated or stylized for the novel?

There is a lot of material written on the actual Downwinders, a group of people living down wind from the atomic testing sites. This includes parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. They are organized and have as a group sued the federal government many times but they are still to win a single case, partly, as I understand it (and I am no lawyer) because the legal implications and subsequent lawsuits that would follow would be incalculably too expensive. There is also the fact that no government wants to admit that it tested nuclear weapons on its own population. There have been documented cases of birth abnormalities, but in real life, most of the affected struggle with leukemia and other cancers. So there is a fair amount of fact to what was used in the book. But chasing the facts here started to lead me down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories so I had to be careful.

However the Downwinder Nation, a radical group who use direct and violent action is all made up for the book. As is the Carnival of Lost Souls. So as with most fiction, there is a fair amount of fact, put through the fevered mill of the writer’s imagination and then twisted to fit the turns of plot.

Do you have any plans to revisit either Las Vegas or Johannesburg as settings for future projects?

I am actually finishing a book length essay on Johannesburg commissioned by the Achebe Center at Bard as part of the Pilgrimages project. And South Africa seems to have taken up a good part of my brain so there might be more. As for Vegas, who knows? Maybe. GraceLand ended with a nod to Vegas so maybe this book is the fulfillment of an outstanding promise.

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1 comment

  1. I can’t wait to read this book! And so excited that Abani will be in conversation with LaValle–two of my favorite authors…Good interview, Tobias!