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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Daphne’s Lot by Chris Abani

Daphne’s Lot is less a war story than a family memoir that took place in Nigeria during the Biafran war. This is how Chris Abani makes sense of his parentage, early life and circumstances, and an early exposure to the extreme cruelty of ethnic conflict. The author, son of an Englishwoman and an Igbo intellectual, has created an epic in verse that subverts the form “while playing in the field of its tradition…”

Daphne’s Lot – a pun evoking her fate, as well as her mob of four children, and somehow also echoing Lot’s wife, looking back at the ruins – follows Daphne’s journey from the Midlands of the UK to Nigeria, and back again to be reunited with her husband.

He has chosen to construct the memoir in couplets, with long sweeps of lines that reveal unpredictable rhymes like jewels in the sand. As much this is a sumptuous, lyrical delight, it fearlessly reveals how ugly humans can be – both on an intimate level, as in his father’s violence – and in the political murderous war on civilians, specifically the one million children who died of starvation.

While he makes no claims to write a classic epic poem, he does use some of the conventions of the form to bring his story to life. For example, the invocation to the muse is a poem entitled Only a small prayer, opening with the words:
“I know nothing of truth/Towering like that first light,
Unbending sacred river.”

And he ends the poem by naming his muse: poetry. This is the muse to whom he prays, to lend structure to the clamour of memories. We see the writer as he struggles to begin, with a familiar frustration:
“Oh Christ, my craft, and the time it is taking” and then he disappears between the folds of Daphne’s life in Midlands post-war Britain, we almost forget him as her family comes to life in the little boy’s mind, the familiar endearments of Grampy and Mum and we are reminded, as in all war stories, people were living there. The parts of the poem are economically headed with dates, in 1937 he observes:
“There had not always been the war, unfettered/Weed in the garden of Europe, over-running neat
Boundaries, like the one Grampy tended and grew/The flower Mum would be named after.”

Here we see a master poet who in two lines sketches history and his family’s place in it without compromise of tenderness or horror. His reading of his mother’s regret at turning down her scholarship to grammar school for secretarial college “like the smell of mangoes/rotting – sweet, so sweet – /”
The epic contains not only the journey of the family to flee Biafra and its corpses, to England, but Abani’s later wanderings which have culminated in a life in the USA. Abani’s complex relationship with his father, a womaniser, a wife-beater and a war hero, finds an uneasy peace in the latter part of the narrative, as we witness a son fashioning a hero from his alienated father.

“Red Cross official in charge of distributing food/and medicines, the task had been more formidable
And dangerous than fighting on the front lines/where the only responsibility was to one’s self.
He further undertook the risky work of reuniting/lost children and parents. This required a dedication,/
Commitment and bravery equal to any marine…”

Deities are absent from this damaged landscape, except the muse, poetry, revealing with empathy the journey of one young man from chaos to closure. Sort of. Abani’s complex honorific is finely crafted and resonant.
Chris Abani’s first novel, a political thriller titled Masters of the Board, was published when he was sixteen years old. He was imprisoned under suspicion for being involved in the plot that took place three weeks after the book was published. After his release he wrote Sirocco, which earned him another period behind bars. On his release he wrote several dissident plays and he was sentenced to death. With the intervention of friends he managed to escape and found refuge in Britain. He now lives in the United States.

This rich document, filled with the light and shadow of his native land, the textures of family and love, nevertheless does not spare the reader of the slaughter, the shattered lives and the insanity of war – bringing to our news-filled imaginations other wars, other losses, other lives. There is, as he promises in his foreword, much to be celebrated: courage, and love above all.


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