In Smoking the Bible, Chris Abani Paints a Story of Brotherhood and Exile

The collection, his seventh, has been praised for how it “emanates grit and beauty” and is “spiritual, philosophical, personal, and deeply affecting.”
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Chris Abani - Smoking the Bible

In poems that move between Nigeria and the US, Chris Abani weaves the story of a man in exile elegizing his brother. Smoking the Bible is the Nigerian poet and novelist’s seventh collection.

The book was released in May by Copper Canyon Press. The description reads:

Smoking the Bible is an arresting collection of poems thick with feeling, shaped by Chris Abani’s astounding command of form and metaphor. These poems reveal the personal story of two brothers—one elegizing the other—and the larger story of a man in exile: exile of geography, culture, and memory. What we experience in this emotionally generous collection is a deep spiritual reckoning that draws on ancient African traditions of belief, and an intellectual vivacity drawing on various wisdom literatures and traditions. 

Abani illustrates the connective geography between harm, regret, and release, as poems move through landscapes of Nigeria, the Midwestern United States, adulthood, and childhood. One has the sense of entering a whole and complex world of the imagination in reading this collection. There is no artifice here, no affectation; and these poems are a study in the very grace of image.

Poetry Foundation notes that the collection’s “elegiac meditations on faith, heritage, masculinity, race, and familial loss are particularized in the manner of well-crafted fiction.” Acclaimed poet and 2010 National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes describes it as “Pliant and uncompromising, intellectual and organic.”

Chris Abani. From the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
Chris Abani. From the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

A novelist, essayist, and poet, Chris Abani published his first novel Masters of the Board (1985) when he was only a teenager in Nigeria. he followed it with GraceLand (2005), The Virgin of Flames (2007), The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014), Becoming Abigail (2006), and Song For Night (2007). His collections of poetry are Kalakuta Republic (2001), Daphne’s Lot (2003), Dog Woman ( 2004), Hands Washing Water (2006), There are no names for red (2010), Feed me the sun (2010), and Sanctificum (2010).

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Abani, a Board of Trustees Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University and editor of the African Poetry Book Fund’s Eight New-Generation African Poets and New-Generation African Poets, has won a Prince Claus Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond Margins Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award, and a PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award.

A starred review in the Booklist suggests that Smoking the Bible “emanates grit and beauty,” and the Chicago Review of Books praises it as “linguistically expansive,” and “spiritual, philosophical, personal, and deeply affecting.”

Paula Willie-Okafor
Paula Willie-Okafor is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. She is a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she is custodian of The Writers' Community (TWC). Her writing has appeared in Kissing Dynamite Magazine and Praxis Magazine.

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