A Gangster Rapper at a Bat Mitzvah

That’s how Chris Abani referred to how he felt during his TED talk, seen here at the link below:


Among the scientists and teachers and great thinkers featured here, Abani found himself a little bit starstruck to be here. However, as the talk continues, with the help of his quick sense of humor, and logical flow of ideas supported by personal anecdotes and statistics, Abani quickly takes control of his audience, wrapping them into a cognitive web of the importance of stories.

Stories, something that Abani claims “is fluid and belongs to nobody”, are an important part of how we define ourselves in relation to our culture. Throughout Abani’s Graceland, we see that Elvis is surrounded by stories of the oral and written variety. In the beginning, we see Elvis reading books such as War and Peace and other great literary works. Although he dropped out of school, Elvis still enjoys stories and uses them in order to escape the horrors of  his everyday life in the slums of Lagos. We also hear of the stories that Elvis is told on the bus or by his family, stories that convey religious beliefs, gender roles, and views of justice vs. injustice.

But why is this such an important part of Elvis’ narrative?

In the snippet of The Republic that we read, Socrates is claiming that we shouldn’t tell children fairy tales because they depict warped images of truth and justice. However, throughout Abani’s novel, Elvis is often being told or being reminded of stories that convey different perspectives of justice and truth, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace and The Bible. In the fifth chapter, it is revealed that he is reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, compilation of 10 letters by Rilke to  a young man trying to choose between a literary career and entering the Austro-Hungarian Army. Throughout these letters, which you can skim/ read through here discuss what it means to be an artist and how one must view the world and act upon it to truly be an artist.

Although some may argue that this is a minor detail, like the blue curtain argument, I believe that Abani had a good reason for mentioning that Elvis was reading this book. Although Elvis was not struggling against joining the army, he was torn between his life as a performer and his life as a member of Lagosian society, which due to its constant violence and political oppression, was seemingly warlike in itself. By having him read this book, Abani is conveying the universal nature of human narratives that can draw parallels between the most unlikely people, a claim that he himself backs up in his video when discussing how an Muslim- Pakastani teacher taught her Nigerian students about the Holocaust. This universal nature of the story brings us together, even when we feel out of place, like a gangster rapper at a bat mitzvah.

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