Children in GraceLand

Maybe the most ironic line in the book is “Good children do not concern themselves with adult problems.” The line is ironic because of the commentary that Abani is making with regard to child soldiers, to sex work, to the development of sexuality and its relationship to familial modeling to the spoiling point of incest.

One of the book’s guiding questions, and one that allows the novel to take as its form the structure of a coming of age novel, is how ought childhood (to the precipice of adolescent adulthood) be performed and what does it have to do with innocence and redemption?  Here the child is the reformed, continually hybrid (or class bifurcated) nation; here the child is Elvis, becoming a man (though still a child as 16); here the child is Efua the child who is raped, unprotected, and blamed; here the children are heads in a bag, are trafficked; here the child is a sex working girl in a slum; here the child is a commander who murders Christians; here the children nuns. Early in the novel Abani sets up the idea of redemption as a state only attainable after criminal behavior. He presents the idea of impurity—a lack of innocence—as requisite for the act of clearing a debt or being saved. Is his guiding question, how can people who are by their years, “only” children be redeemed? What of the dead? What fruit grows from their staked heads? Of course, an important question is what do we become after childhood? After the nation has been through rounds of military rule? What kind of hybridity persists and reforms after the 1980s, into the depths of the 21 century? What kind of dream does America offer now? Is it a place that protects childhood? The novel ends in a dangerous, liminal space; honestly, it begins in a dangerous liminal space, too. As ever, I’m concerned with naming/categorizing and re-naming the same referent, is the child still a child without a childhood? Is the spirit child, perpetually (which is to say timelessly) a child? As a nation ages, does it develop through an adolescence?

We can explore this book as allegory and hone in on how naming occurs, and interrogate what Abani is highlighting when he talks of Able-to-do and Confusion and states that, “That, coupled with the way these boys adopted such confrontational nicknames, defying a culture where your name was selected with care by your family and given to you as a talisman, was the thing rebellion was made of, as far as Elvis was concerned.” (147)

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One Response to Children in GraceLand

  1. Anne Gulick says:

    See Abani’s next novel, Song for Night (his “child soldier narrative”), for further exploration of these same ideas.


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