One of the most obvious structural features of Chris Abani’s Graceland is the inclusion, at the beginning of each chapter, of two different epigraphs (of sorts). The first seems to take the reader through an explanation of the kola nut ritual, while the second, always printed in italics below the first, offers a sort of commentary on the ritual – what seems to be an outsider’s anthropological explanation. As we noted in our group discussion yesterday, the juxtaposition of the two seems intentionally playful, a way for Abani to comment on both the need for and troubles with cross-cultural exchange and education. As a reader, the commentary does not always add much to our understanding. Sometimes it’s confusing, other times overly didactic, and sometimes merely obvious. For example, at the beginning of chapter eighteen we see, in the continued explanation of the ritual: “This is the first step. This is the way it is done.” Underneath, in italics, it is dryly noted “The protocol is followed strictly.” The relative brevity and obviousness of the second observation (especially in contrast to other chapters) adds humor while also serving to undercut its usefulness.
I was curious, in light of this, to consider what we might make of the novel’s general response to this question of cultural interpretation. In some ways Graceland is an external African novel, ala Julien, in its attempts to write an African story for a wider audience. However, it’s certainly not only that, and in fact offers its own questions and criticisms of the West, while also openly questioning some features of (in this case) Nigeria, and perhaps even broader cultural understandings of things like sexuality and gender, violence, and politics. Yet Abani also seems, at times, to question the usefulness of his own explanations of Africa to the West (to question, in other words, the useful of the external African novel). I already hinted at some of this above with the juxtaposition of the two epigraphs. Another nice illustration comes early in the novel, when Elvis attempts to panhandle to a group of white tourists on the beach (11-13). By itself this isn’t an especially important scene, but I think in small ways it echoes throughout the book. The tourists are deeply confused by Elvis’s actions, yet they first confer with each other before even thinking of interacting with Elvis. One asks the other, “What d’ya think he’s doing?” and then “So what d’ya think he wants?” despite Elvis standing directly in front of them. They show literally no understanding of him, or willingness to understand him – ironic, given his own understanding of Western media & culture that we see throughout the book. It’s a useful scene, I think, because it underscores some of the tensions of cross-cultural encounters in a post-colonial setting – a setting in which one culture has, in some ways, already permeated the other (e.g. the influence we see of Western movies, music, food, and other products, as well as the fact, in this specific scene, that Elvis is literally dressed like, has appropriated, Elvis Presley), and where one culture has no understanding of the other, but also more importantly no desire to understand the other (the tourists are pleasure-seekers with no wish to understand Nigeria, and their ignorance of Elvis is nearly comical; they wonder if he understands English, if he’s ever had chocolate, etc.). There’s a futility to their interaction that speaks negatively to the possibility of cross-cultural understanding without full participation from both parties. In this case (and in many cases, no doubt) the failure is on the Western side.