Abani’s latest (Graceland, 2004, etc.) follows a California muralist’s search for himself.
Black lives on the skids in South Central L.A. He paints in a “spaceship” he’s constructed on the roof of The Ugly Store, a forlorn artists’ space directed by a Jewish psychic with metal rings in her back. His work-in-progress is a portrait of himself as the Virgin of Guadalupe in a wedding dress. Black drives a dilapidated Volkswagen bus and smokes a lot of dope. He admits to his successful friend Bomboy, a Rwandan businessman, that he lacks the requisite ambition to get anywhere. In his mid-30s, he’s still troubled by ghosts from his past. His Nigerian-born father, a postdoctoral engineering student at Caltech working for NASA, was drafted and killed in Vietnam when Black was very young. His pious Salvadoran mother forced him to pray to the Virgin for his sins; later, dying of cancer, she was convinced she was being punished for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Shortly before her death, Black found a letter from his father explaining that because an evil spirit threatened to kill all male offspring of his Igbo family by age six, Black had been dressed as a girl until he turned seven. This might explain his conflicted sexuality—he’s obsessed with a transvestite stripper named Sweet Girl—and perhaps the voices in his head; he imagines that the angel Gabriel talks to him from time to time. Black hovers precariously on a kind of sexual abyss, unsure where he fits in. Is he homosexual? Does he really want to be a woman? He’s not the only one grappling with childhood wounds; all of Abani’s characters are scarred in some manner.
A bleak, searing and sad portrait of outcasts.