Review of Chris Abani’s Song for Night

AiW Guest: Alexandra Schultheis Moore

song-for-night_new-217x333This week, Alexandra Schultheis Moore continues our summer voyage into African children’s literature.

First published in 2007 and recently re-issued by Telegram in the UK, Chris Abani’s novella, Song for Night, offers a compelling story as well as an extended, poignant meditation on representing African child soldiers and the atrocities they both commit and experience, particularly for an international audience.

The story focuses on My Luck, the ironically named 15-year old protagonist, in a fictionalized Nigerian civil war (details in the story place it later than the Biafran War). My Luck has witnessed the murder of his parents, committed rape and murder as a member of his platoon of child soldiers (all of whom have had their vocal chords severed so they can’t cry out), and only speaks Igbo. The barriers against his narration are, thus, emotional, physical, geopolitical, linguistic, and existential.belize-1326058_960_720 How, Abani is asking, can we read and write the stories of those whose various positionings foreclose testimony or other forms of narration? Or, to state it slightly differently, how can fiction bridge divides of language, culture, and experience?

The opening of this often lyrical book lures the reader into Abani’s gambit to tell a story that cannot be told:

What you hear is not my voice.

This curious sentence alerts us that this will be as much about the paradoxes of aesthetic representation as it will be about the paradoxical figure of the child soldier as at once perpetrator and victim of the necropolitics (to borrow Achille Mbembe’s important phrase) of failing or corrupt states. As literary scholar James Dawes has written, the paradoxes of beauty in literatures of human rights is “that aesthetics and aesthetic experience promote human dignity, but also cloak ideologies that diminish human dignity.” Abani is clearly searching for forms of narration that can connect reader to character without masking the structural divides between them. Drawing attention to those divides, My Luck continues:

Of course if you are hearing any of this at all it’s because you have gained access to my head. You would also know then that my inner-speech is not in English, because there is something atavistic about war that rejects all but the primal language of the genes to comprehend it, so you are in fact hearing my thoughts in Igbo. But we shan’t waste time on trying to figure all that out because as I said before, time here is previous and not to be wasted on peculiarities, only on what is essential.

What is essential in the story that follows is how to understand My Luck as fully human, capable of love, fear, self-reflection, cruelty, and so on. The novella moves recursively through the atrocities My Luck has experienced and committed, as he retraces his steps in an attempt to rejoin his platoon and find his home after a land mine explosion. This structure follows the path charted by traumatic memory. In doing so through a voice that shifts between narrative and the lyric, Abani emphasizes the ability of the aesthetic not to beautify horror, but to encompass our all-too-human capacity for beauty and horror. In My Luck, then, the reader finds a character whose quotidian experiences might be far removed, but whose full humanity is on raw display.iweala-beasts-of-no-nation

My Luck’s journey would seem to make possible a psychoanalytic working through of trauma that could lead to rehabilitation. This is the conventional storyline found in related fiction, such as Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, as well as in human rights law, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention’s Article 39 states in part:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts.

The legislation positions child soldiers as “victim[s] of…armed conflicts” in order to craft the widest possible scope of protections for children. At the same time, the characterization of child soldiers solely as victims for whom recovery and social reintegration are the ideal goals masks certain ideological underpinnings of the law: first, that there is such a thing as an innocent childhood and that it is, in fact, recoverable; and, secondly, the fraught meaning of “social reintegration” in contexts that have given rise to the use of child soldiers to begin with.

In refusing to chart the path to recovery and rehabilitation, Abani asks readers to abandon the yearning for such an ideal, and, instead, to consider how the recognition of a fuller, more complex humanity might ground an ethical response to atrocity.


img_0818Alexandra Schultheis Moore is the Class of 1952 Distinguished Professor in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (US). She is the author of two monographs, Vulnerability and Security in Human Rights Literature and Visual Culture and Regenerative Fictions: Postcolonialism, Psychoanalysis, and the Nation as Family, and has co-edited four collections: Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights (with Sophia A. McClennen); Teaching Human Rights in Literary and Cultural Studies (with Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg); Globally Networked Teaching in the Humanities (with Sunka Simon); and Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature (with Swanson Goldberg). Her current research projects focus on post-9/11 representations of torture as well as everyday violence and human rights.

Chris Abani is a Nigerian and American novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and playwright. He is the recipient of numerous prizes, including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Right Award, and holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Learn more about Abani’s prolific career at


Image credit – David Shankbone

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