Maybe I’ve read one too many stories about sex slaves in the New York Times magazine or Marie Claire, been to one too many benefit lunches for third-world female refugees held in inappropriately high-end hotel ballrooms. Such is the twisted power of the mainstream media to bring attention to human tragedy in such a titillating fashion and with such self-aggrandizing flourishes as to ultimately inure you to its pathos.
The real plight of young women who are shipped overseas to become sex slaves is much better served by Chris Abani’s novella Becoming Abigail. Abani tracks the journey of one Nigerian girl named Abigail toward such a fate. Abani, also a poet, favors the narrative locomotion of language and symbols over plot and characterization. Soil, countries, maps, and bodies are metaphors that appear repeatedly, as if the repetition itself is some sort of metaphor for Abigail’s inescapable plight.
We also learn as much about Abigail’s interior life as we do the conditions that lead to her downfall. The book opens with Abigail sitting on a statue overlooking the Thames and obsessively smoking in the way that only a nonsmoker contemplating suicide would smoke. This is the decisive life-or-death threshold from which Abigail’s bleak story is told, and from which she flashes back to scenes from her childhood. Her mother, for whom she was named, died in childbirth; she is raised by a devastated father who holds his baby daughter accountable for his loss. As Abigail grows up, her father refuses to see her as her own person. “He turned and looked at her and she saw it and recognized what it was. She looked so much like her mother that when he saw her suddenly, she knew he wanted her to be Abigail. Now she realized that there was also something else: a patience, a longing. The way she imagined a devoted bonsai grower stood over a tree.”
When Abigail is fourteen, her father entrusts her to the care of a male cousin; he takes her from Nigeria to London where, her father assumes, she’ll receive a better education. Instead, the cousin tries to force Abigail into prostitution. Abigail rebels and is brutalized. The book is filled with unnerving images, but one of the most haunting is that of Abigail being harnessed with a ball in her mouth and chained up in a doghouse. She breaks free and finds safety and love with her male social worker, until his wife discovers the two of them sleeping together and the authorities wind up taking away the one man who didn’t force himself on her. That Abigail’s character is no mere simple victim but someone who could both be violated and still have longing is yet another welcome departure from the typical storyboarding of women’s lives. Sexual attraction is a complicated beast, even among the sexually oppressed.
Abani, who also wrote last year’s acclaimed novel Graceland, is no stranger to injustice himself: in his native Nigeria, he was arrested and imprisoned several times for his writing before he fled to London and ultimately settled in the United States. During his time in jail he spent six months in solitary confinement. His jolly author’s photo seems to belie his history of oppression, but his moving novella does not. As Abigail perches precariously over the Thames, Becoming Abigail quickly winds its way to a powerful conclusion—so quickly and powerfully, in fact, and with such restraint and nuance, that it is contained in one sentence. And it’s the best last sentence that I’ve read in a long, long time.