the Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani

By My Nguyen, Student Intern of CHASS College Computing

The Virgin of FlamesChris Abani’s, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside, new book, the Virgin of Flames, is a novel about the transformation and the transcendence of the main character, Black.

Born to a Nigerian father and a Salvadoran mother, Black is a mural artist living in Los Angeles.  After his father went missing in the Vietnam War, Black’s mother goes insane and forces him to worship the Virgin Mary out of her dementia.  Black, on retrospection as a 36 year old man, tries to restore and re-piece this aspect of his childhood by dressing up in his landlord’s wedding dress.  The worshipers of the Virgin of Guadalupe, mistakes him for The Lady, and a conflagration continues to disillusion them even farther towards the end.

According to the LA Times book review, “What is moving here is Abani’s earnest love poem to this particular Los Angeles, which finds its fullest expression in ‘the cacophony of colors and shapes in the huge piñata stores on Olympic near Central; and the man pulling the purple wooden life-size donkey mounted on wheels down Cesar Chavez….In the occasional clip-clop of horses pulling a brilliant whit bridal carriage that resisted the dust and dirt everywhere, and the line of cars following slowly in awe.  It was in the solo of an unemployed saxophonist in Sunny’s Café down at Leimert Park playing for tips.’”

Throughout the novel, L.A. is as vital a character as Black, his landlord, Iggy, Bombay, or even Gabriel, the archangel in the guise of a broken-winged pigeon.

“This metropolis is one where unlikely-looking Virgins draw crowds, bullet-ridden bodies go unnoticed in swimming pools and unwanted dogs are tossed from cars off a bridge.  It’s also a perpetual blank canvas, which Black loves because it allows him to be whatever he wants---if only he could figure out what that was,” Karen Olsson stated, in the NY Times.


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