How Chris Abani’s novel The Virgin of Flames re-imagines global community in the contexts of violence, war and mourning

Chris Abani’s novel The Virgin of Flames is a post 9/11 narrative that inadvertently experiments with Judith Butler’s concept of “reimagining the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss” (20). This is a novel encapsulated in a theme of violence, war and mourning and the four mysteries displayed to Black by the angel Gabriel operate as a catalyst of Abani’s perception of how society has unravelled and this understanding could pave the way for a more candid approach to re-organise society.

These four stages represent “the subtle movements that made and unmade a life” (143) and the mysteries; the joyful, the luminous, the sorrowful and the glorious serve to represent distinctive features of Butler’s idea of a hierarchy of grief but more importantly they epitomise her concept of how community can be re-imagined. First we need to look at Butler’s hypothesis, her main proposition is that the powers of violence, war and mourning should not bring us to retaliate but should provide us with the consciousness that our lives are fundamentally reliant on others.

Acknowledging our dependency and susceptibility to others would serve as the first step in the creation of a non-violent global community whereby our actions would “assume a different kind of responsibility for producing more egalitarian global conditions for equality” (14). Butler asserts that violence is a product of our refusal to accept our inherent vulnerability and she regards this vulnerability as the key to understanding why certain lives are more exposed to the dynamics of violence than others, thus making them less grievable.

It is therefore this hierarchy of grief, which leads to discrimination and inequality, which must be overcome in order to establish a new worldwide body politic. Butler argues that the grief which follows violence furnishes us with a sense of political community as the changes we undergo after mourning help to reveal the ties that bind us and subsequently challenges the autonomous control we think we have over ourselves. Instead however we continue to exist in a society where a culture of fear and retaliation has taken over from our humanitarian responsibilities, evolved from the fear of losing our First World status.

As a society we are stuck in a vicious cycle of loss-mourn-fear-retaliate and our failure to transform is stemmed from our inability to recognise that we are always exposed to violence. In order to break this cycle we must acknowledge our vulnerability, overcome our fear of mourning and realise that we do not need to replace what it is we have lost, instead we must transform from that loss. Once this impulsive habit of revenge is eradicated the hierarchy of grief that exists will deteriorate and society can be re-imagined and reformed.

The “joyful mysteries” Abani portrays not only exposes elements of western society that make a grievable life – the humanising effect a society creates, it also describes how sovereignty seeks to control people and this is evident in how Abani explains this mystery of life; “a girl outside the public library… bent over a book spread like an eagle’s span… the boundless joy of a cold Coca-Cola on a hot day, or the freedom of children playing in a park, and all of it, every bit, weaving into a tapestry of promise” (145).

Can this “tapestry of promise” be seen as the promise of protection from violence, a protection that Butler implies leads only to retaliation and inevitably more violence? Certainly the way Abani describes the “weaving into a tapestry” implies Butler’s concept that our body belongs to society, that society, or rather governmentality seeks to control and defend us against anything that threatens our Western livelihood. This livelihood is represented by the “steps” that form the unique elements of society, more importantly American society.

The “steps” in the “joyful mysteries” include a young girl spread like an eagle (the symbol of America) reading which emphasises education, the joy of Coca-Cola symbolises the economic growth associated with American capitalism and our freedom, symbolised by children playing in park to enhance its importance. All of this maintains a system of grief whereby the American way of life is superior and other lives are in some way less humane, thus less grievable.

However, Abani emphases the fact that the four mysteries are composed of different “steps” signalling that he is aware that inequalities exist not just within contrasting communities but also within a distinct community suggesting that he recognises the hierarchical system in play within a given society. Regardless, Abani complies with Butler’s egalitarianism and seems to be of the opinion that the joyful mystery should be something universal and not held captive which is evident by the fact that Armenian matrons could also enjoy ice-cold caramel frappuccinos (144).

The “luminous mysteries” represent our interdependence and interconnections to one another and also submits to Butler’s idea “that each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies” (20). Here, like Butler, Abani displays to us our inherent commonality, by using the classical elements, earth, air, fire and water as a metaphor he implies that despite the development of diverse societies, and the inequalities they create, we all live on the same planet and regardless of how we develop or what we create “time was the sea washing it away” (145).

Although Butler uses the fact that we have all lost, therefore we have all grieved as a way to connect us, both Abani and Butler come to the same conclusion, which is that we all belong to humanity. Abani illustrates wonderfully the ways in which life is interconnected and how a hierarchy of grief affects people. This is especially evident from the experience of the atrocities in Rwanda given by Bomboy and Iggy who both offer gruelling accounts of Rwandan genocide at separate instances in the novel. They offer contrasting perspectives that have different poignant effects on each.

Bomboy, orphaned at a young age, was left to tackle his own vulnerability and out of fear was forced to injure and harm innocent women and children when he was captured by the Hutu army (105). As a result of his involvement in the war he seemed to become a vengeful man yet he feared the authority of the police even when they broke the law. He constantly sought retaliation for any harm done unto him instead of mourning his horrific past and accepting his vulnerability. Iggy conversely, whose clients need to be scarred, emotionally or physically, in order to gain entry into her practice, viewed the genocide in a different light.

Her experience revolves around a client’s unorthodox approach to teaching; after receiving no reaction on her first attempt to inform her students of the atrocities the teacher hoped to demonstrate using a knife and a doll. The class proceeded to mutilate the dolls with no remorse “hacking and laughing until in a frenzy they butchered all the dolls” (194). Iggy was horrified by the lack of anguish in the students of modern America which signifies Abani’s belief that Western society encourages and creates a hierarchy of grief.

However Bomboy and Iggy are still able to exist side by side without the prospect of violence even though Bomboy took part in the mutilations because Iggy does not hold him responsible. The luminous mysteries reveal that we all essentially belong to the same world and we are all affected one way or another by global events, it is how we transform from these that define us, yet why is it then that certain lives are more vulnerable than others to the forces of violence and why are they less grievable?

Abani captures these less grievable lives as the “sorrowful mysteries” are revealed to Black on a journey which shows him the bloodstain “where a nameless Black boy shot a nameless Brown girl, even as she smiled at him… he… squeezed his fear out in metal” while elsewhere a woman was “placing flowers curbside for a dead man, or woman, or child that no one wanted to remember” (146-147). What makes these lives less grievable than those portrayed in the “joyous mysteries”? Why did the nameless Black boy “squeeze his fear out in metal”?

These lives are victims of the hierarchy of grief which is displayed in Butler’s hypothesis whereby it is first and foremost the upper echelons of society that are most grievable even though they produce the circumstances that make people to fall victim to further violence. This concept is illustrated to a large extent by Abani’s portrayal of Black’s youth which, although strange and obscure, had a profound effect on his adult life. His father, who was a prospering science student, was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam leaving behind him a young family; his death as a result changed the course of Black’s life.

This is one of the first instances whereby the inherent dependency and vulnerability to others comes to the fore. Black was essentially born into a world where war was imminent and out of his control, displaying an immediate reliance on others. His father’s departure and subsequent death left him and his mother unable to afford the repayments on their mortgage forcing them to re-locate into a disadvantaged area in East L. A. , a predominantly white area where Black became susceptible to racism.

Eradicating the option of war, a historical feature of human evolvement, is one of the main elements of Butler’s hypothesis. The global effects of war are far greater than just war casualties this is evident in The Virgin of Flames where war is portrayed as diminishing the quality of life. However in order to eradicate war we must first accept our vulnerability and reliance on others and use our fear of mourning to learn from past mistakes and transform our community, after all as Abani points out what everyone [holds] in common is a unique poverty” (148).

Abani’s final stage, the “glorious mysteries,” is ambiguous but perhaps it is meant to symbolize how society functions along the lines of the previous three mysteries and how it can evolve. “Sometimes rain but not especially. Step. And light and light and light. Step. Sometimes it was too bright to see. Step. And step. And step. And nothing, or maybe everything… Below, in the bright lights, there it was. The Jewel” (148-149). “The Jewel” was the city of Los Angeles, viewed from a distance and living in harmony, if only in that moment of time represents that society can assume a new face where equality prevails.

Although the “steps” are unclear and difficult to understand they possibly represent the prospect of living in a more equal community where sovereign power and humanity recognise their ability to change even if it is sometimes “too bright to see”. It is also interesting to note Abani’s use of Spanish as he closes off this part of the book. “Soledad,” meaning solitude and “para,” which has no direct English translation, perhaps indicate that we, as individuals, live detached and separated from one another and we need to connect.

The use of para, which is a both a preposition and a conjunction in Spanish, is the part of a sentence that indicates the relation between things mentioned and can also connects two words. Used as the closing phrases, these can be literally seen to represent our need to come out of our solitude and connect with one another. This transformation, from the joyful to the luminous to the sorrowful and eventually the glorious, is what Abani portrays throughout the novel as he traces the development of Black’s life.

When we are first introduced to Black he is described as looking “like the undead in a Japanese horror movie” (8) which serves to portray his constant state of mourning, fearing to undergo what Butler describes as the transformative effect associated with grieving (21). He is on a journey of self exploration illustrated by a life lived in a world that is disconnected from the normative, attempting to disregard the social circumstances of his quintessence in order to declare autonomy over his body and rid himself of his melancholic suffering.

It is not until much later in the novel, when Iggy and Bomboy are arguing over the complexities of Black’s situation, that he realised “it was no longer his life” if in fact it had ever been his life (197). This, Butler argues is what we need to acknowledge; “my body is and is not mine,” suggesting that your body belongs to society until such time as you declare it your own, if in fact you ever emancipate yourself from your social formation.

Autonomy is something you have to achieve it is not a birthright and in order to obtain individuation you need to deny the social conditions of your formation (26-27). For Black this meant that he needed to mourn the events of his past in order to transform his life, in doing so he eventually accepted his vulnerability and was able to re-imagine the possibilities of a new society that utilises mourning as a transformative dynamic of life and not a as a pretext for retaliation.

Abani portrays this transformation at the end of the novel as Sweet Girl shows Black how to retract his testicles and tape his penis out of view. He has finally completed his quest to become a woman but he is unable to accept this at first and his immediate reaction is to beat Sweet Girl as the impulsive action to blame someone comes to the fore. He finally realises that there is no need to retaliate for the development so he escapes to the safety of his childhood in the form of a spaceship, built as a memorial for his father.

Here he mourns the sudden transformation and finally succumbs to the vulnerability that unites us all, “I’m a monster, he thought, and it reminded him of that night he had been raped under the bridge” (287). He is left standing naked, with a retracted penis, on top of this spaceship over The Ugly Store to the sound of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme for all to see. The ending is ambiguous, however, the inclusion of John Coltrane’s, A Love Supreme, can be seen an important factor in the completion of Black’s transformation.

Coltrane revolutionised jazz music, he was one of the pioneer’s of free jazz, an approach to jazz music that broke away from the conventional methods of jazz such as fixed chords and tempos. A Love Supreme, regarded by many as his masterpiece, introduced a new era of rhythm and extended improvisation into jazz and Abani uses this to suggest that Black has now revolutionised himself, he has broke away from the conventions of society, mourned his past and accepted his transformation.

As he sought to answer questions concerning his sexuality, race and gender Black concurrently uncovered elements of modern western society that curtail and hinder not only this progression but the possibility of a re-imagined community. Abani illustrates that society is caught up in a vicious circle of love and hate but in accordance with Butler there should be no reason for “reimagining the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss” and maybe one day our global community will be revolutionised the same way Coltrane revolutionised jazz music. A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme!