Literature Jim Powell Bei Dao and Chris Abani arrived in the United States with two very different stories to tell that have a lot in common. Bei Dao, exiled from China since 1989, and Abani, from Nigeria since 1992, draw on the challenges of their past lives to offer lessons non-exiles can’t obtain no matter how broad their travels. As Bei Dao says, “If exile is an endless journey, then it’s a journey through emptiness.” For Abani, his writing “becomes a way to mediate the terror.” Bei Dao’s underground magazine Jintian (Today) published work that used language outside the official standard, creating the “misty school of poetry.” The poetry depends on reflection full of oblique imagery. In “Notes on the Coty of the Sun,” the “Peace” section reads, “At the emperor’s tomb / a rusting musket sprouts a fresh green twig / to make a crutch for some crippled veteran.” The poet was championed by international risk-taking greats like his acquaintance Allen Ginsberg, and his work appeared on banners in Tienanmen Square in 1989, leading to his exile. “I will not kneel on the ground, / Allowing the executioners to look tall, / The better to obstruct the wind of freedom.” Bei Dao’s work includes poetry, At the Sky’s Edge, Unlock and Landscape Over Zero; the well-known fiction Waves; and, most recently, the essay collection Midnight Gate. His poetry has received awards in Germany, Morocco and Sweden, and he is an honorary member of the Academy of American Poets. Bei Dao frequently appears on the rumored short-list for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Chris Abani wrote his first novel, Masters of the Board, in 1983 at age 16; at 18 he served six months in prison when the book’s plot was mirrored in a military coup attempt. For later work, Abani was twice held for sedition then convicted of treason and sentenced to death in 1990. He escaped in 1992 and lived in London until his only Nigerian neighbor was murdered in 1999; he then moved to the United States and now teaches at the University of California Riverside. Abani won the 2005 PEN Hemingway Book Prize for his novel Graceland that follows a teen-aged Nigerian Elvis impersonator as he tries to escape the ghettos of Lagos. “He hadn’t known about the poverty and violence of Lagos until he arrived. It was as if people conspired with the city to weave a web of silence around its unsavory parts. People who didn’t live in Lagos only saw the postcards of skyscrapers, sweeping flyovers, beaches and hotels.” Abani’s new novel is Becoming Abigail. Among his poetry collections are Dog Woman, Kalakuta Republic and the recent Hands Washing Water. One critic wrote that Abani’s work documents “full, rich humanity under the most inhumane conditions.” Abani himself says that his “brush with the government was not deliberate on my part, but having once been brushed by the wings of the demon, I became the demon hunter.” Bei Dao’s work attempts to “reconstruct meaning in a meaningless world,” but is not so much disillusioned as simply sad. He says, “I think exile has given me many opportunities to face the heart of darkness.” Bei Dao and Chris Abani will share their similar missions in the Butler University Delbrook Visiting Writers Series on April 13 and April 18, respectively, both at 7:30 p.m. Bei Dao reads in the Robertson Hall and Abani in the Atherton Union Reilly Room. Call 317-940-9861 for more information about the free events.