Throughout The Virgin of Flames, Nigerian-born Chris Abani uses many techniques, including the pervasive image of fluidity, to unsettle binaries and render brushstrokes between differing cultures, identities, and embodiments: between Africa and the United States of America, between genders, between religion and sexuality, and between art and life. Abani, who attended a Roman Catholic seminary, employs religious imagery to radical effect in The Virgin of Flames. The central protagonist, the artist Black, paints a disturbing mural of Fatima, is troubled by issues of masculinity and sexuality, is obsessed by a transsexual stripper, and is haunted by the Archangel Gabriel. Dressed in a white gown and make-up, Black appears above a simulacrum of a spaceship and is taken by faithful observers to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Finally, Black undergoes a ritual transgender act and appears before the faithful, attaining an Assumption by accidental immolation. In this essay, I first employ the apposite theoretical lens of Indecent Theology, a term coined by Marcella Althaus-Reid, to examine the text. I further analyze the novel through the lens of Trans-theology as discussed in Trans/formations, edited by Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood. I comment on the representations of cross-dressing, angels, erotic desire and the sacred, violence, and female sexuality. Of particular significance are the three uses of the Virgin Mary in the text: Guadalupe, Fatima, and Black’s masquerade as the Virgin Mary. Abani satirizes stereotyped associations with the Madonna and offers new elements for veneration. The end of the text raises questions of compassion, redemption, satire, and critique. The reader is denied simple responses such as the solace of traditional religion or easy satire, but must grapple with the dialectic between differences in cultures, beliefs, and shifting sexualities.


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pp. 170-183
Launched on MUSE
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