Abani was born in Afikpo, Nigeria. His father was Igbo, while his mother was of English descent.

He published his first novel, Masters of the Board, in 1985 at the age of 16. It was a political thriller, the plot of which was an allegory based on a coup that was carried out in Nigeria just before it was written. He was imprisoned for six months on suspicion of an attempt to overthrow the government. He continued to write after his release from jail, but was imprisoned for one year after the publication of his 1987 novel Sirocco. After he was released from jail this time, he composed several anti-government plays that were performed on the street near government offices for two years. He was imprisoned a third time and was placed on death row. Luckily, his friends had bribed government officials for his release in 1991, and immediately Abani moved to the United Kingdom, living there until 1999.[citation needed] He then moved to the United States, where he now lives.

Education and career
Abani holds a B.A. in English and Literary Studies from Imo State University, Nigeria; an M.A. in Gender and Culture from Birkbeck College, University of London, an M.A. in English from the University of Southern California; and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California.

Abani has been awarded a PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the 2001 Prince Claus Awards, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Selections of his poetry appear in the online journal Blackbird. From 2007–2012, he was Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is currently a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.

His book of poetry, Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), is a sequence of linked poems, bringing together religious ritual, the Igbo language of his Nigerian homeland, and reggae rhythms in a postracial, liturgical love song.

Abani's foray into publishing has led to the formation of the Black Goat poetry series, which is an imprint of New York-based Akashic Books. Poets Kwame Dawes, Christina Garcia, Kate Durbin, Karen Harryman, Uche Nduka, Percival Everett, Khadijah Queen and Gabriela Jauregui have all been published by Black Goat.

Published works

The Secret History Of Las Vegas (Penguin, 2014)
The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007)
GraceLand (FSG, 2004/Picador 2005)
Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985)
Novellas

Becoming Abigail (Akashic Books, 2006)
Song For Night (Akashic Books, 2007)
Poetry

BLUE
Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
Dog Woman (Red Hen Press, 2004)
Daphne's Lot (Red Hen Press, 2003)
Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001).
Essays

The Face (Restless Books, 2014)