Elnathan John’s Naming of the Anonymous in Northern Skies

Elnathan John
Elnathan John

Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John’s well-received first published work, is a story of Northern Nigeria – that remarkable geography yet unfortunately drawn into the grip of religious violence and carnage into more contemporary times – as seen through the eyes of a young man. Applauded as a triumph of craft, opening up under-told vistas of the human experience, it serves up a reality not only peculiar in its forcefulness, but one woven competently enough to find company in the privileged fellowship of the three final works contesting for the 2016 NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize. In this Interview with PREMIUM TIMES, author Elnathan John – lawyer, Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellow, twice shortlisted candidate for the Caine Prize for African Writing – speaks of his ‘fortunate’ journey towards literary reckoning.

As a first published effort, John’s Born on a Tuesday has garnered auspicious critical commentary, including those of Elliot Ackerman, author of Green on Blue, who describes thus that,“[…] Elnathan John has penned a coming of age novel worthy of Twain. At times tragic, at times humorous, Born on a Tuesday is the story of those who find the courage to transcend violence even when born to its confines.”

Equally, Molara Wood, literary critic and author of Indigo, observes that, “Elnathan John delves into the minutiae, the small beginnings of larger realities confronting our world today. This is the Northern Nigerian narrative we have been waiting for. It will stand as a testimony to these times.”
 

Today, there is more writing of stories in Hausa than there is in any other Nigerian language. We must factor in writing in Hausa when we think of Nigerian literature. I believe that with investment in translation, we will begin to see more of these Northern Nigeria narratives.

 
PREMIUM TIMES: Most debut novels almost predictably reveal much of the facts and situations of the author’s lived experiences. How true is this with regards to Born On A Tuesday and Elnathan John?

Elnathan John: Born on a Tuesday follows the life of an almajiri as he looks for direction and purpose; I have never been an almajiri, however, having grown up in Kaduna where there were a lot of almajirai, there are things I have seen and heard which made it into the novel.

PREMIUM TIMES: If it’s possible to compute the degree of the mix, how much of fact and of fiction does Born On A Tuesday contain?

Elnathan John: Born on a Tuesday is a work of fiction about a situation and region in Nigeria that receives far less nuance and attention in fiction (or in non-fiction) than it deserves. Fiction may draw inspiration from real life but it does not make it less of fiction.

PREMIUM TIMES: How is it possible to invent fiction when reality itself has overawed fiction? That is, in the sense of reality’s remorseless fictionality? How do you create fiction at the very point of reality’s unremitting unrealness?

Elnathan John: In a country where life is stranger than fiction, it can be challenging to be imaginative. But fiction is not mere fabrication. It is how we make sense of the world, and make sense of ideas. And in this there is a lot of work to be done. Once one scratches the surface of the strangeness all around us, there are stories lurking, begging to be told; to be dragged out from beneath the shadows. It is serious work and for a people struggling against misrepresentation in both fiction and non-fiction globally, black writers and writers of colour, especially, have a huge job to do re-telling stories and taking control of their own narratives.

PREMIUM TIMES: Would you say your eponymous protagonist is really typical of his ilk as an almajiri, in real life? What made you draw up this character?

 

The hangover of colonialism is this bad headache called English, which 170 million people are forced to speak or be deemed illiterate. This had led to the death of other systems of education. It might be an easy fix to just educate the almajirai, but it is certainly better to find means of retaining that system of Quranic education side by side with secular education.

 

Elnathan John: His name is Dantala. Whether or not it is a proper name is a matter of opinion. The theme of “names” and identity runs throughout the novel symbolising the continuous erasure from sight and consciousness that happens to people like Dantala. An almajiri in Nigeria is at best a statistic and at worst the subject of extreme abuse. In the epigraph of Born on a Tuesday, there is a Rumi poem that aptly summarises this. Rumi speaks about “a star without a name” moving across the night sky with anonymous lights.

PREMIUM TIMES: The major character in Born On A Tuesday’s ability to use the English language made a difference in the sense of helping to liberate him from the surrounding darkness. Beyond fiction, are you recommending this to those who govern in Northern Nigeria – to educate Almajiris to set them free?

Elnathan John: English did not liberate Dantala from the surrounding darkness. Yes, it opened up new worlds, as did Arabic, but it was only one point in his evolution. His liberation, if indeed there was such, flowed from the entire journey to knowledge, from his curiousness, from his resilience. Liberation is a process, a long one, especially for Dantala; it is a journey rather than a destination. Dantala’s education did not begin with English. It began with Hausa and Arabic. Sadly, there isn’t any serious attempt to adapt the education that the almajirai already receive to the real world. An education in Arabic or Hausa, formal or otherwise is, at least in theory, as valid as an education in English. Dantala was not illiterate before he learnt English. The hangover of colonialism is this bad headache called English, which 170 million people are forced to speak or be deemed illiterate. This had led to the death of other systems of education. It might be an easy fix to just educate the almajirai, but it is certainly better to find means of retaining that system of Quranic education side by side with secular education.
born-on-a-tuesday-elnathan-john
PREMIUM TIMES: Specifically, how did your growing up in Kaduna, North-West Nigeria, impact on the fictive world you created in Born On A Tuesday? Do you see yourself as a Kaduna-born writer who must tell the Kaduna story? Or, do you see yourself as a voice of Northern Nigeria?

Elnathan John: Growing up in Northern Nigeria certainly placed me in a good position to understand the issues, but for any in-depth or nuanced commentary, being from a place is not enough. One must dig deep with tools other than the fact of being from a place. Many things lie beneath the surface, even for people in the mix. I am particularly interested in stories that do not have as much coverage in English. This interest leads me into spaces I have not been before, and shows me lives the way I have not seen them before. I am not anyone’s voice. To say that would be presumptuous. I am telling stories, or more accurately, I am adding to stories being told.

PREMIUM TIMES: Looking back, can you compare the Kaduna of your childhood years and that of your adulthood? Is it like comparing the idyllic and the bleak times? Having trained as a lawyer, why and when did you decide to become a fulltime writer?

Elnathan John: I became a full-time writer in 2012 when it became clear to me that nothing else gave me the fulfillment that came from telling stories.
 

I am wary of labels and categories. I tell stories through fiction and non-fictive modes, through narrative prose, while also deploying satire in some forms. I ask questions. I look for answers. The process of finding meaning or adding nuance itself is political. The act of telling one’s own stories is political.

 
PREMIUM TIMES: Born On A Tuesday is your very first published work. How has your journey towards being a published author been?

Elnathan John: Born on a Tuesday is my first novel. Being traditionally published was not as difficult for me as I know it is for many writers in Nigeria. I am thankful to have become better acquainted with the wonderful owners of Cassava Republic Press at exactly the time I had just finished the first draft of my novel. Once they accepted the manuscript for publication, it became easier – much of it with their assistance – to find everything else, from a literary agent in the UK to publishers in the US, Germany and France. Publishing is tough in Nigeria, for the publisher and the writer. We all swim against the tide of poor infrastructure, poor distribution, an educational system that does not encourage broad reading, and an economy that makes buying books a luxury for most people.

PREMIUM TIMES: You seem so concerned about the state of affairs in your country that you have deployed your weekly column in Sunday Trust newspaper to satirise some of the ills you have spotted in public life. Do you consider yourself a politically committed writer?

Elnathan John: I am wary of labels and categories. I tell stories through fiction and non-fictive modes, through narrative prose, while also deploying satire in some forms. I ask questions. I look for answers. The process of finding meaning or adding nuance itself is political. The act of telling one’s own stories is political.

PREMIUM TIMES: Who are your favourite authors, from the ancients to the contemporary? Did any of them influence your first work?

Elnathan John: I don’t have favourite authors. I read everything, including authors whose work I do not necessarily enjoy. I wasn’t thinking of any one writer when I was writing Born on a Tuesday but I realise that my work benefits from all of the things I have read.

PREMIUM TIMES: Most people will agree with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that “I think we don’t have as many stories coming from Northern Nigeria as we do from Southern Nigeria, and if we are going to make any sense of Nigeria as a nation, we need more stories…More human stories.” Do you really think Northern Nigeria has not really measured up in literary and artistic production? And, what do you think is responsible?
 

I do not believe in luck. Only one person can win any one prize. Perhaps they exist, but I do not know of any writer who writes for prizes. I try not to think of it. I have such a long journey ahead of me, many more books to write, many more stories to tell and this will happen as long as there is life and health, whether I ever win a prize or not.

 
Elnathan John: While Northern Nigeria does have its peculiar challenges, it is not strictly true that there are not as many stories coming out of Northern Nigeria. Monthly, Hausa writers churn out stories read by thousands of people in the North. Today, there is more writing of stories in Hausa than there is in any other Nigerian language. We must factor in writing in Hausa when we think of Nigerian literature. I believe that with investment in translation, we will begin to see more of these Northern Nigeria narratives.

PREMIUM TIMES: Elnathan John, on a very personal note, this must be the third time you have been nominated for a major prize. You came close in the last two previous ones. The NLNG Prose Prize is also being awarded to Prose narratives for the third time since its inception in 2004, twelve years ago. Do you have a feeling that you will be lucky on this ‘double’ third stint?

Elnathan John: I do not believe in luck. Only one person can win any one prize. Perhaps they exist, but I do not know of any writer who writes for prizes. I try not to think of it. I have such a long journey ahead of me, many more books to write, many more stories to tell and this will happen as long as there is life and health, whether I ever win a prize or not.

PREMIUM TIMES: Will winning the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize 2016 validate your decision to dump law practice for fiction?

Elnathan John: Being able to complete a novel that has received international and Nigerian interest, being respected as a professional, earning a living, albeit meagre, from doing what I love – these are the things that have already validated my decision to quit the practice of law for writing.

Another of the compilation by Contributing Editor on Arts & Culture, Chiedu Ezeanah, after an earlier “Prologue” and then an Interview with Chika Unigwe, the coming and last instalment will focus on what the third shortlisted author for the 2016 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature has to say about his art and craft.

Image credit: The Guardian (UK).


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