Young Nigerian comes of age
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
Born on a Tuesday debut novel by Elnathan John
When Dantala leaves his Quranic studies and falls in with a street gang, he experiences firsthand the violence of Nigerian politics. He tries to escape to his home but winds up in a mosque under the wing of a wise and kindly sheik. When he does make it to his home, he finds there is nothing there for him and returns to the sheik. Dantala is a quick and voracious learner, with a particular interest in languages. He is also trying hard to understand the world around him and his place in it. But all is not well at the mosque. Dantala discovers the sheik’s lieutenant is stealing money and seems headed toward bringing on far more serious trouble.
|“. . . when my main character Dantala was born, I tried to let him grow organically in my head . . ..”|
AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with this story? What element came first?
JOHN: I began Born on a Tuesday as a short story about electoral violence in northern Nigeria following the 2011 general elections in Nigeria. I was exploring the exploitation of young street gangs by politicians with a focus on the role of the almajiri (young males who leave their homes and towns to seek Quranic education in often faraway towns and cities). I was living in Kaduna at the time, a city that saw a lot of the post-electoral violence. Before that however, I had been interested in the lives of the almajiri, largely due to my friendship with one such person, a young boy from Sokoto named Basiru.
AUTHORLINK: How did you get inside the head and heart of your character?
JOHN: In my conversations with Basiru, I tried to listen as much as I could and understand his worldview. It would be presumptuous to say or assume that I put myself in his shoes or in the shoes of any almajiri, but I tried to observe and listen. So, when my main character Dantala was born, I tried to let him grow organically in my head, balancing any missing parts with research and interviews which helped me understand the world I had delved into.
AUTHORLINK: How did you develop the story? Did you plan it out ahead or did it unfold as you wrote?
JOHN: I had a general idea of where I wanted to take the story, but the constituent elements of the narrative all developed as I wrote. Not all of these elements made it into the final draft, of course.
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to include passages of Dantala’s journal in the book? What purpose does that serve?
|“It is with language that we create bonds with others, or exclude them. “|
JOHN: Language is integral to the story of Born on a Tuesday. It is with language that we create bonds with others, or exclude them. Language is often one of the first contacts we have with new worlds or civilizations. Thus, in this coming of age story, language is his vehicle into new worlds, whether the Arabic which transports him deeper into his faith, or English, which transports him to places as far away as England. Learning the new words he writes is his way of learning the world; understanding the words helps him understand the new contexts he finds himself in as he develops.
AUTHORLINK: Was this a difficult story for you to write?
JOHN: It was difficult in the sense that in many ways, even though I was born and grew up in northern Nigeria, I was still an outsider, being a non-Muslim. Also, even though in my early childhood my parents were poor, I lived nowhere near the kind of poverty and privation experienced by most almajiri. It is also a sensitive subject, the issue of religion, politics, and violence and one can very easily go wrong. Finding that balance was a challenge.
|“. . . I hope that people will begin to see characters like mine as complex beings living in a complex world.”|
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will gain from reading your book?
JOHN: I hope that people will first, see this as a work of fiction, not social commentary or ethnography. However, as much as it is a work of fiction, I hope that people will begin to see characters like mine as complex beings living in a complex world where things are not as simple as they appear in two- minute news segments.
AUTHORLINK: Since this is your first novel, how did you find a publisher? How helpful was it to have previously published works and to have been a two-time Caine Prize finalist?
JOHN: Cassava Republic has its Nigeria headquarters in Abuja where I am based and this is where I met Jeremy Weate and Bibi Bakare-Yusuf who took an interest in my work. Over the course of a few (surprisingly delicious) vegan dinners, Jeremy convinced me to let him see the manuscript I was working on and the rest is history.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
JOHN: I am working on a few projects, one of which is a satirical novel.
|About the Author:|
Elnathan John’s work has appeared in Hazlitt, Per Contra and Evergreen Review. He writes satire for the Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper. He is a lawyer in addition to being a writer.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
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