By Kate Kellaway
Elnathan John: ‘I’m a restless person’.
What part of Nigeria were you born in, and how much has the country changed since you were a child?
I was born in Kaduna, north-west Nigeria, in 1982. The place used to be very cosmopolitan – people living anywhere and it did not matter who you were. Now, there is self-imposed apartheid. After the 1990s riots, the city split into Christian and Muslim. If you were the wrong religion for an area, you’d have to move house in fear for your life. Today, there is an uneasy calm. Because of segregation, people can gather in their districts and speak out against one another. I think a crisis is brewing. Sadly, the government is not looking into ways of integrating people or bringing Kaduna back to where it was before.
Was there a particular seed from which your first novel, about a young man who gets caught up in Islamic fundamentalism, grew?
Born on a Tuesday was informed partly by my upbringing but also inspired by thealmajiri [the name for those sent from their homes as children to study in Islamic schools] I met at university. I was interested in their lives and their thoughts and intrigued that they were [often] people without names. What is in a name? The question became important to me. The minimum a person can have is a name. I was interested in what happens when that basic form of identity is taken away. “Born on a Tuesday” is the protagonist’s name, but not a real name.
Originally, you trained as a lawyer. Why did you decide to write instead?
I trained as a lawyer and practised general law. Early on, I became disillusioned by the legal system. I’m a restless person. I could not imagine myself spending five years waiting for legal resolutions. I don’t have that kind of attention span. I know of one criminal case here that started in 1988 and only finished last year. There is so much corruption in the system. A bailiff once asked me for money and I complained to my boss: “Why are we giving them money?” She retorted: “Is it your money?” You can buy a judge with a gift… people do. There is so much low-level corruption in the system that it irritated me. And I was bored. Writing called out to me.
You have a reputation as a political satirist. Has your writing ever landed you in hot water?
The sexy answer would be to say, “Yes, it is dangerous.” The real answer is “No.” The tragedy is that people are so numb. Satire depends upon people’s ability to feel or respond to shame. We live in a post-shame world. There is no political shame. The president can say whatever comes into his head and walk away. There is no shame to make people act here. When you write satire, the worst that can happen is that people laugh it off.
Your novel is published by a new UK-based imprint for Nigerian books…
Cassava Republic was founded by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and has just got its new headquarters in London. They are interesting publishers because they have identified a gap in the Nigerian book market. People in Nigeria would rather wait for a book to be published abroad before reading it. But now we are taking books from Nigeria to the UK – original Nigerian work and curated by Nigerians.
Your main character is helpless as driftwood in the current of events. He is swept into violence, and seems to use Allah as a fallback explanation for everything.
While it may look like he is drifting, he is in a world where people think everything is preordained, but he is making strategic decisions within that context. A lot of things done in the name of God serve human interests. I make references to the relationship between sheikhs and politicians and describe the money laundering going on. I want to show that things are never simple, never wholly about religion or ethnicity. Politics, religion, money can rule, and it can be convenient to act in the name of Allah.
What is your own religious and tribal background?
Non-Muslim. My parents are Christian. I grew up in a Muslim neighbourhood. Almost all of my friends were Muslim and every second neighbour. It was a mixed society. My parents come from different ethnic groups. There are 500 ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari promised to wage war on corruption and to crush Boko Haram – is he succeeding?
There has been a decline in the strength of Boko Haram and their ability to target cities and take over communities. Corruption is a different matter. It is a changing form with new godfathers, new leaders. Is Muhammadu Buhari a leader that would condone wanton theft? People are afraid of him as a person but fear is not enough to stop corruption. People now are corrupt in hiding. I think the entire political system has to change. Buhari’s election has shown that it is possible for free elections to happen, but the ruling party is making it difficult for this to continue now that they are in power. Will they destroy the democratic machine that brought them in?
Was the shocking end of the novel, after the main character’s abduction, based on research or imagination?
Both. There is an empathy at work that makes sure you don’t take anything – including the truth – for granted. I was moved to do more research than I’d thought I would in the beginning. Apart from growing up in northern Nigeria and knowing a lot of things first-hand, I read books on political Islam in northern Nigeria and books on Islam and extremism. And I listened to sermons. When I grew up, it was taboo to watch Muslim preachers on television in a Christian household. One charismatic Salafi preacher conducted public conversion ceremonies where he would convert Christians to Islam. I used to like watching him. I’d linger on the channel before I changed it.
Would you ever want to live anywhere other than Nigeria?
It is a difficult question. While I deeply love Nigeria, there is an issue of where I need to be. I landed from Jo’burg at 4am this morning – returning from a writer’s retreat in Zambia. I came back to no electricity, and fuel queues. Thankfully, I still had a little fuel in the generator. These little things can seem big. I don’t have an office, I work from home. The politics are draining too. But it is important writers are here, or at least stay in touch with Nigeria, and write the stories that need to be written. No one else will write them for us.
Born on a Tuesday is published by Cassava Republic (£8.74)