LEILA ABOULELA & ELNATHAN JOHN’s CONVERSATION ON WRITING ABOUT ISLAMIC IDENTITY AND BEING LABELED POLITICAL WRITERS

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In my usual need to collate content for BM, i chanced upon this conversation between my two fave writers @elnathanjohn whose book ‘Born On A Tuesday’ was reviewed on Saturday @SmoothFM981 and Leila Aboulela who I secretly crush on and hope to get an autographed scarf and copy of ‘ The Kindness of Enemies’ from and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it on my way to work this morning. Enjoy…

Any contemporary novelist who takes on themes of Islamic identity and jihad in their work risks being labeled a political writer. But for Elnathan John, a debut novelist from Nigeria, and Leila Aboulela, author of New York Times Notable Book The Translator and most recently The Kindness of Enemies, character comes first. John’s Born on a Tuesday is relayed through the striking voice of Dantala, a young boy in far northwestern Nigeria who is pulled into a fracturing Islamic community. In The Kindness of Enemies, Aboulela also explores the perils of growing up in religiously fraught territory, through the story of a 19th-century Muslim leader in the Caucasus whose son is kidnapped by Russians and a Muslim adolescent in post-9/11 Scotland. Aboulela, who won the first ever Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000, first met John in London when, as a judge for that prize, she came across his short story which inspired Born on a Tuesday.

They discuss the characters at the heart of their novels, the roots of violence in life and in literature, and the question of audience when writing from a non-Western context.

Leila Aboulela: There is much in your debut, Born On a Tuesday, that I enjoyed and admired, it’s such a fully realized, believable world in which compassion and beauty exists within brutality, poverty and oppression. I want to start by asking you about the very first chapter, Bayan Layi. I was one of the judges of the Caine Prize in 2013 when we short-listed Bayan Layi for the prize. To me it felt like a complete, satisfying and accomplished short story. Was it, though, the first chapter of a novel in progress or did you later on take the character/idea further and develop it as a novel?

Elnathan John: I do remember you being a judge that year and being sternly warned not to approach the judges before the announcement of the prize. Bayan Layi, in its first incarnation was only a short story written following the 2011 electoral violence in my home state Kaduna and other places in Nigeria. I was venturing an exposition of why the violence happened and what state the north was in general. I was giving it all a whirl in my mind letting the minutiae around me—the stories I was hearing and seeing unfold—coalesce into some composite picture I could understand and explain to others. After the story was written and as much satisfaction that gave me, it became clearer (the more I had to read it on the Caine Prize circuit), that it was just the beginning of something larger and more pithy. That was when I decided to push out a few more chapters like Bayan Layi. By the fourth chapter, its form manifested itself to me and guided me by the hand until Born on a Tuesday was born.

LA: As readers, we are witnessing the electoral violence through the eyes of a child. Dantala is intelligent, sensitive and there is an instinctive goodness about him. His faith is tested by the violence he gets swept into, but he has an inner strength and a moral compass which keeps him going. I found him endearing and I enjoyed his company. In one of the UK papers you were asked about him being ‘‘helpless” and using Allah as a “fallback explanation.” This reminded of how my own women characters—practicing Muslims—are sometimes judged by Western readers to be “passive” and “unassertive.” I think that most Africans, regardless of their religious identity, believe in a spiritual dimension to life, in fate and—to some extent—predestination. I remember once an English elderly gentleman at a reading, saying that he read all African literature as if it were science fiction because of the different cultural context! This is maybe extreme. And Born On a Tuesday is definitely a realistic novel, in fact you do a great job of showing the corruption and money laundering that takes place in the name of religion. Neither is the novel fantastical as say, some of Ben Okri’s novels or Amos Tutuola’s. But, still, you do capture some of the other-worldly feelings that comes with immersion in prayer. I guess, I am here trying to formulate a question about the author being truthful in their depiction of the characters within their specific day-to-day reality versus the modern/Western/secular reader’s expectations and even prejudices. Are African authors who write for a global audience under pressure to dilute those aspects of African culture which might be alienating, unappealing or easily misunderstood by a wider audience?

EJ: I would say that, at least in my experience, the pressure to dilute does exist, whether one writes for a local audience or for a “global” audience. In Nigeria for example where there are at least 500 distinct ethnic groupings and languages, my northern Nigerian subject may be as alien to a reader from the eastern Nigerian hinterland as it is to someone from Scotland. The first time I got the suggestion of including a glossary in my book was not in Europe but in Nigeria, from a Nigerian totally unfamiliar with the northern Nigeria I was writing about. This brings up the question of what is local. It also demolishes the idea of a one-dimensional “African” narrative. I find that when a writer tells a good story, it often doesn’t matter how out-of-the-way the context is. To a Chinese reader of your novel The Kindness of Enemies, for example, it may not matter if they know the difference between a Salafi or a Sufi; they read the beautifully rendered tales of the lives of Natasha and Oz and they are compelled to stay with the narrative until they find resolution. There is always humanity in a well told story and this people can relate to wherever they are from. The particularities of the narrative that may be lost on a foreign reader often will not affect the overall enjoyment or understanding of a well told story. Where a reader is moved to want to know more, they can always do further research. Also, as a writer, I trust my reader’s intuition and intelligence and if the readers I have met are anything to go by, there are many who do not like watered-down narratives.

Okay, okay…that’s enough to whet your appetite for now. To read more, click here. lol

Image cred: lithub.com

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