In November 2015, Nigerian novelist, Elnathan John debuted his novel, ‘Born on Tuesday’. In this interview, he shares with FUNKE OSAE-BROWN why he has chosen to pen a unique story.
He looks taller. His shoulders broader than his picture I had seen online. His physique took me by surprise as the assistant to his publisher introduced him to me that sunny Thursday November morning. He had been in Lagos towards the end of 2015 to take his new novel, ‘Born on Tuesday’, on a book reading tour in Lagos.
Spotting a green T-shirt on a khaki short, a muffler hanging carelessly around his neck, Elnathan is every bit himself. He had been at the Cool FM Lagos studio for an interview earlier that morning. He looks a little exhausted. He was held up in traffic logjam for hours on his return journey to Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja.
He tries to cool down the stress with a bottle of cold beer he ordered from the bar. He pulls hard at the cigarette stick burning in between his fingers. He kills it. We took our seats at the bar table as I placed the tape between us. It starts to purr.
Growing up in the northern city of Kaduna Nigeria must have greatly influenced Elnathan’s perspective of life as shown in his debut novel, ‘Born on Tuesday’. Most people who are familiar with his short stories know that it took him so long to come out with the long narrative ‘Born on Tuesday’.
“Well, every longer poetic piece requires time for it to, in a way, marinate,” he tells me as soon as our interview began. “Like a chicken, you want your flavour to go in. You keep your meat for twenty-four hours and the flavour comes through, really good. For me, the novel had to grow organically. It was a short story and from the short story I was able to develop a character into this man. His experiences meeting with others; his physical and emotional evolution.”
The author says he did a lot of research to have a better understanding of the portrayals of his characters, their ways of life, mannerism and religious beliefs. “The novel took this long because of the research that went into the work. It is fiction but research had to go into it because of the subject I was dealing with. It is different hence this kind of research is needed because of the subject.”
‘Born on Tuesday’ highlights the life and beliefs of two Islamic sects in the north. There is an internal debate between two people who belong to the Salafi sect within the Salafi group is another group propagating a different religious view of the Islamic religion. Call it a house divided against itself and you won’t be wrong. It is the origin of the dangerous Boko Haram group that Elnathan seeks to unravel and fictionalise in ‘Born on Tuesday.’
Elnathan borrows largely from history to create his characters and fully develop the plots of his novel. He goes back to immediate history as close as 2007 to create his own little northern Nigerian town, Bayan Layi, where the image of Banda, a street boy looms large. He is a deadly street boy feared by his followers. Dantala, the narrator, finds himself accidentally under the tutelage of Banda after fleeing his studies at a Sufi Quranic School far away from home.
The thrust of ‘Born On Tuesday’, El Nathan says is to narrate the debate surrounding the emergence of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria. “There is a debate called the Salafi Debate,” he explains, “about people who are Muslims but belong to a different sect. Not sect per se but who belong to a different point on the Salafi scale. There are some people who are less liberal. For example, there are a few who some people may call extreme Salafis, like Jihad using physical violent means. Others differ.
“So, we had that debate in Nigeria between Sheikh Ja’afar Adam who died in 2007, who was a teacher of Mohammed Yusuf, who started Boko Haram. Both of them are Salafis. However, they have several debates between them about how to achieve an Islamic state. Mohammed Yusuf was of the opinion that let’s do it violently, let’s take power by force. Sheikh Ja’afar was like no I don’t agree. They had that debate back and forth. If you do the research, you will see the debate they had.
“Some of these debates are reflected in the novel. Sheikh Ja’afar differs with Mohammed Yusuf on Jihad. One of the chief points of argument is that Mohammed Yusuf asked his followers to resign from government because taking part in government is haram, going to school is haram, western education is haram. But Sheikh Ja’afar differs that this is against their teachings and training. Mohammed Yusuf was his student. As a student of Sheikh Ja’afar, he called him the leader of the young people because of how charismatic and bold he was. But Mohammed Yusuf broke away and said: ‘we are going to do it the way we want it.’ All these kind of things take time to reduce into fiction to make it intelligible to others take time.”
Beyond the debates surrounding the Salafis, Elnathan seeks to tell the northern story differently. He argues that the story of northern Nigeria has previously been told from a prejudiced point of view as the positive side of the culture, food and way of life have not been adequately represented.
Boko Haram and the story that 10 people died today or 20 people died tomorrow is one dimensional story of northern Nigeria. But my idea is to add my light to it as a conversation to say it is more complex than that. Actually, it is not that there is no this kind of crazy band killing people. Before Mohammed Yusuf started Boko Haram there was a conversation going on within Muslims not just an Islamic conversation within Muslims. Nobody captured that conversation, nobody captures the food we eat in northern Nigeria, the culture, what people do. On the national level, nobody is talking about that. We talk about Lagos; we have so many things to say when Lagos is mentioned. We are talking about Biafra because it popular because of the Civil war, oil but we hardly talk about the north in the same details we talk about Biafra.”
Elnathan argues the reasons the northern Nigeria is side-lined is due to an imbalance in Nigeria. According to him, as long as the north is concerned there is an educational and development imbalance.
“I am not in any way saying the north is special,” he says, “but saying the highest immortally rate is in the northeast. It is not by development that the northeast has the worst standard of living, worst development, has the worst and lowest levels of education. It looks so natural when people are struggling for the basic things like how do we eat?”
In addition, the author believes the national and social conversation in Nigeria come with the challenge of a language barrier. “We are talking about anything happening, it is on BBC Hausa, all the Hausa stations and channels will stay tuned for the north. But when If you want to put anything out there in the north if it is on these stations, they will listen. That shows there is a conversation, people are taking but the language conversation is English in Nigeria for the main stream. Hence you have to use the language of national conversation. One way around that is to have translation. For instance, nobody talks about Hausa fictions but there are lots of Hausa writers. Nobody is talking about them. Now you must either translate to people to English to bring it into the national conversation.”
Elnathan has penned an interesting story that seeks to rewrite history for years to come. Why not get a copy?