On Writing Islamic Identity and Being Labeled a Political Writer
A Conversation Between Leila Aboulela and Elnathan John
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.
LA: Glossaries can be useful but the problem I have with them is that they alienate the reader who is already familiar with the words. He then feels that the novel is not written for him but for “them” i.e those who do need the glossary. This then leads to the question of “Who are you writing for?”, “Who are you readers?” I will spare you these questions because they frustrate me when I get asked them. Instead, I would like to talk about one of the things that I admired about this novel i.e. the presence of money—the lack of it, the need of it, and when it is there how it empowers and how it seduces. Early on the novel, we learn that Dantala, after his education ends, tries to return to his home village. He asks his teacher for the fare money but his teacher gives him only a fraction, “ …reminding me that my father had not brought any millet that year or the year before to pay for my Quranic training.” When the older Dantala joins the movement of Sheikh Jamal, he gains a more sophisticated awareness of how money can be used to gain followers and gather popularity. When the open-minded Sheikh Jamal loses a major funder in Saudi Arabia to his radical rival, the former’s movement is undermined and weakened. Did you have to research this? Was it difficult? To what extent do you think that radicalism and religious violence in Northern Nigeria is exacerbated or perhaps even directly caused by poverty and funding?
EJ: I researched the links between local religious groups and foreign funding. There is a bit of material about how the funding wars between, for example, the Saudis (funding Salafi/Wahabi groups) and the Iranians (funding Shiite groups) played out in Nigeria from the late 1970s onward. Once you know where to look, it is all there in plain sight really. The “Shiite” Islamic Movement in Nigeria for example do not hide their long-standing, deep connection to Iran. I have argued that in the limited case of Nigeria, radicalization and religious extremism is not caused by poverty any more than religious extremism is caused by poverty anywhere else in the world, from the United States to Bangladesh. As long as there is an ideology that claims to privilege its followers and adherents over others, there will be extreme interpretations or manifestations of such ideology. Poverty comes in as an explanation of how easy it is to recruit foot soldiers for the expansion or actualization of elements in the ideology. Foot soldiers do not need to understand the intricate details of the ideology. All they have to be is loyal.
For as long as injustice exists, there will be violence, whether religious or otherwise. For as long as people do not trust their government to provide leadership, security, and development, parallel authorities will emerge in the form of religious groups and vigilantes. Every ideology will have believers in its extreme or purist form, whether it is veganism or organized religion. Funding and poverty do not create ideology—they merely fuel opportunism and give ammunition and credibility to persons who would, in a functional society, be on the fringes. Certainly, however if there were no funding of extremism and no poverty, the capacity of radicalism to cause violence would be greatly reduced.
LA: Yes, certainly the novel does not portray the police in a positive light. And I could see that, like in other parts of the Muslim world, the religious movements gain relevance and popularity by filling in the vacuum of health and social services ignored by the government. This all unfurls quite naturally within Dantala’s narrative and through his perspective.
EJ: Reading your most recent novel, I find it fascinating how you explore the theme of identity in Islam and of jihad in Sufism. While the narratives certainly present human stories, the themes manifest as clearly as the characters. I thought about this a lot when I was writing: whether I could balance the themes and the fictional narratives so that my subject does not become overbearing. I think you did this quite well. Is this something you think a lot of when writing? How much of the personal do you think is or should be political and to what extent should this consideration affect fiction?
LA: I never think of myself or my writing as political. This probably sounds disingenuous given my subject matter, the reception of my work over the years and how it is read (by academics especially) as a form of resistance! But the reasons I started to write were personal and emotional and, funny enough, when I start to lose touch with these initial motives, I can’t write at all. So always the characters, their thoughts and emotions interest me more than the political themes. In The Kindness of Enemies it was Natasha’s perceived homelessness, Imam Shamil’s pain and humiliation at losing his young son to the Tsar and Jamaluldin’s feelings of growing up in Russia as an outsider—which were my overriding concern. The politics came secondary and that’s probably why they didn’t overpower the story. What I do watch for when I’m writing, is whether I’m looking over my shoulder. Of course I know (and hope) that my work will find readers but at the time of the writing, I need the pretense that an audience doesn’t exist. I don’t want my writing to be self-conscious or to ingratiate itself to a particular reader. Having said that, I believe different readers can read the same text at different levels of engagement and understanding. As writers we might at times yearn idealistically for the perfect reader, the one knows the place, understands the whole context, gets all the jokes etc. You mention in your Acknowledgements “Basiru, the almajiri from Sokoto I met in Zaria, whose story made me create Dantala, who will probably never read this book….” I am intrigued by this. Why would he never read it?
EJ: Indeed different readers engage and understand at different levels. The statement about Basiru was because of his lack of secular education and inability to read in English or Hausa coupled with the fact that he seemed to disappear at some point in our friendship (if I could call it that). No one I knew could find him and worse, most people did not even know who he was. This underscored the point I was making with my use of names as a metaphor in my book, starting with my Rumi epigraph “A Star Without a Name.” Anything could have happened: he could have gone back to Sokoto from Zaria, moved to another city or died of an illness. And while I have thought of him as a star “moving across the night sky with anonymous lights,” I hope that perhaps by some chance he has found a name, the identity he was deprived of as a child.