The Conversations series withAbang Mercy Interviews one of the shortlisted nominees for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing which was announced (Wednesday 15 May) Elnathan John – the Caine Prize for African writing is named in memory of the late Sir Micheal Caine, former Chairman of Booker Plc – Among the five stories chosen are an unprecedented four Nigerian entries.
Elnathan John is a Kaduna-born writer who trained as a Legal Practitioner and is the 2012 nominee for the Caine Prize for Africa. Why did you take to writing and not Law?
I have always attempted to write. I have not always been successful but it has always given me great pleasure. So when Law was becoming unbearable, writing was the only other thing I could do. I simply took my writing more seriously, making it into a profession. I did however practice Law for a few years. In many ways I still do practice Law- it is hard to completely stop practising Law. But I no longer actively handle legal matters.
Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde won the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing. Do you think a Nigerian will stand a chance for 2013?
Well, there are four Nigerians on the shortlist so by simple fact of probability, yes. However, every story on the shortlist is a potential winner. I consider them all winners.
You’ve been shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize.. Were you expecting it?
I wasn’t expecting it. I was even reluctant to enter for the prize. Competitions generally depress me and where I can, I avoid them altogether. It’s the same reason, much to the shock of many, I don’t like football. My friend Carmen persuaded me to enter and when I was foot dragging she got my permission to write the editor on my behalf. The editor, however, had already sent in the story.
Elnathan, what inspired your story, “Bayan Layi,” published by Per Contra, that led to your nomination?
Bayan Layi was inspired by an almajiri friend of mine, with whom I maintained contact over a period of about 6 years when I lived in Zaria. Basiru was from Sokoto and studied in a Quranic school near my house. He also, like hundreds of others did chores for students, washing plates, clothes and going on errands. Thinking of it now I wonder if that was not some sort of child labour.
Basiru was a gentle boy with the cutest, purest, most uninhibited smile I had ever seen on an almajiri. Unlike many students, I let him hang around my house and we had long conversations about his life and about mine. It was hard to estimate his age but I would say between 10 and 14
Among the five stories chosen are an unprecedented four Nigerian entries. What does it say of Nigerian writing?
It says we are many. But it also says there are many of us taking writing seriously on the continent and around the globe. But the fact that only one of those stories was published in Nigeria says something quite different. Most of us still rely on foreigners for publication and affirmation. It would nice if we had more of these coming from within Nigeria
Having four Nigerians on a shortlist of five writers for a prize for African Writing is no small feat, what is the impact of this ?
I am happy about this. However I also know that this can irritate the many countries vying for this prize and already people are wondering why there are so many Nigerians. We are a huge country and many of us are writing. More than that many of us are getting published by reputable journals and publishers. This gives Nigeria great advantage.
It must be said though that the Caine Prize is not a political prize. It is a prize awarded, at least at the level of the shortlist, on merit. So if five Zimbabweans get shortlisted, as small as that country is, it shouldn’t be an issue. It just means that very many good Zimbabwean stories were entered that year.
The shortlisted nominees were selected from 96 entries from 16 African countries. If you were asked to predict the Caine Prize winner.. Who do you think will win?
Who do I think will win? I cannot answer that question. I have refused to engage with that question in my mind. I just feel privileged to be called among these writers on the shortlist. But if you ask who do I want to win, yes, that I can answer. And I have many answers. One is that I want my friend Abubakar Adam Ibrahim to win. Another is that I would like Pede Hollist from Sierra Leone to win. Just so my friend from Zimbabwe will stop complaining so much about Nigerians.
A writer, Damilola Ajayi suggested that the prestigious prize be re-tagged The Caine Prize for Nigerian Writing. Do you agree?
I am sure he didn’t mean it in any serious context. It is an African prize that many other Africans have won. And it is still possible that a Nigerian will not win this year.
The winner of the £10,000 Caine Prize will be given the opportunity of taking up a month’s residence at Georgetown University, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. What will you do with the £10,000, if you eventually win
What will I do with the 10,000 if I win? Please let me get it first before I start shopping.
You say you are routinely called a journalist, but reject the title, preferring instead to be called a writer. Are you a Journalist?
I sometimes do the work that journalists do- reporting etc. I am not sure if this qualifies me to be a journalist. I think it will be unfair to journalism to call myself that. I am simply a writer with a heightened interest in journalism.
To think that the South African government recently truncated your plans to attend the prestigious Caine Prize Writing workshop to which you were invited. And today you are a nominee, were you disappointed?
Ah, that South African experience. It is funny now thinking of it, all the stress I (and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim) went through, trying to get there. I think that all countries chose the meanest of their citizens and employ them as embassy staff. Including Nigeria which I hear isn’t such a pleasant experience.
But I hold no grudges.
In 2008 you published a collection of short stories which has since gone out of print. You said, you hope never to repeat that mistake, was it a mistake?
The book I published in 2008 was an embarrassing collection of short stories. In fact now, I use it to teach how not to write a story and mistakes new writers make. I am glad it is out of print.
You hope to start a family comprising a partner, no kids and two hairy pets.. What do you have against kids?
I have nothing against kids. In fact I love them too much to risk having them. Having kids is a big decision and a huge, nearly life long responsibility. Sadly, anyone can just make them regardless of ability and a willingness to commit to the process of raising them properly. I admire my friends who have committed to this process and wish them all the best. I commit to bringing them gifts and chocolate and to being that ‘uncle’ who will let them stay up way past their bedtime. I am currently unable to commit to this process.
You are currently working on a novel. Can you tell us about the novel?
My novel is a continuation of Bayan Layi, a story about a boy searching for truth, faith, a father figure and for love, through a maze of personal crises, sectarian conflicts, and questions of sexuality and religion.
The winner of the £10,000 prize is to be announced at a celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 8 July. What are your expectations?
I expect to wine. Hopefully lots of it. I expect plenty hearty laughter. I expect rewarding fellowship with brilliant writers. And for all of these I will be grateful to Caine Prize Foundation.