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  • Elnathan John: “Intellectually, I’m restless”


Elnathan John: “Intellectually, I’m restless”

Award-winning Nigerian author Elnathan John on devious children, writing across formats, and what famous American satirists are doing wrong.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Elnathan John is not someone who sits still. When he moved to Berlin in 2016, he had already traded in his job as a lawyer to become a celebrated fiction author in Nigeria – he had written the award-winning novel Born on a Tuesday, which explored corruption and religious extremism in Northern Nigeria, and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 and 2015. Since then, he has taken on an astonishing range of literary projects and activities, from teaching at university to judging the International Booker Prize to producing an oeuvre of original work that includes a graphic novel (2019’s On Ajayi Crowther Street), satirical essays (2020’s Be(com)ing Nigerian) and now a children’s book, Hassan and Hassana Share Everything, published by Cassava Republic Press.

You were very successful in Nigeria. What drew you to Berlin?

I have a different answer every time I’m asked this, because I’ve gone through several incarnations, if you like. My relationship to the city is no longer the same. What drew me here is not what keeps me here. I almost left the city, because I thought it might be better for my writing to be in London or something. But I found that Berlin has this expansiveness to it – it’s like a little box that opens into a larger box if you want, but it can also fold into an even smaller box. I can shrink my space, but I can also expand it even further, if I like. And I can find whatever kind of community I want. Even if at first what seems so popular in Berlin can seem constricting, you can find an alternative space that is as welcoming, as warm, as filled with possibility. It’s that ability to move between spaces that keeps me here.

Be(com)ing Nigerian, Cassava Republic Press.

What kinds of spaces do you mean?

For example, on a Sunday evening I can join a percussion band, a pop-up percussion band in the park, that is made up of people as varied as those who are unhoused to those who arrive on wheelchairs or other aids to those who are civil servants, handiworkers, train drivers, artists, all sorts of people. And everyone gathers, and nobody talks about work, or who they are, or where they’re from. It’s just that we love doing this. But also, if I want, I can spruce up and go to a fancy oyster bar and drink champagne with my little finger out. And I can do that on the same day.

You have just published your first children’s book, Hassan and Hassana Share Everything, a story about sharing, kindness and gender featuring eight-year-old twins. What led you to write for kids?

I’ll try anything once. Sometimes twice (laughs). And I have this general approach to life – especially after I got into a very comfortable space in my head and my heart and my soul, where I’ve started trying things I think I don’t like, just to see where the discomfort lies. I don’t want to deny myself any experience. Of course, I’m not a children’s book writer. But I did it! And I enjoyed the process.

For one thing, I realised how difficult it is, and I have a newfound respect for children’s authors – because it’s very difficult to write something that holds a five- or six-year-old’s attention. I went through many drafts of it; I bought tons of children’s books. And I was thinking, ‘My goodness, these authors are good!’ Also I have a goddaughter, who I recently started picking up from school twice a month or so. And speaking to this seven-year-old was, for me, such an education in how children talk and how they think. All these clichés we have about children – they’re not true! Absolutely not! Whoever thought of this idea that children are innocent – I mean, they’re little rascals (laughs). They concoct the most devious schemes when left to their own devices. But also they’re capable of so much innovation, because there’s a boundlessness of thought that has not yet been completely watered down by the cynicism of adulthood.

And satire, for me, is never just a joke.

Even before this children’s book, you have been a remarkably multi-genre author: essays, satire, literary fiction, a graphic novel…

Intellectually, I’m restless. It’s not necessarily that I’m flitting from idea to idea without stopping, but more that I’m interested in the connection between ideas. And that’s why I’m always stretching out to say: could that idea be connected to this one? Storytelling and narrative – in fiction and even in journalism – is in many ways about drawing the connection between things. But I think it’s not just in writing. The best societies are the ones that can make healthy connections, especially between people – societies where we can all share public spaces, infrastructure and social life, too, without diminishing or erasing anyone’s identity.

Let’s talk about your brilliant essay collection, Be(com)ing Nigerian. It uses this ironic ‘How to’ format to satirise various aspects of Nigerian life: politics, religion, gender roles, the diaspora. Ignorant foreign journalists also come in for a roasting. What led you to write in this mode?

I started on this in 2010, when I didn’t really think of myself as a satirist. A Nigerian newspaper invited me to write a regular column – whatever I like. And I thought, how about, for a first column, something making fun of the Nigerian experience, and that whole thing we’ve come to be proud of but which I’m not sure we should be proud of. I also realised that the great satirist Peter Enahoro had already done a book on this in the 1960s, so I reread that book to make sure I didn’t copy him at all.

So I did my first ‘How to’ column. And I didn’t know if five people would read it or 500 – but it became hugely popular. It was meant to be a one-off thing, but everyone said they couldn’t wait for the next one, so I wrote How to be a Nigerian politician. That became hugely popular as well. And then I did the one that became the biggest, which was How to worship the Nigerian God. There were influential clergy people using it in churches, in their sermons, and I got letters from bishops – and I was like, “Oh no, that was not the point! I was making fun of you!” (laughs). It all made me more excited about the ‘How to’ series. So I ended up writing quite a lot of them, but then of course, as with everything, I decided I was done and started something new.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Perhaps my favourite essay in the book ends: “Once again I rejoice with you and may God keep blessing your hustle.” The word ‘hustle’ comes up all throughout – what does that mean in the Nigerian context?

Exactly, exactly [laughs]. It was how I ended every column – and it became popular. Everybody would see me and “Hey Elnathan! God bless your hustle”. It took on. And of course “hustle” is a larger term, but the way I used it in the book was very specific to the Nigerian context. In Nigeria, it has gained this definition through decades of military law and the attendant dysfunction that that brings – and corrupt politicians, which leads to corrupt societies, because once people see that it’s difficult to break a corrupt establishment, they capitulate, and they ask: “How can I get in?” So they learn the rules for how to get in. And that’s the hustle: learning the access codes to this very corrupt, but very lucrative, establishment.

And so you find Nigerians, whether they’re intellectuals or street traders, all of them are looking for these access codes. It creates a certain contemporary culture where everyone is trying to find a way in: if you can’t get in the door, you find a hole in the ceiling; if you can’t get in there, you burrow your way underneath and enter. And for some, you blow the door open – that’s what is happening now with bandits, kidnappers, people doing what gets called “terrorism”. Others steal their way in, others get dragged in by others. Some get born inside the building, [laughs] because their parents have been there for so long.…

What do you think about the discourse about satire and “punching up” on US-dominated social media?

I think the first thing any satirist does is to study the nature of power. But also, not just the general nature of power, but how power can exist in different places at the same time. So one must account for the oppressed being capable of oppressing. And that doesn’t take anything away from the fact of their own oppression. The best satire understands these multiple layers. The statement “don’t punch down” assumes there is a fixed up and a fixed down. But that is not the case. Today’s victims can become tomorrow’s oppressors – this is the story of life. The American historian Richard Hofstadter said: “The dialectic of history is full of odd and cunningly contrived ironies, and among these are rebellions waged only that the rebels might at the end be converted into their opposites.” And for me this happens all the time. You rebel against something and then become the thing that you rebelled against. Which is why I always ask: Do you want to end oppression, or do you want to become the new face of the oppression? A conscious person interrogates all the ways in which they can also be harmful to others.

Berlin has this expansiveness to it.

And that’s what a satirist should do. In fact, a satirist has a greater responsibility to interrogate all the levels of power – to say, as I stand to direct blows at this one manifestation of power, what am I standing on? Perhaps I’m standing on the necks of others. And that’s a problem with much of satire and much of social media, where people cannot see themselves. I mean, I’m a Nigerian in Berlin, Germany. I might say that I’m Black in this country, and I’m at various levels of intersections of oppression or discrimination. But I also know I’m not just that – I have certain privileges. I live in Prenzlauer Berg. I have the luxury of working from home and I’ve done that for ten years. I can pretty much live wherever I want to. I have access to places and modes of travel that many who were born here don’t have. So I know that, class-wise, there are certain advantages I have, although I’m not upper class. I can cause damage to people. I can hurt women; I can hurt people in a lower social class than I am. Even as a Black person in Germany. I think the more people do this kind of introspection, the better.

How do you see the status of satire today, in a world where public figures seem to be increasingly shameless?

Sometimes I say that the effectiveness of satire is directly proportional to the capacity of society for shame. The more capacity a society has for shame, the more effective satire is – the less shame, the less effective the satire, because then it’s like water off a duck’s back. With public figures, it becomes such that if you have a little shame, they will find it and use it against you, whereas if you show you don’t have any, then people step back and think, oh god, they’re completely shameless, and let you do what you want to do. The more brazen you are, the more people give room for whatever expression you are making.

And sometimes I think satirists can become complicit in this kind of thing, where they become entertainers – this is part of my gripe with much of what Americans call “satire”, the late night shows and Jon Stewart and so on. When Jon Stewart was leaving, he did a final video where everyone was giving him tributes: Hilary Clinton was there, and one of the Republican guys that he had always been fighting with, too – all saying how much they are going to miss him. This is a nightmare! It’s almost like saying to people, “Hey, it was all just a joke.” And satire, for me, is never just a joke. It can be funny. But it’s always serious. The more hilarious it seems, the more serious it is. When it becomes mere entertainment, it’s like the satirist Peter Cook said in the 1960s: “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea.” And that’s what the US is like, ha ha ha, Trump is so stupid, and then Trump wins again. He’s so orange, he has such small hands, and then they go onto the street and find the dumbest Republican to interview. But it’s such an own goal.

With my satire, I try to make sure that I don’t become complicit. Which is why satirists must first negotiate their own power. When you become as powerful as someone like Jon Stewart, you have to self-satirise. You have to say, I have access to these rooms now, I’m a celebrity, I have influence. Am I not now part of this culture I’m satirising?

  • Hassan and Hassana Share Everything and Be(com)ing Nigerian out now from Cassava Republic Press.