Elnathan John is known in Nigeria for his satirical writing. His debut novel Born on a Tuesday was shortlisted for the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, the largest literary award in Africa. John says that he comes from a city which is split by religious segregation between Muslims and Christians. The novel is also about religion: its narrator is a young Muslim in Nigeria. As John states, the novel is inspired by anonymous almajiri who are those sent from their homes as children to study in Islamic schools.
The novel explores the Nigerian Islamic political and religious landscape after the founding of Boko Haram in 2002 through the individual. John gives a voice to the voiceless through the figure of the narrator, Dantala. Dantala is named after the day of the week in which he was born. The idea behind the novel is that the personal is the political: that individual experience and identity is conditioned and shaped by external events. This is why the arbitrary day of the week gives a name to the narrator. Yet the novel also asks how much agency is possible in this world of ours. Can the narrator forge an identity out of that which seems to be free of identity?
Dantala moves from childhood to adulthood in the novel. He begins as a young student of Islam. At first, he is a drug user and violent criminal in a gang. One day, he decides to run away from his life after setting fire to the local headquarters of the opposition party. Dantala goes on to advance to a key role in a mosque as a member of the religious community. Dantala’s journey towards holding a position of power in Islamic society is a process of learning. Dantala must learn to cope with the grief of his mother’s madness at losing her daughters and then her death. He must face the consequences of flooding. He must face another language and another way of looking at the world as a student of English. He must face Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. Dantala has to face a situation in which stark choices have to be made. He also has to learn how to love: what friendship is and what it means to love a woman.
The novel works through a number of themes. As is to be expected, there is a portrayal and contrast of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim. I will not comment upon this issue in this piece. Such commentary has been carried on in Western writing ad infinitum. I will concentrate on another major theme which is foremost: the roles of violence and suffering in human life. Violence and suffering permeate every social and human relationship in the novel. Dantala is first portrayed as a violent thug. Students are corrected through the use of force. Husbands beat their wives or force sadistic sexual acts upon them. Criminals and enemies are punished or silenced by chopping off their hands or shooting or beheading them. The mujahideen wish to impose violence upon the world and rule through it. The state tortures individuals. Nothing is free from violence and the attendant suffering that it brings.
The story of love is situated within this violence. Love relationships outside of marriage spring out of domestic violence within the marriage. Love itself is disrupted and defeated through acts of violence. Indeed, the love of those that impose violence is judged to be above the love of those that will not impose violence by some. Love itself is continuously defeated. The novel asks the serious question of whether love can triumph in this world of ours. Fatalism in the novel says that an all-powerful God’s will must order things to be so and only so. It contends with a reader’s recognition that evil is done in the name of a God by men. Love is not defeated because it must be so. It is defeated because of the measures that humans take to make it unachievable.
John’s novel is harrowing. The novel contains scenes and tales of horrific violence. The laconic style of writing conveys a directness which can be brutal. The form, however, is subtle. It plays on the act of the translation. Some words are not translated from the original Hausa. English words are presented as dictionary entries and then applied to concrete situations. These language games confront the English-speaking reader with a voice and interpreter of events outside of the community of the English language, someone that has a different framework of understanding. I am certain that the novel will be criticised by some for its depiction of Islam. Such issues are indeed important. However, for me, the novel exposes the reality of the human condition. People will not let people love. They would rather accept the brutality of the strong over the innocent. They will have suffering in the world. The question is whether we can carry the strength to love within us. I believe that Dantala’s story does show us the strength of a love that will continue despite every obstacle in its path. This love is stubborn. It goes against the world. It will place its head against the sword every time.
About the Publisher:
Cassava Republic was set up in 2006. The rationale for its existence was to publish work which was read in Africa rather than overseas. Its mission is to change thinking about African writing. Cassava Republic Press publishes on the principle that African prose should be rooted in African experience in all its diversity. The publishing house sets out to ask challenging questions of African writing – where have we come from, where are we now, where are we going? They believe that their role is to facilitate and participate in addressing these questions with the books that they publish.
Review by Suneel Mehmi
Suneel Mehmi is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, musician and artist. He is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster. He has published academic work on the concept of Law and it relationship to violence in the adult short stories of Roald Dahl. He has previously contributed scholarly book reviews to the Literary London journal and to the London Fictions website.
*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017. The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland. The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses. The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.