Dreaming Up Alternate Realities And Futures: A Dialogue With TJ Benson
TJ Benson is author of ‘We Won’t Fade into Darkness’, a collection of short stories that explores the fate of an abusive father, an Ogbanje in a near post-apocalyptic Nigeria and more. His short story ‘An Abundance of Yellow Paper’ was the joint winner of the Amb-HBF contest in 2016. He was the first runner-up for the 2016 Short story Day Africa Prize themed ‘Migration’, and he is a two-time writer-in-residence at the Edebi Writers Residency Nigeria.
BY OPE ADEDEJI
This conversation took place in Nigeria via email.
Ope: Congratulations on the publication of your first book, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness. I’m sure you’re very excited about this. How does it feel, in connection with your growth and journey as a writer, to have your first book out, especially being young and one of the emerging voices of what’s been termed “new Nigerian writing”?
TJ: Thank you so much. Well, first of all, it means no turning back. “Having my work out” is something I was severely uninterested in; I kept my writing for friends and family until I realized it is the one thing I am good at. I would continue to grow as a creator whether I get published or not. I have a couple of manuscripts from which I can chart this growth, but it does feel good to have my work in my hands, in hard copy in 2018. In spite of the delays, I do feel it came at the right time and I feel honored to be published in a time where writers and artists are moving away from post colonial literature to more introspective work.
Ope: It’s great that you talk about right timings. As someone who works in publishing, I understand how important right timings are. At the risk of classifying your work, I’d say you explore a lot of speculative fiction in We Won’t Fade Into Darkness. Keeping in mind the success of black panther, the release of books like Children of Blood and Bone, the rave around Nnedi’s Who Fears Death and Binti, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Arimah etc and basically general interest in Afrofuturism and afrocentric speculative fiction, how do you feel about this new and interesting wave and the release of your book?
TJ: You are right, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness deals with speculative futures and alternative realities. It is interesting that a lot of these stories are coming now and I don’t believe it is a coincidence. A lot of us writing in this genre are millennials, the generation promised in primary school rhymes to be the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and we have found that most governments ruling over us have not concerned themselves with our futures. So, consciously or unconsciously, we are beginning to dream up alternate realities and futures for ourselves. I think the success of the genre owes largely to the horror of the times, the more bizarre an era the more adventurous its people would be in seeking pleasures to hide in. Pleasures such as movies and literature.
Ope: That is so true. I was recently in discussion with some fantastic young authors like ourselves who dabble in magical realism, horror literature and sci-fi, and we realized that monsters in literature are often a reflection of our current social anxieties. Now that you mention a government that has had power since we were kids, do you feel that in a way, your book is a social-protest book?
TJ: I assure you I had no idea it was when I was writing it. I just intended to write some love stories and weird stories. I actually hope some people read it as just that, stories. What do you think?
Ope: I think it’s necessary to read stories as just stories, and nothing more. But sometimes, you read a review of your work, and it’s done through a feminist or other reading and meanings even you didn’t intend are explained to you. It can be a very interesting experience. But coming back to classification and labels, how do you feel about them? In an interview on Paris Review, when asked how she feels about her work, mentioned in connection with science fiction, Ursula le Guin says, “Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.” Is this a feeling you can connect to, or you’re okay with being labelled, whether it is in relation to your work, or as a person?
TJ: At the recently concluded Minna Book Festival, Abubakar Adam and I spent the better part of our panel explaining to an irritated audience why we don’t consider ourselves “African Writers”, while the third panelist explained that categories help order. While I agree with this, the amount of queries on our identity as opposed to the amount of questions engaging us on our work reinforced my belief: categories serve as an “othering” tool. I have a lot to say on this, but I am happy that new speculative and futuristic work like Sibongile Fisher’s Short Story Day Africa winning “A Door Ajar” have come to blur those categories. Until recently, speculative work wasn’t considered “literary” enough, heck how many have appeared on the New Yorker in the past? But Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Who Will Greet You At Home appearing there was a huge high for me.
“A lot of us writing in this genre are millennials, the generation promised in primary school rhymes to be the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and we have found that most governments ruling over us have not concerned themselves with our futures. So, consciously or unconsciously, we are beginning to dream up alternate realities and futures for ourselves. “
Ope: You’re right about labels being an othering tool. This has certainly given me something to think about. You mention Lesley Arimah whose book like yours, is a collection of short stories. More than for reading sake, writers are constantly reading writers who write like them, in terms of genre, style, either to better themselves, or to know what others are writing and fill in a gap. Can you share what authors may have influenced your writing, in terms of style and the speculative genre of your fiction?
TJ: In the speculative genre of my work, Ben Okri helped me expand my mind as to what was possible. A lot of J. k. Rowling in my teenage years for creating pure wonder. Terry Goodkind, who wrote the poorly adapted to TV Sword of Truth series taught me how to sustain reality in invented worlds and adapt alternate realities based on what is present. (A lot of the hierarchical structures in the book series are based on the relationships between ranks in the Catholic church.)
Some DH Lawrence, Eudora Welty whose work seeks wonder and magic in the utter mundane, O. Henry whose The Furnished Room is a master class on short story writing, Scott Fitzgerald whose short stories always plumb for heart. Many writers. A lot of the short story writers who thrived and died in the 1900s. Yes, Toni Morrison is alive, bless God, I remember reading Beloved and Song of Solomon as hard facts, then I realized a dead baby returns as a grown woman in one while an African slave escapes by flying back to his continent and thinking yes, I want to do it like that! I remember reading Leslie’s The Future Looks Good on The Pank Magazine in 2013 or so and realizing my writing could be more.
Ope: That’s quite an impressive list! And I keep telling people, you don’t just read wide or “anything” and “everything” to be a better writer, contrary to typical writer advice that simply says “Read” to be a better writer. You need to be guarded and selfish with what you take in. I imagine it, reading is like a kind of diet. The more healthy food you consume, the healthier you are. Perhaps, this isn’t a good analogy. But generally, is this something you agree with?
TJ: Ben Okri once responded to a request for 10 book recommendation with 10 and a half nuggets of wisdom for selecting books, the first of which was, “There is a trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.”
The idea of reading everything sounds romantic until you factor how many books there are in the world with how many years human life can last. What I try to do, indeed what I have been doing, is finding texts outside what is popular in my immediate environment. As a teen, I read everything, from prescriptions to newspapers but now that I am focused on my craft I have to rely on my inner compass to find books I must encounter in this flesh. I have found the stories I am meant to read, simply find me. I remember finding Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in a flea market. Same thing with Beloved, which set me on a literary path of pain to other works by Toni Morrison. A stranger outside my university gate was complaining about a poor choice of literature that she had made, the cover was glossy and so she had assumed it was a romance novel, what with the title, only to open the book and see a quite confusing opening line. 124 was spiteful, how? I collected the book to have a look. Before that year I had never heard of Toni Morrison, and I never looked back, I bought it from her.
Friends who know me well know what I ought to read, often by seeing similarities in my experiments with those artists even before I encounter them. David Ishaya Osu, the poet, seized me by the hands and lead me into the world’s of Michael Ondaatje, Lidia Yuknavitch, Mary Ruefle, Kaveh Akbar and many others. Servio Gbadamosi read something I had written and couldn’t categorize and directed me to Khalil Gibran. Rotimi Babatunde judged We Won’t Fade Into Darkness and drew stylistic reference to Italo Calvino and Paulo Coelho, and now I am on their path.
Ope: I remember reading your Selves non fiction “Waterborne” and relating it to myself, or my experiences with home, but not home as a physical space. I think the concept of home is highly written about and sometimes I wonder why. What’s so special about this thing called home? How does home make or destroy our identities? Does not having a home make us less of ourselves?
I also found interesting and rather poetic these lines: “I smiled and realized even this smile was a way of mourning. Do we ever stop mourning those we have lost? Sometimes, I would be walking in a market and the smell of my mother’s inside-purse would hit me and it would be too strong, too much but I just keep walking.”
Home and mourning/loss are intrinsic – a part of who we are and who we become. How has your relationship with these two concepts influenced your writing, and to what extent have you interrogated them in your writing. Do you think that your loss and mourning has shaped you into becoming a kind of writer, or are they things you navigate in your personal life without any translation to your writing?
TJ: I think the idea of home as a destination is something that plagues me and I think the notion is dangerous because as long as we draw air we will always be in transit. Home for me, as I grow to understand it, are the pauses in between, moments I am able to collect myself in the midst of music or in the midst of friends and truly rest. The idea of ‘seeking home’ can lead to disillusionment, as I have found in life. Of course, my childhood, as with lots of people, was a sort of perpetual home but I lost that, and like many people who lose that I have found we must redefine what home means for us. I find prose a viable medium to interrogate ‘home’ and be changed by it. Home for me is a moment where a self comes to utter rest, or heal or encouraged to flourish. I am my full self, or I experience new possibilities of ‘self’ when I am at ‘home’. Home for me can be a bathtub in a strange town, watching the water drain as a storm rages outside.
Mourning, I have found, is a perpetual ritual, just that there are many deceptive forms of it and so we do not recognize it for what it is. I have become suspicious of certain boundless joys that overwhelm without cause, certain laughters. That’s just the body finding ways to survive, to go on. To answer your question, yes, I have found home and loss to be cerebral aspects to my writing, I mentioned in an interview with Joy that my work is about bodies and how they are bent into stories and loss is one way. However more and more I am exploring joy because I started writing before I experienced loss and a pleasure for me these days is being able to realize a story, an image, filled with pure joy.
Ope: Thank you for this. “An Abundance of Yellow Papers’ from We Won’t Fade Into Darkness is quite an intriguing story. Why did you write it? How did the idea come to you? Some thinkers and poets consider poetry to be an endangered specie especially in the African literary space, and then you go and write about a time and existence when to write poetry is a privilege or luxury, and especially, a sort of taboo. I find it a very powerful story. What would you say influenced you to write this?
TJ: Many thinkers believe we are currently experiencing the golden age of poetry. With borders being shattered from the UK with Yrsa Daley-ward’s work, to the introspective work of Romeo Oriogun and others from Africa, to the transfiguration of reality by Ocean Vuong in the US, I am tempted to agree. Strict laws on what poetry could be have been in place for ages until now, ‘instagram poet’ is no more derogatory, they get book deals and sell in millions, poetry! In the joy of the moment however, paranoia sprouted in me. I feared things won’t always be this way, what with the way the world is going. While artists have book signings and galas in some parts of the world, they are jailed and killed in others. The freedom to create art is something that hasn’t always existed. I didn’t have any moral for that story, my mind just wandered into such a world, to see how it would be.
Ope: One interesting thing that struck me while reading your work is the running themes of hope. Is this hope, a reflection of who you are as a person? And as a result of the Nigerian conditioning? Why hope?
TJ: I am not interested in hope. In my country, I have found it distracts us from what we can actually influence, what we can actually do. And yes, I believe hope is a Nigerian conditioning but I am done with it. But the stories had their own mind, they wanted to be hopeful. I have often said I hate the title because I am not that positive a person but people love it so what can I say? When you write something and publish, it doesn’t belong only to you anymore. Really, to be Nigerian is to be possessed by this arrogance that things will go well, so i guess to capture this Nigerian stories, they had to be hopeful.
Ope: I’m a bit curious about your writing process. You mention something in your acknowledgement about tea with special herbs influencing or not influencing your work, and where you wrote most of the stories. Do you have any writing rituals?
TJ: I do have rituals, I am constantly recreating them. At the time I wrote We Won’t Fade Into Darkness, I was in a perpetual loop of inspiration and this was tied to my personal ritual of waking early and going to a Mai shai vendor down the street. There is something about an early morning and the hypnotizing waterfall of tea from cup to cup as the Mai Shai mixes his ingredients with the dexterity of a barman. I had lots of walking then, I walked round the little town. When I write a lot I walk a lot. Like I am compensating the miles I travel with my mind. To write those stories, I needed music, music that could hit you like a high in the blood. Laura Mvula, a lot of Moses Sumney (who I discovered from a Taiye Selasi interview on Solange Knowles’ ‘Saint Heron’) , Julia Holter, a lot of Swedish House Mafia, Sia, A lot of the new Mavin artists at the time (there were stories where I had to capture the spirit of the Nigerian youth and it is there, or here, in the beat of our Nigerian afrobeat) and some Stromae. The art of Victor Ehikamenor and Laolu gave me a general vibe for the stories and I spent several hours studying the fashion of our wonderful designers on instagram, designers like Nkwo, Orange Culture and Jewel by Lisa, to get a sense of what Nigerians would wear in the future.
Ope: That sounds really magical. But I’m sure it was hard work. I like that you mention art and fashion for inspiration. You are also a photographer, and by consequence a visual artist. Your “Male Subjects in Solitude” project was really powerful, in how it breaks stereotypes and transcends societal expectations of masculinity. And I love how this continues to show you’re documenting “joy” in both your writing and visual art. How does one influence the other? If it does, what’s their relationship? Does one take priority over the other?
TJ: Photography and writing are different languages I speak, one has nothing to do with the other. Images by other artists inspire me to write a lot of times, there is a photograph of the artist Bi Kidude, lying on a grass and smoking that inspired a whole short story I wrote and love. I may one day want to create the image of Remedios the Beauty ascending to heaven from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the images I create have nothing to do with my writing and vice versa. Consequently, neither takes priority over the other. Maybe I write more than I make images now because I have to rent or borrow cameras from friends.
Ope: Should we be expecting a novel from you soon? Or some other body of work?
TJ: I just finished editing a novel I completed last year, I have two. I have a collection of short stories, a collection of parables and I am working on a memoir. So, let’s see which work gets published first, haha.
Ope: I am very excited to hear this! I have just a few more questions. An important one comes back to process. Your characters are always full-fledged, easy to visualise despite sometimes living in Afrofuturistic places. And I find this interesting or creative because some of the crux of a story lies in how well the reader can visualize or hear the characters in the work. Some renowned writers say the characters come first. Others say the characters come in the middle of the work. What’s it to you? Is there a pattern? Is characterization even that important to you as a writer?
TJ: I think the story ultimately decides how it wants to be told. I started “The Killing Mountain” with no idea how the character looked like, and I was surprised when an image of him came to me adorned with his cape of vulture feathers. Characterization is something I think I struggle with, how much information is too much? In the end, I just fall back to the plot of the story. Really good to hear that my characters came to life, marking this as a success.
Ope: I wonder, do you take inspiration for your characters from people around you?
TJ: In other works, I do. But I haven’t met anyone from We Won’t Fade Into Darkness yet and this gives me joy because it means I have achieved something close to an utter invention. Of course, listening to real life conversations in public spaces, a practice I encourage my writing workshop students to do, helps a lot with dialogue flow.
Ope: If you were stuck in Mars and you had the chance to choose one writer, one artist and character out of a book to be with, who would they be?
TJ: Wow, Arundhati Roy? Although I don’t know what her temperament on Mars would be. She can bring Ammu from The God of Small things or Tila from the Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Wanted to meet Michael Ondaatje but watching Teju Cole meet him in an interview session I found I didn’t envy Teju. What do you tell a man whose work you read as the Bible? I would be useless before him. I feel Arundhati will go to extreme ends to make me get over myself and talk. I won’t mind hanging with Ondaatje’s Hana from The English Patient though. Or Gavin Chait’s Simon Adaro from Our Memory Like Dust. Coolest guy I’ve ever met, turned the male hero stereotype on its head. I want to meet the jaguar in my The Killing Mountain. With all my heart. I want us to be friends. I have questions for it. If by artist you mean a designer then Temitayo Nathan, this way we’ll all die looking good, I suspect Arundhati would love his work. If by artist you mean musician Laura Mvula or Moses Sumney, I can imagine what Mars would do for their music. If by artist you mean photographer then David Uzochukwu, although I wish to meet him on earth. Been following and learning from him since 2013 and I can imagine the astronomic wonder he’ll create on Mars. If by artist you mean…Do I go on?
Ope Adedeji dreams about bridging the gender equality gap. She is a lawyer, writer and editor. She is an alumni of the 2018 Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. If you do not find her reading, you’ll find her writing.