Exploring the Body and Bending it into Stories: A Dialogue with TJ Benson

TJ Benson is a Nigerian short story writer, Quantity Surveyor (by training) and creative photographer whose work has appeared in online journals like Jalada Africa, Paragram Uk, Brittle Paper, Sentinel Literary journal, African Hadithi, Afridiaspora, Expound, Bakwa and in print magazines and anthologies like ANA Annual Review, Transition Magazine and more recently the SSDA Migrations Anthology of African writing. His chapbook of photography Rituals was published in downloadable PDF on Sankofa Magazine in 2015. His short story “An Abundance of Yellow Paper” was the joint winner of the Amab-HBF contest in 2016 and his collection of Afro-Sci-Fi short stories We Won’t Fade Into Darkness was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize. He is the first runner up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize themed ‘Migration’ and his memoir “In The Spirit of Ake” was listed as one of the top stories of 2016 by Brittle Paper. He was a writer-in-residence at the Ebedi Writers Residency Nigeria in January 2017, teaching the basics of photography to secondary school children in the community. He is currently a Ebedi Fellow residing in Abuja where he hunts for a day job when he is not writing or making pictures or cooking to calm his nerves from time to time.

This dialogue took place between a green bedroom in scorching hot Gaborone, Botswana and a dimly lit book and coffee café in Abuja, Nigeria.

INTERVIEW BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI.

Gaamangwe: TJ, your first work I ever consciously encountered was In the Spirit of Ake, an essay about your time at Ake festival in  2016. I don’t really know how to properly articulate the kind of feeling I had reading this work. It was a mixture of deep yearning and resonance. I think that I was mostly attracted to that feeling of belonging and being around kindred-people, and a space wide enough to hold and love and understand a huge aspect of myself: the writer, the creative. I promised myself I will have an experience like that in the near future, which I did at the 2017 Writivism Festival. And it was just that and more!

Now, back to you, you actually were back at Ake in 2017. How was the spirit of Ake in 2017?  And on this topic of spirit, how would you articulate the spirit (energy) that anchors your own creative, or your spirituality as a storyteller? 
TJ: The Spirit of Ake, I would say is the director herself, flitting up and down tirelessly, whirling people this way and that. Having said that, I would say the Spirit of Ake is alive and well. She even has the low cut now that she dyed gold, and I felt it has a lot to do with the theme of 2017 The F- Word but what do I know?

Of course, I believe in spirituality, especially when it comes to creativity; when I am creating I am manipulating energy and there seems to be this boundless supply of it in the universe. When I make myself vulnerable, I can tune into pain or loss and other things I am not quite aware of until I harness it and put on paper. Sometimes, I am able to sense this energy resting potential in an inanimate object or in the slant of a face, so I take a photograph of it.
Gaamangwe: This idea of creativity as a manipulation of energy is so powerful. There are times when I feel the charge of this universal energy all around me, as something to physically touch, slice apart with my mind or hands. But then, I think of myself as a shaman trapped in a writer’s body.  I wonder what is it about vulnerability that ushers us towards pain and loss. What kinds of pains and losses are urgent to you?

TJ: The pains inflicted on my mind and body are most urgent to me. The body is a carrier of memory, smells, and most importantly, in my case, pain and joy but mostly pain. I wish I was one of those people who could draw on happiness: I wish I, like Chimamanda, didn’t have an unhappy childhood to draw from; then, I wouldn’t  have dark energy to manipulate, and I would probably think of myself as more authentic in my art, not cheating with dark energy. Just joking a little, I have succeeded in achieving humor in my fiction even if it is a bit dark it’s an attempt no? I draw from happiness and create joy too; so, I create from that sometimes. I think of my life’s work, both now and future, as an exploration of the body and ways it can be bent into a story.

Gaamangwe: Bending the body into stories is a powerful idea. My God, all the thousands experiences that our bodies have experienced and the many others that the body carries as memory, fears, dis-eases and point of anxieties. I am drawn to this, in particular how we can manipulate these energetic field to bring healing to ourselves. And yes, humor is that powerful healing art. I love all different forms of humor. I have this roar of a laugh, the kind that embarrass some of my friends but it’s the best part of me. All the greatest tragedies have humor underlying them after-all. So, you achieving that in your work is definitely a great thing. What other things have you managed to achieve in your journey as a multiform creative?

TJ: Hmm, Multiform creative. I am definitely using that in my bio!  Well, my most important achievement is feedback. I am content creating for myself because creation is almost always a selfish endeavor for me. It took four years for me to be certain I will share my work with others, and when people message or call that they felt this when they read these things I wrote or when they saw my images…that’s enough for me. Of course, I have to be sustained as an artist, so the business aspect of it comes in, but connecting brothers and sisters across nationalities and tribes because of my art is something I am grateful for.

In photography, my work in 2017 primarily featured male subjects in solitude. Often happy. It is important for me to have black men happy in their solitude, I have gone to extreme measures to make the subjects smile or emote themselves in the portraits. So, my body of photography work in 2017 makes me happy, I have learnt a lot in the technical aspects; thus, I am focusing on less technicality this year.

black-man-model-under-tree

I am almost always in chaos inside, so being a multiform creative has been therapy for me. An idea that can’t be honestly conveyed in words might find expression in an image. I am looking forward to acting also, I have always used this skill for characterization in my writing. I have modeled briefly too, but in the end it is all for my writing I suppose.

Gaamangwe: I love your black men in solitude project. I have been following your photography journey on social media, and you are documenting a revolution: black men in solitude, as their true selves, as humans. I often feel that our patriarchal society and ideas of masculinity suppresses the humanness of men. So, your work is saying here we are: we are men, we are vulnerable, we are tender, and we are beautiful and we are human.

Turning to you, what has been coming up for you in your moments of solitude? And just a reflection, how would you articulate your true selves and have you aligned this with your creativity?

TJ: I don’t really remember. But I know sometimes when I am working, I can find silence and when that happens, I sneak away from people. As for articulating my many selves. The older I get the less tangible the notion of self becomes to me. I could get to know you more and your ‘self’ could become myself, and I could end up holding on to it so fiercely like I was born with it. I laugh like the last person I met and liked, I pick up identities and affectation that I connect to. I am trying to avoid saying stuffs that will get me committed to a mental ward, but the ones I know, I commit to art. Nothing and no one is left out because creation, or to be more precise ‘channeling’ of moods, ideas and selves, is the process I commit myself for growth.

Gaamangwe: When we talk about creation and channeling, you have channeled pretty incredible works in the short story art-form. I read all the ones I could find online.  My most memorable one is Tea. It was tender. What’s the process of writing a short story like Tea?  And what is your most memorable story you have written? Perhaps the one that comes close to your idea of your perfect creation?

TJ: I started Tea after listening to a preacher declare that pure love didn’t need verbal language. So, I started thinking about this local Tiv girl, then I remembered the massive prostitution exports from my country to Italy. The story came to me like a movie, and as in movies,l I had no idea what would happen next. I stopped laughing to cover my jaw when the German boy struck someone with the lampshade! And when it seemed all was alright, I panicked when I started hearing the footsteps of the bellboy coming to investigate in their room! So, stories like “Tea” are very exciting to write because I love travelling with my characters to places I have never been. And I love not knowing what happens next.

My most memorable story is  Rio  published in Expound Magazine. Memorable because I heard every sound, the crash of waves; I felt the cool of the evening with my character. I fought with my editor over the style because it was the most true story to my internal visualization that I had ever written as of then. And of course, I enjoyed travelling there with him. I was so happy with the way he performed in the story that I decided to pity him and give him something close to a happy ending!

tj-benson-portrait-image

Gaamangwe: That is amazing. In retrospect, the reason why I loved Tea is because it read like a movie. It was so vivid. I could see every single move in my mind’s eye. Do you have any plans to explore screenwriting in the future? You will be great at it!

On this exploration of your creativity, what kind of creations do you yearn and plan to create this year and in your lifetime?

TJ: I actually have a script that has been flogging me to write it since last year!  I am too lazy to submit and I know the story must be in script form. I even look forward to acting if it ever comes. I hope to create things and facilitate projects that are honest and convey emotional truths. As I have said earlier, my life’s work is about the weight of stories on a body, how it can be bent into stories. Especially the stories so ordinary, yet so wonderful they are concealed in their everyday-ness quality. I am interested in the fickleness of memory and the malevolence of hope, and how a body must carry these two things in the present.

Gaamangwe: Oh, you should definitely produce that script! Film is an exciting art. I love everything about it. I absolutely love all these things you want to create and explore. Such important works. I wish you all the best with them. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me TJ. It’s been so wonderful!

TJ: This has been very introspective for me. Thank you for making me ask myself these questions. Thank you for finding me worthy of your series. I had so much fun!

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa's leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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