- Alice Binnington
An Interview with Elnathan John
The first thing you notice about Elnathan John is his careful composition of every phrase. As if he were writing your conversation rather than speaking it. Even light-hearted questions are met with an effortful editing process, the scrupulous nature of which is only revealed by Mr John’s narrowing eyes. All you get to hear is the finished product. The second thing you notice is that Mr John starts speaking almost before you’ve finished asking the question, then slows down, building gradually to his point. After further reflection and a few repetitions of the aforesaid point, circling around and through his argument, his voice fades away, though he never seems to come to a halt. “One” (as he would say) can never really be sure when it’s safe to ask the next question; you get the impression that every word out of your mouth would be cutting him off somehow.
To even the most informal question Mr John answers in a most serious fashion, rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers as he stares intently at some spot deep in your eyes or far off in the distance. It’s a bit of a challenge to get him to smile. His manner is so formal that you begin to see an aura not unlike that of a wise pastor follow him wherever he goes.
There is no doubt that the reverence you instinctively think he deserves is due to his outstanding writing. He writes ruthlessly about awkward realities, revealing even the most taboo thoughts of the characters he writes about. He has a marvellous capacity for transporting his audience into any environment he pleases - whether it be an airport, a small village, or a cosmopolitan city; a useful skill when enlightening his diverse audience about the distinctive turmoil of Nigerian politics. He made sure to explain why it is better to write books of specific relevance to make a general point when we spoke: “the more grounded a book is in whatever local reality (...) the more effective it will be beyond those borders”. Mr John is a master of this principle. His multiple prize-winning and internationally recognized writing is human above all; it is perhaps this down-to-earth atmosphere that makes it so tangible and assures Mr John such overwhelming respect amongst the literary community. As he says himself, “where I come from, all writing is political”, and his is most political in its audacity to be real.
Where his fiction is down-to-earth, though, his demeanour is anything but. He admitted thoughtfully that he was surprised by his interactions with the Year 7s during the workshops he led here at Nations - what he thought would be most “challenging” turned out to be most “exciting”. His enthusiasm in each writing workshop, which was related to me by those who witnessed them, seems almost comical in the context of his sober musings and elegant suits. There was no lack of philosophy in his answers: “everything was as it should be”, he responded solemnly when I asked him for his impressions of the school so far (though he did elaborate and speak with great admiration - especially of the Year 7s). The humility he expressed in saying that his life was too boring to write about was quickly compromised by his (very casual) mention that he had received the 2019 Berlin Senate Grant for non-German literature.
When asked about whether his teaching formed part of his purpose as a writer, I dare say he misunderstood my point. “The more widely people read one’s work, the more a person acquires a certain level of responsibility”, he mused, drawing out each word in a musical way, as if he were very weighed down by this “responsibility” but enjoyed it nonetheless. “- and power”, was tacked on to the end. All very true, in my opinion - words are indeed powerful and should be formed carefully. It was the way he expressed all this that struck me as most intriguing. As if he were Galileo revealing to a disciple that the Earth does, in fact, revolve around the Sun. He continued, “once in a while one would be called to provide opinion on certain subjects”. I believe he was talking about more established literary institutions here, international political congresses and the like, not quite answering my question about teaching in schools.
Another point Mr John tells me he tried to make during the workshops, apart from the immeasurable power of words, was the importance of, “think(ing) about the world outside (your) world (...) and to think of other people’s perspectives”. Coming from the havoc of Nigerian politics, it’s understandable that he would have wanted to emphasise this to a room which, to him, must have been the epitome of privilege (and is undeniably that). I was looking forward to discussing this with him - how we can use our privilege more effectively. How we can change our minds about anything if we’re open enough. Because it is the multiplicity of times this message has been passed on to us students - by teachers, other students and guest speakers such as Mr John - that makes this school so wonderful. It’s great that he mentioned the topic of privilege. And not surprising, given his Twitter feed prior to his arrival at Nations.
I should say at this point that Mr John expressed a sincere desire not to discuss Twitter during the interview. I had barely introduced my question when he refused, with a rare smile, to talk about it, citing that it was “private”. How private a public Twitter account with 32.4 thousand followers can really be I don’t know. What I was trying to bring up was the aversion he expressed towards the school prior to his arrival here. In a tweet included below, he said “Teaching posh teenagers for the next two days. No swearing. You can do it Elnathan. You can. They are paying you enough to do it. Just two days boo. Just two days.” Below he included a gif of a runner triumphantly passing the finish line. I had intended to discuss with him why he had said this and whether his impressions had changed, especially based on his valiant crusade against falling prey to stereotypes earlier in the interview. “Whenever one person disagrees, however strongly worded their disagreement is, it’s likely (to be) not about you. (...)”, he had assured me, “people will have their own opinions of you (...) and it is fine for that to happen. (...) You cannot change anyone’s opinion.”. But of course, Mr John did change his opinion - after he had been tagged in a tweet by one of Nations’ teachers, he tweeted that it was, “really lovely to hang out with these lovely students in Geneva”. Other tweets, all completely positive, followed over the next two days. On Twitter as in the interview, Mr John made very clear that he liked Nations and the people here. And yet he had no intentions of discussing this change of heart, a shame considering the fruit that conversation could have yielded. “That’s not true”, he told me, monotone for once when I mentioned the hostility he had expressed in the tweet. “(My impressions of the school) haven’t changed (...) from what I said in the beginning of the interview”. As Mr John would say himself, people have differing opinions. Sometimes those opinions change and sometimes they don't. The tweet about “posh teenagers” had been deleted by the time I addressed it.