Monday, July 18, 2016

298. Born on Tuesday by Elnathan John

I have criticized the Caine Prize for pandering to a certain trope of stories. I can recite the number of times that the 'the poor/refugee boy waiting for a miracle from the West and killing people or finding dead bodies in the interim' has won the Caine Prize. In fact so severe was my aversion to this trend that I altogether stopped reading the short stories. It was as if there was a hidden agenda and every story must conform. In fact, I felt justified when in 2012 the chair of judges said they will look 'beyond the more stereotypical narrative.' And Elnathan John has been shortlisted twice - 2013 and 2015. The story, Bayan Layi, which developed into Born on a Tuesday was shortlisted in 2013. By 2013 I had lost all interest in the prize and had stopped reading the stories for my Short Story Mondays.

When the Writers Project of Ghana selected this book for its book for June, I did not know what to expect. I had no knowledge that it had developed from a short story I would have easily considered 'stereotypical' three years ago. Having not read the short story I cannot judge the transformation. However, I must say that Elnathan John showed a lot of maturity and control in developing the short story into a novel, which could easily have become a 'pity party' of atrocious proportions. In Markus Zusak's book Death declared 'I am haunted by humans'. This is because no fiction can accurately depict man's actions  when he is at his worst and any attempt at achieving this ends up with a story filled with scatology and horror that could keep your eyes open for months. And what motif to provide a fast route to such horror than religious conflict and terrorism in a country known for these vices.

Born on a Tuesday, written in the first person, follows the story of Dantala - later Ahmad - from his journey from Bayan Layi to Sokoto and his gradual conversion from a drug imbuing young boy under the control of a benevolent gang-leader to his complete immersion into Islam under the guidance of his benefactor, Sheikh. Through Ahmad's narrative we are introduced to the development of religious fanaticism among sects and the role of politics in religious conflicts. Elnathan treated his subject matter so masterfully - explaining certain religious rights and phrases - that I began to wonder which part of Nigeria he lives or comes from. His description of the relationship between the force (police and military) and the people, the people and their politicians, and between the people and their religious leader was mind-boggling. We observe how religious factionalism develops and how easy it is to whip up religious and political sentiments to the benefit of the politburo and how the whimsicality of the people plays a role in this. In this novel, we encounter a fanatic Yoruba Islam-convert whose sect is bent on implementing the extreme form of religious interpretation, a philanthropist who uses his philanthropy to gain popularity to catapult him into a political position, politicians whose care of the people is to win votes by all means necessarily without bringing any development to the people, and a people whose helplessness has made them vulnerable to their environment.

The author showed how complex life is and the impact of politico-religious conflicts on the socio-economic lives of ordinary people. In this novel, the author sought to show rather than say, so that it did not fall into the trap of being preachy. Though narrated in Dantala's peculiar language, whom we are told was learning the English language, one does not encounter the difficulty usually found in novels of such characteristics. 

Born on a Tuesday is an interesting book worth the read.


  1. Great review, Nana. I have a copy waiting to be read. Thanks for the insight.

  2. I look forward to reading this one! I have been following Elnathan for a while, his controversy about being called my boy by Ms. Adichie and his blog... I'd like to read his novel.. he is very outspoken. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


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