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An Interview with Umar Turaki


Alyssa Freeman-Moser


Photography credit: Nyam Abok


Umar Turaki is a writer from Jos, Nigeria. His writing has been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Scholarship, longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, and has won the AFREADA Photo-Story Competition.


His first novel, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold, is the story of the village of Pilam, where a mysterious plague, called the Grey, kills all but the young. Dunka, the eldest son of a family reeling from the Grey, takes on the daunting task of leaving Pilam to find a rumored cure for his siblings and save them before it’s too late. Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold can be purchased here.


In December, I emailed Turaki to ask about pandemic-era morality, our relationship with nature, and the role of community in our survival.

Alyssa Freeman-Moser

 

Alyssa Freeman-Moser: First of all, congratulations on your latest book, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold. I was overcome with foreboding by the first chapter, which opens with the death of Nana Ritdirnen, a woman dear to the family at the center of the novel. Interestingly, the first chapter is titled “The First Eight Days,” even though the epidemic which kills Nana Ritdirnen has already wiped out most of the adults in town, including the parental figures of this family. Why start here? What about these eight days make them the first? It seems you’re saying something about a shift in the first chapter’s point of view character, Dunka, who turns from inevitable death toward a determination to live.

Umar Turaki: The focus of the story for me was never the Grey. I wasn’t interested in chronicling the entire history of the sickness; I knew it would always be about specific individuals who found themselves stuck in the playing field, as it were. This then led to the desire to start in medias res, to throw the reader into the thick of it and trust they would have enough curiosity to stick around and keep reading. We meet Dunka at a point where he’s cornered, he’s on his last legs and desperate. He’s staring death in the face, which never fails to produce a certain kind of clarity. And suddenly he recognizes what’s important, even though it may be too late to save it. But he decides to try anyway, he has nothing to lose.

AFM: You’ve written some really great short stories such as “Naming” and “Her,” but it seems like a lot of your career has been spent writing and directing Nigerian television series, such as Halita and In Love and Ashes. Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold asks us to spend many hours with young characters trudging through day-to-day survival during a perilous situation. At times, it’s a very dark read, though of course, that darkness yields to moments of deep human connection, love, and even joy. What motivated you to tell this story in novel form? How is writing a novel different from writing series or short stories?

In this type of work, you take ideas or premises from others and try to breathe life into them. I’ve never had that problem with my fiction writing because I’m generating from zero. It’s personal to me in ways that surprise even me, and I would like for my work as a filmmaker to reflect that quality consistently going forward.

UT: For the longest time, my stories arrived with their artforms predetermined. As I learned about filmmaking, I tried to teach myself to think as a producer while writing scripts, to think pragmatically about resources and let that dictate the writing. This resulted in stories for the screen that were firmly rooted in reality, perhaps excessively so. Conversely, with my fiction writing, I was allowing my imagination to take flight in ways I would never have dared to as a filmmaker. I was imagining worlds and situations that were strange and mysterious and exciting. I ended up creating this artificial duality in my creativity, where I wasn’t allowing these ideas to mix, and it came to feel like my filmmaking self and my writing self were in conflict with each other. So, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold came to me first as a short story, then it became a novel; but it was a given that it would always be a literary work, no questions asked. Now I’m starting to ask myself these questions, like why can’t this be a film? Or why can’t this be a novel? Yes, the caveat remains that you are only limited by your imagination when it comes to writing words on a page, and limited ultimately by budgetary concerns when picking up a camera to make a movie, but I’ve started to push back against this dichotomy. Why place the limitations on myself when there is so much out there that’s already doing that? So, I’m in a new phase of experimenting with my ideas, of letting things mix in interesting ways.

The bulk of my filmmaking work that’s mostly known has been work done as a hired hand. With In Love and Ashes, for instance, I had a lot of say and was quite privileged to make important choices, but ultimately it wasn’t mine, so there was a limit to how much I could put my stamp on it. In this type of work, you take ideas or premises from others and try to breathe life into them. I’ve never had that problem with my fiction writing because I’m generating from zero. It’s personal to me in ways that surprise even me, and I would like for my work as a filmmaker to reflect that quality consistently going forward.

At the risk of sounding reductive, I like to think of writing a novel as a marathon and writing a screenplay as a sprint. Not to say one is more difficult than the other, but there is a level of commitment and fidelity writing a novel demands of me that writing a screenplay doesn’t. I can probably work on more than one screenplay at a time if I had to, but the immersive, all-consuming process of creating a novel leaves room for little else.

AFM: In the book, the Grey is spreading to adults in the town of Pilam. Can you tell us more about this setting? Is Pilam based on a real location? As he’s contemplating escaping Pilam, your character Zumji is looking over his hometown, considering “whether he might have seen the Grey coming like a dark cloud to descend over Pilam had he kept watch.” How do your characters make sense of this illness in their own hometown? What, in your thinking, made them susceptible to the Grey? Or is their affliction simply a random act of nature?

UT: This question makes me think of the COVID-19 pandemic. The science told us that specific demographic categories were most at risk. But you would hear of perfectly healthy and young individuals being felled by it, and as terrified as we were for our senior citizens, what deepened that terror was that you never really knew where or how it would strike. It’s a bit like being out in the wild and knowing that ravenous animals are free and about. I think Zumji feels that way; it leaves him breathless knowing that he’s predisposed to this sickness because of his age but he’s somehow been spared. At the same time, it raises the question of what the real dividing line is? What point do you have to cross in terms of age to come within reach of the Grey? You have a character like Goshi who’s ostensibly an adolescent but seems to have the Grey, and you have others like Zumji and Nana Kanke who for one reason or another are spared. I was really interested in the question of how we respond when faced with something so horrific and senseless and unpredictable.

The landscape of Pilam is inspired by the terrain of my mother’s ancestral land, and the names in the book are all drawn from the language of this land, Ngas. I like to think of the world of this story as a kind of mythologized Ngas reality that could be read on one level as a fable.

AFM: The Grey seems to represent a shift from childhood to adulthood, as children are immune. We’ve seen this in other works. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and dust come to mind. In your book, growing up is a death sentence, however. What is it about childhood, do you think, that makes us immune to certain ailments, not only embodied ones through illness, but social ailments? Do these characters have reasons to fear adulthood beyond the Grey?

The children of my novel quickly lose their innocence because in a world that has lost all semblance of structure and order, they’ve become prey to darker voices, darker visions. And these are human forces. With the right preconditioning or priming, a human being, regardless of age, could do literally anything.

UT: If you think of a human being as a page, life starts inscribing on us the moment we’re born. Not to even say that we come in completely blank. We’re definitely hard-coded in so many ways by the time we arrive here, but in terms of the softer aspects of being, in terms of values and beliefs, which ultimately determine behavior, we’re blank. When life writes on our pages, there are neutral experiences, like the objective experience of the world. A tree is a tree. The color red is what it is. And then you have positive and negative influences, like how we learn who to love, or who to hate, or who to fear. The tree is no longer just a tree but a gateway to the spirit world, and the color red becomes synonymous with pain. All of this we learn from people or through observing people’s experiences with the world. As children, we are waiting to be inscribed upon, so we remain “immune” to the things that ail society until we become initiated, as it were.


The children of my novel quickly lose their innocence because in a world that has lost all semblance of structure and order, they’ve become prey to darker voices, darker visions. And these are human forces. With the right preconditioning or priming, a human being, regardless of age, could do literally anything.

AFM: Meanwhile, to be a child in Pilam during this period requires many to resort to violence to find resources, and they’re sort of knocked out of childhood prematurely anyway. It seems that one of the problems for the children of Pilam is that they don’t have skills, like farming and trapping, that allow them to subsist on their own. In the US, we charge for preschool and college education. I might argue that your book is a shining example of why holding back information from one generation leads to their peril. We see one of the last remaining adults in the book, Zumji, working hard to ensure that the children in his care are educated. Later in the book, a character is punished after separating children from their ability to live in an orderly learning environment. What can you say about the role of education in this book?

UT: Our ability as humans to not only preserve knowledge but also pass it onto the next generation is what makes us who we are. In all honesty, I can’t say that it was an especially conscious decision to make a statement about education at all, but as I began to imagine and write out this world, the question presented itself of what it would mean if that intergenerational transfer of values and culture was interrupted. I continued to find that the really interesting questions weren’t necessarily around the sickness itself but around the marks it was leaving on the world as it went through.

What became immediately apparent was the need to revert to nature in these extraordinary circumstances. We live in societies where we have come to depend on others for the things we need. Sadly, that is what an advanced society looks like, the ease and comfort that comes from being separated from the processes that sustain your life. When that is taken away, we are then forced to engage directly with nature. When you look at someone like Zumji, he’s almost immune to what’s happening because he’s self-sufficient, and he shares the skills with those he’s leaving behind. In Nana Kanke’s case, she’s interested in giving these children the hard skills they need to survive, but she’s really more interested in the softer skills necessary to lead lives of a certain quality; she’s really interested in strategies for countering the Grey and the way it affects people. She has her theories, right or wrong, but she puts them to use and chooses education as the best way to go about it. So, she turns her house into a boarding school of sorts.

AFM: Another challenge in the book is the drought Pilam experiences. Zumji, our farmer, is especially attuned to the weather. In chapter thirteen, I couldn’t help but notice a phrase unfamiliar to me. You write, “As the day began to unwind, the wind carried fwep fwan butom, the scent of the promise of rain, earthy and fresh, across the starved fields, through the gaping windshield, and into his nostrils.” You then repeat the phrase a few more times throughout this chapter: “His fwep fwan butom, earth and water, mixed together for the first time, a harbinger of each rainy season.” Of course, we know that smell, that heavy iron smell forecasting rain. In your book, this phrase elicits a particular sensory treat for the reader in this truly beautifully written section of the novel. Can you introduce us to this phrase? What does the fwep fwan butom mean for Zumji? In your own experience?

UT: Yes. I was looking for the Ngas equivalent of petrichor. As much as I wanted something that came up from the Ngas consciousness, it turned out there was no single word for it. I spoke to a language expert, and the best we could do was settle for “fwep fwan butom,” which literally means “the smell of the first rain.” So, we had to invent it because I don’t think it exists as an idea in the Ngas language. That smell is my favorite smell in the whole world. It’s rooted for me in a particular place, and some of my fondest memories are wrapped up in it. I gave it to Zumji because he’s, as you say, attuned to nature and the weather, and this smell for him represents hope. The interesting thing about fwep fwan butom is that when you smell it, you’re experiencing something that has happened in some other place, so the smell has traveled to you. In a way, it’s like it’s giving you a taste of the future, it’s telling you what’s to come.

Rain is used as a not-so-subtle motif in the book, and perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but I couldn’t resist it. The book really is also a meditation on our need for direct engagement with the natural world. Interestingly, both Nana Kanke and Zumji recognize the regenerative power of nature and how essential it is to wellbeing, even if they go about engaging with it in different ways.

AFM: In the beginning of the book, Dunka, the de facto patriarch of the family at the center of the book who has fallen ill from the Grey, goes to Pishang, the nearest city, to seek help from a healer and finds himself trapped by someone who has “contacted a scientist in a foreign county, who was interested in conducting extensive tests on a living subject… They’re willing to pay a lot of money.” I was shocked when I read this, not because someone would want to study the Grey, but because no one had yet. Then I thought about the creation of the vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic, and how much money was made off them, and how little there was to be made from the people of Pilam. Better to keep them isolated since no money can be made from curing them. Is this a cynical reading of your book? How does the treatment of the people of Pilam mirror your thoughts about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

UT: The book was already several drafts in the making when COVID-19 came along, and I had been simply projecting my own pessimism about how we treat each other through the situation with Pilam. While I am a generally hopeful person, I tend to be a pessimist when it comes to human behavior. I think we do fail toward some semblance of progress, but the failure is sometimes so unnecessary, and at great cost. Add to that the fact that with all the scope we have of history, we have such short memories and so continue to repeat the same mistakes every few centuries or so. We really should be wiser than we are. I remember reading around this time about a particular moment in Europe during the Black Death, I think somewhere in Amsterdam in the 13th or 14th century, when houses on a particular street had become infected with the Plague and the wider community’s response was to build a fence and literally wall the entire street in. So, I think it’s a given that when we know we are going to get away with something we know to be wrong or unethical, we tend to go ahead with it. And fear stokes the fire of this in all the worst ways.

Another real-world echo of this was how, deep into the pandemic lockdown, it was discovered that state governors throughout Nigeria had hoarded relief material intended to help the masses cope through the lockdowns. Videos sprang up overnight of people raiding the warehouses where these things had been kept. Food, domestic supplies, medicine, much of it already expired. That leaders elected into office could commit such heinous acts against their people, at such an incredible time of vulnerability, is already being forgotten. Elections are around the corner and somehow that conversation has conveniently gone away.

So no, it isn’t a cynical reading at all. If there were financial gains to be made from the situation in Pilam, you can be sure that it would have been exploited.

AFM: I’m wondering about the role of community in the book. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that things seem to work out for the characters who pitch in and help each other. This extends past familial relationships. There’s also significant charity, including one surprising connection at the end of the book. Dunka, the character who kicks off the book, also finishes it in this wonderful chapter where the sense of community among unlikely people is sort of rewarded. He’s looking at “all of them, pieces of his family, old and new together, here in the same room, witnessing glory,” and in that moment, “The rain began to fall.” What are you saying about the connection between community and survival?


... characters make certain difficult choices; they go to great lengths to do what they think is the right thing, often at great risk to their own safety. And set against the backdrop of a humanity that will most likely take the easy way out, you have people who choose to be noble despite the odds, who choose to do what they believe is right — that’s the miracle.

UT: That there’s no escaping the need for community. We may think we are fine and can do it all by ourselves, but situations will arise that stun us profoundly and we will end up stumbling our way into the arms of community; we end up grouping. I think it’s an instinctive response to trauma. There’s strength in numbers. Most of the members of the family begin by going off on their own, trying to make a go of it by themselves. But the ebbs and flows of the circumstances end up pushing them back together. .


And not to suggest that this is done without thought, because it also is a choice. In the book, characters make certain difficult choices; they go to great lengths to do what they think is the right thing, often at great risk to their own safety. And set against the backdrop of a humanity that will most likely take the easy way out, you have people who choose to be noble despite the odds, who choose to do what they believe is right — that’s the miracle. That a light can still manifest from us despite the potential for great darkness in us. Trauma and great cataclysm can bring out the worst in us, but it can also set apart the best among us, which I think is what ultimately triggers a wave of goodness that then becomes endemic. Suddenly, everyone remembers that it is a beautiful thing to be good. People do bad things not necessarily because they’re evil but because they sometimes forget that it’s possible to be good. So, they need reminding; we all do. And I can’t think of a better way than community.

 

ALYSSA FREEMAN-MOSER is a writer from Tallahassee, Florida. She is a second year MFA candidate at Florida State University and a Fiction Editor for Southeast Review.



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