An Interview with Umar Turaki
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?
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.