Nigerian author and writer Elnathan John visited Kenya for the first time a week ago. He was in the country for literary events, including discussions at Daystar University, and the Literary Crossroads of the Goethe Institut where he featured alongside Kenya’s Kinyanjui Kombani.
The focus of his Kenya trip was his book Born on a Tuesday; his debut novel was published in 2015.
Elnathan was born into a Christian family in the northwestern Muslim city of Kaduna, and his background gave him first-hand experience of Islam. He studied law at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, and it was during this time that he first encountered the almajiri, children at Islamic schools who often come from poor backgrounds.
Born on a Tuesday explores the various forces at play in a society with high poverty levels and a strong belief in fate. Elnathan acknowledges that it was a challenge for him as a religious outsider to portray the Muslim characters accurately, and give the story the right depth and expression.
At the discussions, he censured the African political class that uses vulnerable youth from poor backgrounds to fight their campaign battles.
Elnathan also participated in a book-signing at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi and a public lecture at Strathmore University. His visit was organised by Prestige Books, and online bookseller Magunga Books.
Speaking about the importance of Elnathan’s presence on this side of the continent, Magunga Williams said, “Consuming art always leaves people with questions that only the artist has answers to.”
Although his biggest following is in Nigeria, Elnathan recently tweeted, “I have read BOAT [Born on a Tuesday] now in 15 cities around the world. Kenya is by far the best place I have been. The love is boundless.”
In a Twitter chat with Prestige Books of Kenya, Elnathan recognised the need to support the African book industry in terms of better marketing, distribution and funding for publishers. He called on Africans to support local writers, while decrying government taxes on books.
The author worked for a time as a lawyer, a life he described as “unfulfilling.” He left this prestigious career to become a writer in 2012, and describes himself as a “recovering lawyer, in an abusive relationship with Nigeria.”
He has not won any major awards yet, but has been nominated for the Nigeria Prize for Literature and is a double nominee for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 for the story Bayan Layi and in 2015 for a story titled Flying. He also writes non-fiction, most recently The Keepers of Secrets, a journalistic piece published in the 2016 Commonwealth anthology of creative non-fiction, Safe House.
As far as the youth is concerned, Elnathan says they are reading alternative media as well as print, although not necessarily in depth. He believes in the importance of books and long prose that requires greater examination, but acknowledges that people need more creative ways to reach broader audiences in a fast digital world.
Since 2011, Elnathan has been writing satire, and his weekly column in the Sunday Trust newspaper enjoys wide readership in Nigeria. He tackles sensitive subjects such as current politics.
“I can hit the nail on the head in a way that has some humour and is very difficult to censor,” he said in a television interview in Nairobi.