Nobodyism and Ezekel Alan: Are some of us ‘Missing’ as a noun?

An interview with Ezekel Alan, author of Disposable People…

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I’ve been sitting on this astonishing interview I did with the mysterious new Jamaican writer, Ezekel Alan, for about two months now (for more information on Alan read Susumba.com‘s interview with him). I had hoped to continue it but time won’t permit so I’m just posting it and stating my intention to follow up with a Part 2 soon. Alan is the author of Disposable People, a novel that first came to attention when it won the Caribbean region award for best first novel in the Commonwealth Book Awards this year. Disposable People was self-published. It’s a book that animates poverty for those of us accustomed to averting our gaze from it, and does so in an imaginative, engaging yet hardcore way. His concept of ‘Nobodyism’ strikes me as the opposite of Rex Nettleford’s ‘Smaddyism’ (Somebodyism).

It would be cool if my readers could suggest questions they’d like me to ask him for Part 2….

AP: Disposable People is a narrative about the soul-wrenching economies of ‘Bare life’ and contemporary poverty isn’t it? As told by someone who has escaped its bony embrace into a life of privilege and policy-making. Did the little boy locked out of his home every time a primal urge took his parents haunt you into writing this book? Is the story as autobiographical as it seems?

Indeed there is some catharsis and exorcism at play – as we have seen with many other writers {Ayn Rand comes to mind}, there is an often an urge to tell a bit of your own story with your first book; this is perhaps because there is such a reservoir of information right there to draw on. In my case, this was both the outcome of that effort to wrestle with demons, and my love for writing. The past was, in a sense, fodder for writing rather than the object of it.

That said, I wanted to make this story noteworthy. Tales of poverty and abuse are as common as teenage sex in our ghettoes; I wanted to find a way to make this story feel new and real.  This is partly the reason for the bluntness and the seemingly absurd elements of the story.

But let me also say that I remember going into Riverton City once back in the days and standing there watching some kids who were playing in a body of water that was stagnant and stink. You could see both hogs and plastic bags of faeces floating in it. But these kids were playing and laughing.  That is life. The life of the poor is wretched, but it also has its joys. As a poor child you don’t stand around all day contemplating the short, nasty, brutish nature of your life, you live it, with all its pains and joys. This is what I tried to capture – both the suffering and the joys – in almost the same way we lived it.

AP: In many ways this book reminds one of a new genre of no-holds-barred novel writing by former NGO personnel, activists, policy-makers and diplomats. I’m thinking of books like Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Q and A by Vikas Swarup from which the movie Slumdog Millionaire was made, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and so on, There’s also a zaniness which has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut. Who were some of your literary influences?

I’ve read and loved all of those books/writers . (I would love to one day join their ranks – they have such incredible skill with the pen.) I particularly like Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is another inspiring masterpiece. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is also another inspiration, I love his surrealism. Junot Diaz is now one of my favourite contemporary Caribbean writers. I grew up on a diet of Roger Mais, Naipaul, and such, but now I find I am completely enthralled by the richness of Diaz’s prose; he’s brilliant (and I suspect rich).

AP: There is a preoccupation with the scatological or excremental imagery in DP. Eg references to shit are plentiful, to people too poor even to produce shit as in “When I lived in Jamaica my ass was often tight and constipated.” Is this because you feel that the acute discomfort of poverty is something you have to force your readers to face in the same way that confronting them with unpleasant images of worms, faeces, cow dung, diarrhoea and so on would make them squeamish? Is this the best allegory for the ‘short, nasty lives’ you’re trying to depict?

Maybe it’s all because the pit toilet was too close to my house – the stench of it was there, every day, for almost twenty years of my life. Indeed, the story was meant to be as blunt and raw as the real experiences were – flies swarming your food; giant mosquitoes biting you like dogs; the daily gambling and dominoes; the sounds of a cousin screwing and accidentally kicking down a part of her flimsy wooden wall (which generated an awful lot of excitement for the rest of us who rushed to watch and laugh.) That was the reality of it, but it is a reality far removed from the lives of many people. I wanted readers to see that life the way it was, and to want to laugh and cry at all its extremities.

By the way, I am still constipated. Some friends of mine back home have said I should try eating muesli every morning, others have recommended some of the “good Jamaican stuff” to loosen me up. I hope to report back on what works.

AP: I like your attempts to pin down the kind of racism that exists in societies such as Jamaica…there’s a tendency to overlook or elide brown identity with everyone claiming ‘blackness’ but you differentiate between the abjectness of being black and the privilege of being brown, with money being the crucial factor in determining brownness, the size of one’s bank account, one’s accent. Could you elaborate on the hypocrisies of race relations in Jamaica and perhaps the Caribbean as you know it?

I grew up with Michael Manley being white and always right, in the eyes of many of the older folks in our village. “Black man cyan run dis country!” was a frequent expression during election and domino arguments. I think much of this has changed since the 70s and early 80s, and I would say Jamaica is now a very different place. Maybe some racism is still there, but it isn’t nearly as pervasive as it once was, and cash now buys colour. The novel, in some sense, is therefore less about racism than it is about ‘nobodyism’. Kenny’s mama dies (this isn’t giving away too much) because she was nobody and they couldn’t afford proper medical care. The story about the old woman coming up to Kenny to ask for directions when Kenny thought she was coming to beg money is also apropos – this wasn’t about race, but identity; some people in our society are identified as nobody worthy of our time, worthy of our attention, worthy of marrying our daughters, worthy of a second thought. One of my favourite bits of the book is when Kenny writes the poem about Georgie and asks if his old friend Georgie is ‘missing’ not as verb (his mother’s love and tenderness) but as a noun – a person unseen and unheard. I felt that was how we lived our lives there on the outskirts of society; missing as a noun.

Of Adichie, Coco Yams, the Caine Prize and Literary Tiffs…

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Nigerian writers had their feathers ruffled by what the acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in a July 14 interview with Aaron Bady whose twitter handle is @zunguzungu. The literary kas kas has produced a series of archly comical tweets, blogposts and ripostes that inspire awe in latent Nigerian literary talent. Here’s the offending snippet from the IV.

AB: I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize. I find it interesting that so many Nigerians are on the short list this year—that it’s four Nigerians out of five . . .

CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.

AB: Well, none of them are you!

CA: Elnathan was one of my boys in my workshop. But what’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been. I know that Chinelo is on the short list, too. But I haven’t even read the stories—I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.

AB: Where do you go?

CA: I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.

And in case you don’t know, Aaron Bady is a very influential blogger, tweeter and scholar of African literature. Here’s a bit about him from an Atlantic Monthly article some time back:

“When historians look back at WikiLeaks and how the world’s pundits tried to make sense of what was happening, they’ll see a familiar list of sources: Foreign Policy’s Evgeny Morozov, The Guardian’s John Noughton, The New York Times’ David Carr, several people from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, and various long-time digital leaders like Geert Lovink and Larry Sanger.

“But among that list you’d also find Aaron Bady and his blog zunguzungu.wordpress.com. His probing analysis of Julian Assange’s personal philosophy and possible motivations became an oft-cited piece of the global conversation about what WikiLeaks might mean. Before Bady’s November 29 post, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”, only a few hundred people a day found their way Bady’s blog. In the days afterward, tens of thousands of people swarmed to the site — and Bady ended up linked by some of the most influential media outlets on the planet.”

The first response came from Elnathan John, shortlisted for the Caine Prize, and referred to by Adichie as “…one of my boys…” In a tongue-in-cheek yet hard-hitting blogpost called THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVING NGOZI he gently takes her on.

It is the Americans you blame as you struggle to craft a response to Ngozi that sounds neither bitter nor desperate; ‘something funny’ your friend said, so people would be left with no doubt about your maturity and sense of humour. You blame the Americans for organizing that workshop and putting you on the guest list where you first met Ngozi. This is what the Americans have often been guilty of: causing wars through third parties and standing back, claiming ignorance of roots and beginnings. They made you meet Ngozi. They made you love Ngozi.

His blog bio gives a more elaborate sense of the budding writer:

You wan know who I be?

My Photo

Abuja, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria
Elnathan is a writer who trained as a lawyer. Although he is routinely called a journalist, he rejects this title, preferring instead to be called a writer. His works have appeared in ZAM Magazine International, Otis Nebula, Per Contra, and Evergreen Review in addition to numerous Nigerian publications and newspapers. He writes a column for Sunday Trust. He has not won anything. The South African government recently truncated his plans to attend the prestigious Caine Prize Writing workshop to which he was invited. He holds no grudges. In 2008 he hastily self-published an embarrassing collection of short stories which has since gone out of print. He hopes to never repeat that mistake. He has just completed work on a new collection of short stories and is working on a novel. Nobody seems to want to publish his new collection of short stories. This puzzles him. He really loves those stories. Elnathan is touchy about his skin and man boobs and isn’t bold enough to grow hair. One of his new goals is getting to a weight below his current 100kg that will not warrant totally changing his wardrobe. He hopes to start a family comprising a partner, no kids and two hairy pets

For more go to my Storify