Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu in Conversation with TJ Benson.
This interview was conducted in May, 2019.
“Don’t sell your world rights to anybody.” Binyavanga Wainana
Ayamba: First of all, I like to prick people about their names. How did you arrive at the initials TJ? I initially thought it was one name until I realized the T stood for Tarfa
Tj Benson: It’s Tijani lol. It’s Tarfa Jason for show. It really is just J as in Jay which was the nickname my dad gave my mom
Ayamba: Oh wow. That’s beautiful
Okay now that that’s out of the way, can you talk to me about the day you realized you were really going to do this writing thing?
TJ Benson: Final year of school, I decided to write a book and publish so I could get a house
Ayamba: How did that go?
TJ Benson: Hahahahahhahahaa
TJ Benson: I feel very attacked by that question.
TJ Benson: It’s fine. I’ve dried my eyes let’s continue.
Ayamba: I’ve been thinking a lot about how culture can influence one’s writing. You are mostly into futuristic writing. Has culture found a way to shape your imagination and thereby spill into your writing?
TJ Benson: I discovered culture late in life. I didn’t speak my fathers language until I was 16. Until then I had an unbridled sense of what culture was. I grew up in Abuja which was a sort of cultural melting pot. My friends and I didn’t necessarily know we were Tiv or Igbo or Yoruba. So they are the futures I write to. Not the ignorant Bubble we lived in, but our innocence from tribalism. That is the kind of culture I write futuristic stuff with in mind, and until you asked the question I hadn’t thought about it.
Ayamba: Interesting. I like the context in which you use culture. It is that context that often matters. Sadly, it is the same that is often neglected.
Your short story collection, We Won’t Fade into Darkness, is a wonder. Can you talk to me about the process of writing the book right up to the moment of publication?
TJ Benson: Thank you. I was serving in Taraba at the time and Taraba made me feel I was no longer in Nigeria. The people seemed a nation unto themselves, survivors of the herdsmen kept migrating from attack, children prostituted and got married to get food while some daredevil students farmed at night on the very soil their parents and older siblings had been raped and slaughtered on. Being there gave me a kind of perspective I didn’t get from other Nigerian states so I was able to interrogate the idea of Nigeria as a country. I wrote all the stories in that year without knowing they were connected until I finished writing them
Ayamba: That must have been a really painful experience. To exist on soil that has known that much blood and violence. Heartbreaking. How did you survive in a place like that?
TJ Benson: Well minimized travel. Getting out of there once I was done.
Ayamba: Sounds like the only way out.
What are you currently reading?
TJ Benson: In the skin of a lion by Michael Ondaatje
Ayamba: I should read me some Ondaatje. So many recommendations on him. Embarrassed to say I haven’t heeded any.
What writers would you say have held your hand through the writing process with their books?
TJ Benson: Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, Annie proulx, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Earl Lovelace and a couple more. My biggest and earliest influences are short story writers though. Eudora Welty, o. Henry and James Baldwin to name a few
Ayamba: That’s a rich list oh.
Please share with me the most valuable writing advice you’ve received
TJ Benson: From the recently late Binyavanga Wainana, Don’t sell your world rights to anybody.
Ayamba: Well. That sounds pretty assured and serious. I’ll remember that.
We’re rounding up so can you teach me how to say “friend” in your language?
TJ Benson: Which of them
Ayamba: I envy you right now
TJ Benson: Both? I am Tiv-Cross river-Idoma-Igbo.
Although my paternal grandma passed away before I could learn which part of cross river.
Ayamba: Wawu. I thought you were Tiv-igbo
Okay, Tiv and igbo
TJ Benson: Jen-wam (Tiv) enyi (Igbo)
Ayamba: Thank you so much. I enjoyed talking to you.
Tj Benson is a Nigerian writer and creative photographer whose work has appeared in several online journals like Jalada Africa, Expound and Bakwa magazine: in print magazines like Harvards Transition Magazine, Sarabas Transitions issue, SSDA Migrations issue and more recently Catapult. He was the first runner up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize themed Migration and a two time writer-in-residence at the Ebedi Writers Residency Nigeria. His collection of short stories titled We Wont Fade Into Darkness was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize in 2016 before being published by Parresia in September 2018 and has appeared on many bestseller lists. He currently lives in Abuja.
The interviewer, Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu has her bio in the members’ profile section.