TJ Benson served the Migrations judges quite the cup of "Tea" with his story of accidents, immigrants and love in a time of illegal labour, set in Sicily. "Tea" was the first runner up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Here he tells us about his influences, the relationship between photography and writing and what else he has brewing.
Migrations is available now in all good bookstores in South Africa. They will be happy to order it for you if they don't have it on the shelves. It will be published in the US and UK in September, and will be available as an eBook in all African territories in April.
It was a pleasant surprise to us during editing to find out that you had written one of the long listed (and later shortlisted stories) since you’ve been an active member of #WriterPrompt for some time. Could you tell us a bit about your writing journey?
TJ: The facilitators of #WriterPrompt have been amazing, I am grateful to Jason Mykl Snyman who tagged me in the group and to sharpened editors like Rachel Zadok and Tiah Beautement who nail you to your last line. I have been writing stories for a while now, but it was only recently that I decided to let people in.
First were my version of fairytales from the Ladybird books I read at age seven to ten which I wrote in a jotter my Dad bought for that specific purpose. It was meant to be a drawing book. Then my very own novella on alien invasion at twelve. I was borrowing R.L. Stine books by then so you can imagine. I felt alone because of a couple of losses I suffered before my teenage years so stories were a sort of escape for me. I read all passages in English textbooks and when I was done with the literature in the school curriculum, then I started reading the Oxford dictionary. Never finished it though. I was always looking for stories to hide in.
When I was done with the novels and newspapers in my library by senior secondary school (our library was small haha) I remembered I used to write when I was young and realized I had to create stories or face the real world. Eventually I settled for both. I used to be terrified of having readers though and I only write to this day because of all these stories in my head, nagging me and I fear I am the only one who can tell them the way I can.
In your story, “Tea”, two immigrants in Sicily meet for the first time in possibly the most awkward way ever, on a porn set. Circumstances lead them to attempting to make a life together without words, to love without a shared language. How did you come up with this unique premise?
TJ: Well I was in a church service back in school three years ago and the pastor was preaching about the possibility of communicating love in the absence of a verbal language. He mentioned it in passing and I began to think of two strangers forced to live together with no common language. My parents were of different ethnicities and so the only language they had in common was English. In the story, I wondered what if some people don’t have even English in common? It took three or four months for me to discover what I was writing about and as with most of my writing I didn’t know how it would end. So that gave me a sort of thrill.
Lorrie Moore, another short story writer is often quoted as saying: “A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” As a photographer and a writer do you agree with this observation at all? And does your photographic work ever influence your writing or vice versa?
TJ: On the morning of my ninth birthday my dad woke me up with a Kodak film camera. He was a photography enthusiast all his life and even though he never did it professionally, he documented most of my growing up on film. I was already writing stories by then so I sought to capture things I had not learnt to capture eloquently in my stories, on film. Violent motion to be precise like Jackie Chan’s flying kicks and the action poses of Charlie’s Angels. I made my primary schoolmates model for me. I have used the images of other photographers as prompts, in fact the black and white images of Sunmi Smart-Cole in a collection owned by my father influenced me at a point, forced me to forget colorful metaphors and invoke objects in solitude in prose and picture.
An image of Bi Kidude lying on the grass and staring at the sky recently served as a prompt for a story I just finished working on so I would agree with Lorrie Moore, a picture indeed can contain a short story. Can contain a novel in fact. But being influenced by myself across mediums suggests a kind of introverted sexuality, it would be masturbating to an image of myself in the mirror if you would pardon me. Once I tell a story whether in picture or a written story I abandon it. I am done. The world is already laden with many stories there's no need for me to repeat myself no matter the medium. I fear doing that would make the story lose its substance. My photography has never influenced my writing or vice versa because I would hate to tell the same story twice.
Are short stories just a stepping stone in your career to long form fiction? Or do you think you’d like to keep writing them? If so what attracts you to the them?
TJ: Thank you for this question. I am a short story baby. I have read more short stories than novels and to be frank have been more moved by them. Short stories don’t have time for ‘fillers’ or unnecessary subplots. The only kind of long form fiction I enjoy are the kinds that are that way as well, without unnecessary detail. When I was grooming myself to write my first novel the available work at my disposal were the shorts of Eudora Welty, O. Henry, F. Scott Fitzgerald and several others.
Even though I am aware of market economics in the publishing industry I believe in the substance dictating the form and so I respect the forms my stories want to be told in whether it's a novel or shorts. I hate the idea of short stories being a ‘stepping stone’ to long form. Thank God for Alice Munro and her Nobel at least the form is more respected. I would have stuck to short story writing, if not for the novel that I’m working on that wouldn’t just behave and be a short story.
Yes. Thank God for Alice Munro. What are you currently busy with? Can we expect any new writing from you soon?
TJ: Sadly (for me) I write fewer short stories these days because I am trying to finish up a the stubborn novel I mentioned above, titled ‘The Madhouse’ at the Ebedi Writers Residency which I got picked for in January. I'm currently in talks with a Nigerian publisher about my collection of Afro SF short stories, We Won't Fade into Darkness which got shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Project Prize last year.
On TJ’s Bedside Table
I am always re-reading Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Gabriel Marcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and any of my short story collections. I take a little dose of these books every now and then so they can be found under my pillow but I’m trying to be more organized . So I’m reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time at the moment.
TJ Benson is a Nigerian short story writer and creative photographer whose work has appeared in online journals like Jalada Africa, Munyori Journal, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, Sentinel Literary Magazine and in print magazines and anthologies like Paragram UK, ANA Annual Review, Contemporary Literary Review India and Transition Magazine. His photography chapbook, 'Rituals' was published as a downloadable PDF on Sankofa Magazine in 2015 and his collection of Afro-Sci-Fi short stories, We Won't Fade Into Darkness was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize in 2016. He won the Amab-HBF Prize and his short story ‘Tea’ is the first runner up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize. He was mentioned twice in Expound Journal’s Best of 2016 and once in Brittle Paper’s Top 31 of 2016. He is currently a Writer-In-Residence at the Ebedi Residency Iseyin, Nigeria.
Interview by Efemia Chela a.k.a @efemiachela