The unique style of "Naming" and the poignant subplots of the tale made many readers during the review and judging process curious about its creator. Jason Mykl Snyman tracked down Umar Turaki and picked his brains about the longlisted story's origin and asked him to speak to his writing process in general.
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 yet. It is also currently available as an eBook. It will be published in the US and UK in September.
Umar, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to SSDA about your work. First of all, I need to congratulate you on making it into our Migrations anthology. Your short story – "Naming" – was my own personal favourite from the collection, and that’s why I reached out to you. Tell us a little more about how this story took form in your mind.
UMAR: Thanks very much, Jason. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the story so much. "Naming" began as a class assignment given by Binyavanga Wainaina during the Farafina Workshop last year. We were to write about a night gone horribly wrong. This was after he had challenged us to aspire to create a sense of wonder and take bigger risks with our stories. So I envisioned this story that had a very particular way in which the language flowed across the page, and that employed the idea of language and naming things as a kind of lens to explore the characters, to give them meaning and identity at the same time.
I decided to root it in an experience I had of being stranded en route to Calabar at midnight and all the anxieties and apprehensions that exposes you to. When you think of it, you really are at the mercy of anything. The experience of writing it was one in which I relied on instinct more than anything else, because I couldn’t have told you what exactly I was trying to achieve. I only hoped it would somehow make sense by the time it was done. In that manner I managed to churn out some 500 words before the time came to present it to the class. I really didn’t think anybody would get it or like it, because it didn’t feel finished, but I shared it anyway because I had run out of time and there was nothing else for me to present. When it got a big standing ovation from the whole class, I was genuinely confused and relieved at the same time. Nothing could have prepared me for such a response.
I found out about the SSDA Prize and the Migrations theme afterwards. I felt what I had already had the makings of something that would very much fit that theme, so I decided to expand the story and flesh out the characters a bit more.
In "Naming", five people, a foetus and a rooster in a small car with a flat tyre on a dark road in the middle of the night are about to meet their demise. Tell us a little more about these characters and what they mean to you.
UMAR: Each of these characters has at their core a piece of an experience that I’ve either lived or felt or come across in other people. It’s what drives them, whether you are speaking about dealing with temptation, or fighting a dark aspect of your nature and trying to rise above that, or trying to outlive your past, or having dreams that seem unachievable, or even being in love, or finding grace and peace at a point in your life that you never expected. They are all different people with different histories and goals brought together by the simple fact of this journey.
And for the moment, they all have the same goal, which is to reach their destination. So in a sense, they share this space and time together and that then becomes a foundation for them to have an even stronger connection, which is the sense of impending death and doom that flattens all their dreams and fears and all possibilities of the future, and so they all become equals in a cosmic sense. Even the rooster. At the end of the movie Barry Lyndon, the narrator makes the comment about how all the characters we’ve seen in the film, whether rich or poor, great or small, they are now equal because of death. I wanted to hit that note.
Have you ever entered a Short Story Day Africa competition before, for Feast, Famine & Potluck, Terra Incognita or Water? If so, tell us about it, and if not, what’s been holding you back?
UMAR: I’ve never entered any of those. Chief reason being that I didn’t even know such opportunities existed. 2016 was a big eye opener for me in the sense that I got to really discover and understand how rich and wide the world of African literature had become. Prior to that I was busy doggedly pursuing a career as a filmmaker. I honestly hadn’t been paying attention. I knew of the odd blog, like Brittle Paper, here and there, but nothing beyond that.
Participating in the Farafina Workshop ushered me into a whole new world and that was when I first heard of SSDA and what you guys have been up to. A smaller but closely related reason is that I had been working on short stories off and on for a few years, but my confidence as a literary writer was in pretty bad shape. I had gotten so many rejections I truly began to believe that perhaps I may never be able to write something worth publishing. But my Farafina experience came along and changed my outlook on things, in no small way.
I’m a film buff myself, and I enjoy writing which transports the reader right into the middle of it. In "Naming", you could turn your head from the page and the world you’ve created around these characters is still there – not just like watching an immersive film play out, but living it. Tell us a little about your writing process and how your love of film has influenced the way you write.
UMAR: Wow, thanks. There’s definitely an immediacy inherent in film that I aim to achieve in my writing, and perhaps part of that came from writing screenplays. A screenplay needs to be clear and light, it needs to flow effortlessly because that becomes a good indicator for how the movie itself might be experienced. I think that has seeped somewhat into my other writing. So even though I’m very interested in elevating language and making it do some wonderful, even unorthodox, things, I want the narrative to be easy to follow, I’m quite big on story.
Also, there’s a way certain films aren’t afraid to be messy, a way they capture the imperfections and messiness of life. If you watch a Paul Thomas Anderson or Robert Altman film or a film like The Wrestler you’ll get a sense of what I mean. I love that quality, I think I subconsciously try to bring it into what I write. It could be something as simple as having a character mispronounce a word or misuse a word that rings true to life because you’ve seen it happen before in the real world.
You’ve deliberately decided to work within the confines of Nigeria. Could you explain the psychology behind this decision and how it has affected your writing, specifically?
UMAR: I reached a point in my life where I wanted to stop writing stories that had white characters and protagonists and write about the people and places I had grown up around. I wanted to see the experiences of living in a place like Jos in all their nuances reflected in my work, and I wanted it to become a constant, whether I was writing a fantastical story or one set in a more realistic world. And I wanted to do all of this from my backyard, not some apartment in Brooklyn or London. I still do.
Things that happen to me on a daily basis seep into my writing, mundane, simple things. Like me waiting for a mechanic to finish fixing my car and watching him drink a plastic bag of “pure water” in one long swig, or watching one of his young workshop apprentices pick his nose and smear the phlegm on his dirty trousers. Really small things. They feed my creativity. So they are very important to my storytelling and I wanted to be planted right in the centre of this way of life and expose myself to things on an ongoing basis because it’s the reality I want my work to be about.
What’s next for Umar Turaki in the world of literature? What are you working on right now or do you have any forthcoming work?
UMAR: I’m working on a novella about a mysterious sickness that grips a small town and how a number of interconnected characters cope with the situation. It’s about beauty, somehow – I think. I think it’s a kind of fantasy, definitely speculative to some degree, though it has surprised me a couple of times and I can see the tone and nature of the story evolving in small ways. Apart from that, just dusting off old stories and seeing what one can salvage from those.
The two film buffs shifted gears a little in the second part of this interview which can be read here.