Bakwa Staff Writer Uzoma Ihejirika caught up with TJ Benson, 2016 Short Story Day Africa first runner-up winner, whose story ‘Tea’ crawled all over the internet. TJ’s story, “1985“, was published in Bakwa Magazine. The poignant story explored mental illness. This conversation is about mental illness, 1985, and stigmatization.
Uzoma Ihejirika: Reading your story, “1985”, was to me a parallel to how your main character Joe feels: an attempt at unraveling and making sense of events, of piecing together disparate parts. What was the inspiration behind the story?
TJ Benson: Well, Joe Aito, who got shortlisted for the Writivism Short Story Prize last year, asked me to write a script dealing with mental health. This would have been impossible if I didn’t already have an idea; I am not too good with prompts. Five years ago, I was with an organization that sent me to reach out to a home for the disabled. When I got into the compound, I asked a group of boys for the principal’s office, but they stared at me and laughed. I walked past the classes towards the dorm, but the teenagers kept pointing at me and laughing. It finally occurred to me that they were deaf and mute, and had a form of language which I was not privy to. I was an alien in their world; none of them could understand or speak with me. I suddenly realized this must be what living in the outside world was for them: people bustling about and communicating in words and codes they weren’t privy to. I felt fortunate to have experienced for a moment a little bit of what it must be like to be them, and that informed the way I told this story, putting the reader in my character’s shoes rather than a more privileged point of view. I was scared about readers getting confused, but I am glad no one has complained… yet.
UI: Recently, I became fascinated with the issue of mental health and how it affects the individual and those close to him. In a larger sense, the theme of mental illness as portrayed in your story is representative of the society sufferers of mental illness have found themselves in, the stigmatization, and the fact of sometimes being taken advantage of, as well as the pressure their condition puts on their loved ones. Was this deliberate?
TJ: Because we are not chained in some asylum or considering suicide, it is easy for us to believe our lives are worth more than theirs and, of course, we take advantage of them. I could have told this story another way, but it insisted on forcing the reader into the driver’s seat, to make him or her enter their shoes and see what it is like.
UI: We are used to blaming the government, but, now, I would like to narrow this question down to us as a people. What do you think we, as a people, should do to alleviate the pains and trauma of our families and loved ones, and even strangers, suffering from mental illness?
TJ: We can start making room for them, first of all in our hearts, then in the society. We should treat them like who they are: human beings. Some of them have different ways of seeing things and their opinions are valid, except when it goes against their health. We should be more open to their points of view, their non-conforming ways of seeing and doing things, and this would help us learn from them. We should use collective pronouns with them so they don’t feel alone, because they are not. At this point, we would have learnt to see them as people like us. After all, in our secret heart of hearts, don’t we all have some undiagnosed mental illness or the other [laughs].
UI: How did writing start for you?
TJ: I ran out of stories to read, so I started writing them.
UI: You write Science Fiction too, and even though we would agree that Literary Fiction has more mainstays in African literature, you can attest to the fact that there is a renaissance ongoing that has seen Science Fiction and other genres of literature grow steadily. The long-held belief is that Literary Fiction leans more on the style of writing while Science Fiction is big on plot. So I ask: which matters more to you, the plot or the style of writing?
TJ: [Laughs] In my opinion, there are only two kinds of writing: good and bad. I would never write ‘Science Fiction’ if it would be just that —science fiction— because I am interested in the human experience; how we live and how we die. Going by categories, I would call Lesley Nneka Arimah’s currently Caine Prize-shortlisted story, “Who Will Greet You At Home”, literary science or speculative fiction, because beyond its shock value is literary merit. I could say the same for Sibongile Fisher’s SSDA-winning “A Door Ajar”, which is also speculative but valid in the literary world. Leslie and Sibongile didn’t sacrifice style for plot or vice versa, and the literary world is all the better for it. I think classifications have done more harm than good, kept the literati from enjoying the work of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. I am delighted that there are writers like Ben Okri who shatter these classifications. To answer your question, the story I am telling dictates the style or plot, not me.
UI: You were the first runner-up for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, and you recently concluded a writing residency in Iseyin, Nigeria, where you worked on your novel manuscript. So far, how has the experience been of transitioning from writing short stories —which are direct and straight to the point— to working on a novel which demands a great deal of patience?
TJ: Well, you just said it; working on a novel demands a great deal of patience. It is depressing, and joyous, and exhausting, and, most times, the work feels too big, so much so that I get this certainty I will never finish it. Other times, it is a thrill, discovering where my characters go, what happens to them. I could say, generally, short stories are easier, but I think what defines the ease of creating a work is the ambition, not the length or medium. I have written a novel in six months while a novel I am currently working on has taken me nine years. “Tea”, which was first runner-up in the SSDA Prize took me 2 years to write while another short story, “An Abundance of Yellow Paper”, which won me the Amab-HBF prize, was written in a day.
UI: What writer or book has had the most influence on your writing?
TJ: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
UI: What should we expect from TJ Benson in the future?
TJ: I won’t even attempt to fool you, I have no idea.