“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.”
- Umar Turaki
AN INTERVIEW WITH UMAR TURAKI
J: 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 upcoming 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 Wanaina 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 towards creating a sense of wonder and taking 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 enroute 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.
J: 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 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.
J: 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 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.
J: 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 are 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.
J: You’ve deliberately decided to work within the confines of Nigeria. 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.
J: What’s next for Umar Turaki in the world of literature? Do you have any forthcoming work, or what are you working on right now?
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.
J: We need to talk about your love of filmmaking. Apart from a multitude of short films, in 2013 you gave us Tolerance – the story of a young newlywed couple who slowly begin to peel each other’s layers away – finding out for the first time who they’ve really married, and last year you delivered Salt, which screened at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the Durban International Film Festival and the African International Film Festival. Tell us about these short films.
UMAR: These short films have been largely exercises in honing my skill as a cinematic storyteller. With Tolerance, I wanted to work in a way I hadn’t before, which was to write a script that was specially tailored for two actors I had in mind, to workshop the script with them and allow that process to flow back into the script itself. I wanted to aim for a naturalism I was seeing in some of Scorsese’s work, and PTA’s work, and even Fellini. I also worked with natural light throughout and operated the camera personally. So I really exerted myself creatively on so many levels, and it was ultimately a rewarding experience. I embraced the technical limitations and even allowed it to become a part of the aesthetic. That window’s blown out? Well, too bad. The wall’s too bare? Well, sorry, but forget about it, focus on the story and the performances. I was putting those two things front and centre and saying to hell with everything else. With Salt, which looks at the night of the ebola salt baths in Nigeria, I wanted more production value, so we got lights and paid more attention to production design and just tried to use better equipment all around. But Salt was also a kind of sudden, urgent undertaking in the sense that I was responding to a current issue at the time and wanted to capture and preserve that moment in our history as distilled through my own personal experience, not to mention trying to exorcise my own demons. If the ebola crisis hadn’t touched Nigeria in the way it did, I would have made a different film other than Salt. Also both films share the virtue of having all the action unfold in one location, and it was a creative challenge I set myself, as well as a practical decision to make it easier to shoot.
J: I read somewhere that you missed all the film festival screenings of Salt and that you missed the plane to LA for the Pan African Film Festival. What happened there, and how did you handle the disappointment?
UMAR: Up until the Ake Festival, where Salt screened, I couldn’t attend any of the festival screenings in any of the different countries, chiefly for financial reasons, but I and my producer did try to make it to LA. She got denied a visa for reasons best known to the US embassy while I had an error in my visa appointment application document that wasn’t pointed out to me by the embassy until the morning of my interview, by which time I literally had less than 72 hours to get my visa and get on the plane. I had reached the door, ready for my appointment, and they told me I needed to reschedule because of said error, and the next available date was about a week away. I tried requesting for an expedited appointed and was denied. Thank God the ticket hadn’t yet been bought.
J: In your own opinion, has your filmmaking career or your writing career been more fulfilling, or promising, and why do you think that is? What would you like to focus on more in the future?
UMAR: I think I’ve probably expended more energy in getting my filmmaking career off the ground, and that has taken its toll on things, one of them being that my writing aspirations have had to take a backseat. Beyond that it’s hard to say. If I were to think of specific moments of deep fulfilment as far as my work goes, it’s mostly related to my film work, and that’s probably because I’ve been doing it for longer and more intensely and against so many odds. As crazy as it sounds, I would like to keep both going concurrently. This year I want to take steps towards a feature film, while also continuing to work on my book and other stories. However, writing has always been what got me started on this path and it’s not inconceivable that a time may come when I “retire” from writing and directing films to focus on just writing books. But that’s still a long way off.
J: Tell us a little bit more about your upcoming projects, or current film projects, and what inspired it.
UMAR: I just completed a pilot episode for a limited series titled Deviant. I’m currently using that as a proof of concept to raise funding to shoot the remaining five episodes. Deviant is about a teenage orphan who’s also good at stealing things and she is approached by a mysterious stranger who promises her information about her real parents if she will carry out some tasks for him. I wanted to tell a compelling story that was episodic and had elements of suspense and mystery. I’d also like to start putting groundwork in place for my first feature film, a drama that’s based on my short Tolerance. It’ll have portions that feature exquisite handmade animation, and maybe 2D. It feels weird talking about it, but I definitely want to do it.
J: You’ve mentioned that Paul Thomas Anderson is a great inspiration to you, particularly his film Magnolia. I love that guy. One quote and one quote alone springs to mind when I think of Magnolia… and I really, really wish it wouldn’t, haha. Tom Cruise, playing a self-help guru, stands up on stage at a sex seminar and recites his mantra;
“Respect the cock, and tame the cunt.”
Damn that Paul Thomas Anderson for getting away with shit like that. Genius. I forget my question now. Oh! Quick, off the top of your head, give us your favourite quote from a PTA film.
UMAR: Yes, PTA. He got away with a lot in that film, and that’s part of the wonder of it. That’s a tough question, but I’ll go with Punch Drunk Love when Adam Sandler says, “I’ve got a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” That’s such a great line.
J: My last question isn’t a question at all. We here at SSDA want you to adapt Naming into a short film, and we all want to star in it. I’ll be the rooster, I really don’t care.
Congratulations once again, Umar, strike while the iron is hot and keep churning out the genius.
UMAR : Ha ha, that would be something. Thanks a lot.
This interview with Umar Turaki was conducted for SHORT STORY DAY AFRICA and appeared on their website in two parts. They can be found here:
Umar Turaki is a writer and filmmaker living in Jos, Nigeria. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as AFREADA, Short Sharp Shots, and Ake Review. Umar can also be found on his blog and on twitter, @nenrota.