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Bound to Africa: 2008-12-18
  • Bound To Africa

    Antigu-born writer, Maria-Elena John, is fascinated by her connection with Africa

    By Nehru Odey

    On her first visit to Nigeria in 1983, Antiguan-born writer, Maria-Elena John, had not made up her mind to become a writer. She was then a 20-year old exchange student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Though she spent only a semester there, her experiences were enough to inspire her debut novel, Unburnable, which was later nominated for the Houston Wright Legacy Award in 2006.

    During her brief stay in Nigeria, John was so fascinated by the similarities between the African and Antiguan cultures that she decided to channel her vast knowledge and passion for Africa into her writing. John’s encounter with Nigeria has paid off. While her debut novel was inspired by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, her second (still a work in progress) is partially set in Lagos.

    Recently, she was in Nigeria as a guest writer in the 2008 Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop. Asked what actually fascinated her about African culture, John said: “The African culture is so familiar. It is a familiarity about how things are done. Of course, ours has been diluted considerably over several hundred years. But some things remain quite strong, things of respect, the position of older people, the way you conduct yourself. And then, ordinary things like food.”

    John, for instance, told TheNEWS that Foonji (an Antiguan corn-based meal) shares some similarities with fufu, eba or amala when it is served. She also said that Dukuna, another food eaten in Antigua, originated from Ghana.

    John’s connection to Africa is not just cultural. It is also political. It was at Nsukka that her political consciousness was developed. She remembers vividly her first political experience in Nigeria. In December 1983, John was scheduled to spend the Yuletide with members of a particular family in their village. But that journey was cancelled. So she decided to remain on campus. On a certain day, she was sleeping in her room when one of her friends barged into the room screaming: “Maria-Elena, you are sleeping and there is a coup in my country!”

    John did not know what the word coup meant. Initially, she had thought it connoted war, but her friends later assuaged her feelings by telling her the coup meant a change of government in Nigeria. “So that is my sort of background, my introduction to this continent (Africa). After that I developed a real connection to Africa because I realised that there is so much in our culture in the Caribbean that is directly from here. We are African people. We do things the way people do them. So much of my focus in life has been exploring that connection,” John revealed.

    John became a writer by chance. She had worked as a development specialist for 20 years in various non-governmental organisations in the United States. And due to the nature of her job, she travelled frequently to many African countries. But when she got married and bore two kids, she realised that she could no longer combine her job with her family responsibilities. She resigned her appointment and elected to be a writer so she could pay her bills.

    Though John was sure she could write, it did not occur to her that she could be a novelist. “Though I was a journalism major and did well in language at the university, I never worked as a journalist. But I had a sense that I could do something in writing. So I said let me try to write a book,” she recalled.

    Yet, John did not set out to write a serious fiction. “I was hoping for the opposite. I was hoping Unburnable would be a light commercial book that would sell many copies. But it ended up not being light,” she reminisced.

    But when the novel was published, it received critical acclaim. The biggest challenge John faced while writing Unburnable was that she had to keep convincing herself that she could write it. What she had thought she could write in a year, she spent four years writing. “And in that period of time keeping faith that it was going to happen was very difficult,” John recalled.While crafting the novel, the Antiguan writer enjoyed the support of her husband,Will Smith,who prodded her to complete it.

    What does John consider as good writing? “It’s almost an instinct to me. All I do is as I am reading I would know that this is something that this person can teach me, this person is good, this person writes in a way that I want to keep reading,” she said.

    She says Toni Morrison and Chimamanda Adichie are her favourite contemporary writers. “Toni Morrison has been a very big inspiration to me. All of her works, even the ones that are not necessarily so good or appeal to me, I still want to read them. Clearly, I have reviewed Chimamanda’s works and I consider her to be among the greats of our time, as young as she is,” John explained. John was educated at New York’s City College. She later earned a master’s degree at Columbia University, focusing on culture and development in Africa.
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