“The city is a tremendous place to live and work”

Elnathan John is a lawyer, novelist and satirist. His fiction was shortlisted twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 and 2015. He was the recipient of the Civitella Ranieri fellowship in 2015. His novel, Born on a Tuesday won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. One of Nigeria’s best known satirists, Elnathan is a recipient of the 2018 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and is a judge of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. He has two books — a satire collection Be(com)ing Nigerian, A Guide and a graphic novel On Ajayi Crowther Street —forthcoming from Cassava Republic Press in 2019. He is one of the judges of our 2019 Berlin Writing Prize. We talked to him about Berlin, Writing, and more.



You’ve been living in Berlin since 2016. How – if at all – has this affected your writing?


The city is a tremendous place to live and work, large enough not to feel the suffocation of city life, green enough to find spaces to escape to, to walk, think and just clear one’s mind, and with great institutions dedicated to literature and scholarship as well as public spaces where one can find either company or solitude.


As a judge of this year’s competition, what will you be looking for? For you, what makes a piece of fiction or nonfiction stand out?


I will be looking for writing that comes alive on the page, that is unafraid, that challenges my notions of what is possible with the short story. But more than that I am looking for stories that make me feel, that touches on the essence of the human condition.



What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially those attempting to develop their work overseas?


I can only say what has been my experience, which is that as a writer who travelled overseas to live and work, I initially underestimated the extent to which life would get in the way of work: new country, new culture, new language, new life. I remind myself not to let life get in the way of my writing. I have also realised that while finding new things in my new city to write about can be thrilling, rediscovering the old is just as rewarding.


In terms of the prize, a month-long residency here at The Circus Hotel, what will the value be in having one month to write in Berlin?


For a writer, I think one of the most valuable things one can receive is the gift of time. Berlin is the zesty icing on the cake — the choice to dig in and shut everything out, or to seek inspiration in the city and its robust literary spaces.

For more on 2019 Berlin Writing Prize please check out the guidelines here.

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