TJ Benson is a Nigerian writer and visual artist, whose work, according to him, centres ‘the body in the context of isolation, migration, utopia and the unconscious self’, it is ‘heavily invested in personal stories’ and ‘how they shape the way we perceive the world’. His first novel The Madhouse, published by Masobe, tells the story of a family trying to stay together while facing averse conditions, both from within and without. I had the pleasure to ask TJ some questions about his writing in general and The Madhouse in particular. So, if you’re interested in knowing more about a fresh and promising literary voice from Nigeria, keep reading…
A: Your novel The Madhouse touches on a number of themes and issues, but at the heart of it all is the story of a family that is tragically breaking apart. In the book, the two brothers, Max and Andre, try to navigate life in their family but also in their country. Could you talk us through your writing process and how this book came about? When did you first think about the general plot, the characters, and the overall story?
TJ: I started writing it as a short story in the theory section of a national tertiary-entry exam called NECO when I was sixteen, a kind of ‘what if’ because I wanted to find an answer to the question I had for the tons of harlequin novels I had read at the time, what if you find the love of your life, what then? After the exam the story couldn’t leave me, I was thinking about the kids, what kind of kids would you have, how would they interact with the world, especially if they are talented, how does romantic love experience the passage of time and so forth. So I continued writing this jargon across so many exercise books for nine years which I would painfully try to stitch together at the Ebedi writing residency. When I had assembled the bones at said residency I realised hmm, this long short story could be a novel.
A: Mental health issues and their impact on the lives of everyday people in Nigeria is one of the most touching themes explored in this book. Max and Andre’s parents have a rather different, and some might say, more traditional view of ‘mental health issues’. I have seen their approach reflected in the attitudes of (mostly) the older generation of Nigerians, while Max seems to reflect some shifts in attitudes to mental health issues in some of the younger generation of Nigerians. Why did you decide to raise this topic in your novel, and could you describe the role and importance of mental health in the story?
TJ: Max and Andre’s parents were some of the better examples from their generation, in real life many millennial Nigerians experience physical violence in religious and educational bodies as a way of ‘cleansing’. This is not to say the emotional damage the characters experience is trivial of course. I truly wasn’t trying to raise mental health as a topic when writing the novel, in fact it was my joy to find more young Nigerians speaking up in the period I started rounding up the first draft. The theme most urgent to me was intimacy, the characters came ‘ready-made’ as we say in Nigeria. I was young when I started writing so these mental health issues were ‘emotional’ issues for me and the task I felt at the time was having a generational reaction, from Andre to the parents and also get into how their perspectives were formed.
A: One of the many reasons why I liked The Madhouse so much was because I could relate to some of the feelings and experiences the book either touched upon directly or conveys to the reader more indirectly. One of them is the feeling of isolation and alone-ness, that I felt to be quite prevalent in the first section of the book, titled ‘Blue’. This sense of being alone, of suffocating isolation that the characters experience, is it something that you have personally experienced before?
TJ: Oh yes we all (I think) feel alone. I took on the role of the elder brother who was baptised blue by their mother as a creative challenge because I lost my parents at a young age and I wanted to see if one could still feel alone with parents who try to love him (albeit in their own different ways). I think ultimately it is our perception of life that shapes our loneliness and it has been an utmost pleasure to find people to share mine and consequently, my ‘aloneness’ with. A running need in the book for me was to highlight the utmost importance of communication and intimacy, to not assume things about people we love just because we do, but to do the work of that love which is trying to communicate and understand them.
A: At the beginning of the story especially, the reader has the chance to be immersed in the Nigerian culture of the 90s. How much research did you have to undertake to get into the details of the period, considering that you were still young during the 90s yourself?
TJ: I didn’t do much research because the 90s are the clearest years of my life, this is of course because I lost my parents at the end of that decade. My teenage years were spent trying to return, so a lot of the book rides heavily on nostalgia. My editor did a fantastic job of designing a timeline schedule so that my plot could be as accurate as possible and to my delight I discovered gorgeous coincidences between the book and Nigeria’s history.
A: One of the most-timely aspects of the book, which, as I imagine, might be purely coincidental, is the discussion around vaccines and the local people’s reactions to it. Could you expand a bit on the reasons why you decided to explore the almost colonial approach of vaccinations in The Madhouse?
TJ: Woosh I anticipated this question and when I started reading about vaccines I freaked out a little at the coincidence. I added that detail in 2014 when I received messages from Western-educated loved ones to bath in and drink salt water to avoid the ebola epidemic. These are people who wished me no harm and this gave me a window into how we humans try to love and care, even with and through our ignorance, regardless of consequence. During my year of National Youth Service in Northern Nigeria, I was an independent monitor, making sure some interior communities affected by Herdsmen massacres weren’t left behind in polio vaccination. I was surprised to learn of anti-vaxxers because I remembered being spared in the 90s from meningitis through vaccination. I tried to understand their ignorance which would have disastrous consequences, then I read about the children who died from Pfizer’s vaccination experiments in Kano in 1996.
A: While reading the novel, it became clear to me, rather quickly, that the family house in which Max and Andre are growing up, may be dubbed a ‘madhouse’. I could, however, also not shake the feeling that the general setting, Nigeria, with everything that is going on in both the family’s home and in their country, could be seen as a ‘madhouse’ that everyone in this novel is living in. Would you say that the parallel I drew while reading is justified, and if so, was it intended by you?
TJ: In my storytelling I always try to make sure time and location lends some form to the story itself so I am glad you are drawing these parallels. I tried to remove as much historical detail as possible though, there are history books for that.
A: If you had to choose one character, which one would you say you felt most akin to while writing The Madhouse and why?
TJ: To make each main character urgent to me I reached for something I could relate to so all of them, in varying degrees but Max is probably the character I feel most akin to. Like him I have spent most of my life in longing.
A: What’s next for TJ Benson?
TJ: I have no freaking idea, can’t wait to find out.
Bonus question: If you had a superpower, what would it be and why would you want to have it?
TJ: Andre’s ability. Anyone who reads The Madhouse would know why 😉