JJ Amaworo Wilson is a German-born, British-educated debut novelist. Based in the U.S., he has lived in 9 countries and visited 60. He is a prize winning author of over 20 books about language and language learning. Damnificados is his first major fiction work. His short fiction has been published by Penguin, Johns Hopkins University Press, and myriad literary magazines in England and the U.S.
(This interview appeared first on the ELTA January – February 2017 issue ELTA Serbia January – February 2017)
Vicky : J.J., thank you so much for agreeing to give this interview!
J.J. Wilson : My pleasure, Vicky!
Vicky : I know that you have traveled to a lot of countries in your life. Which one is the most memorable?
J.J. Wilson : Every country I’ve been to has at least two things that I love about it. The first is always the people.
Vicky : I personally would like to know more about the time you spent in Lesotho and your school theatre.
J.J. Wilson : I got there the year before Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, and it was already clear that big changes were about to happen in that part of the world. I was lucky enough to get work teaching and running a school theatre, so I produced and directed plays about what was going on there. We did a lot of Athol Fugard (the great anti-apartheid playwright), but also Beckett and Shakespeare. No one has more to say about tyranny than Shakespeare.
Vicky : You are a very productive writer, not just in the ELT industry though. I know you have written short stories, for example. And about a year and a half ago, if I am not mistaken, your novel ‘Damnificados’ came out (which I really loved reading, by the way!). Tell us about the Tower and how you came up with the idea of your novel.
J.J. Wilson : Firstly, thank you! I’m glad you liked Damnificados! I was on a book tour in Venezuela some years ago, and I couldn’t sleep. I took a long, late-night walk and saw the Torre David (Tower of David). The tower was unfinished, but hundreds of homeless people had moved in and built a community. I’d known nothing about the tower, but when I got back to the States I researched it. I discovered that the community living there was incredibly creative and resilient, like many poor communities. For example, the lift was broken so they built wooden ramps up the side of the tower and motorcycle boys gave people rides. They built an outdoor gym on the helicopter pad at the top of the tower, using leftover building materials – pulleys and iron bars. Their resourcefulness inspired me to write about them, but I turned to fiction because that’s how my mind works.
Vicky : ‘A modern day David & Goliath of epic proportions’, ‘Moses meets the desperados’, ‘Mad Max meets the favelas’. Which of these metaphors better represents your first novel?
J.J. Wilson : All of them! There are a lot of Biblical references in the novel. The hero is a Moses figure, discovered beside a river when he was a baby. He later leads his people to the Promised Land – the tower. I included a terrible flood in the novel. That’s taken from the Bible, although there are floods in the literature of all the major religions. The tower is also the Tower of Babel, with everyone speaking different languages. The Bible is full of great stories that writers can steal.
Vicky : One of the central messages that your novel conveys is that of social justice. Do you feel that social justice is a utopia in the world we live in?
J.J. Wilson : Utopia is like the horizon – beautiful and always out of reach. We walk ten paces towards it and it’s still out of reach. We walk a thousand paces and it’s still out of reach. We walk a thousand miles and it’s still out of reach. And that’s the point of Utopia. It keeps us moving. The struggle for social justice will never end. Humans are too flawed. Moving towards Utopia is all we can do.
Vicky : When narrating a story like the one in the Damnificados, does it actually sound ‘inevitable’ to resort to magical realism because…how else can you portray the absurdity of our times?
J.J. Wilson : I don’t think it’s inevitable. That story, like all stories, can be told in a straight, factual way or in a satirical way, as Orwell would have told it. Magical realism was a style I adopted because of what I like to read and because it’s the great Latin American style, practiced by some of my favourite writers: Marquez, Allende, Borges, and Asturias.
Vicky : While you tackle on many different issues (homelessness, urban social politics of power), you also make an interesting point about polyglotism. Introducing languages means we are forced to recognize diversity. One thing you were not afraid to use in your novel was languages! Do your damnificados respect each other’s diversity more than people in the rest of the society? And why?
J.J. Wilson : I’m not sure they respect one another’s diversity more than anyone else. They’re just used to the fluidity of languages. It’s like this in many parts of the world. There are parts of Nigeria where you’ll go out to get your morning coffee and newspaper and you’ll speak four different languages before breakfast. Australian aborigines might switch languages when they arrive at a certain river or rock, because that river or rock belongs to a different linguistic culture. The damnificados in my novel simply have to work together to survive, regardless of race or nationality or language. It’s not a choice they make out of respect. It’s out of necessity.
Vicky : I know writing takes up a lot of time but I also know you love it. Are there any plans for a new novel or an ELT book?
J.J. Wilson : I’m working on books in both fields – ELT and fiction. It’s good to switch between the two. They use different parts of the brain!
Vicky : Thank you so much for your time!
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