‘When My Satire Becomes Popular, I Must Ask, What Is the Problem?’

A conversation with the novelist Elnathan John

Photo collage of Elnathan John
Elnathan John ; The Atlantic

Few observers of global discourse range as widely as Elnathan John, the novelist, satirist, and lawyer who frequently participates online and off in conversations about art, politics, and culture pertaining to at least three continents. His novel, Born on a Tuesday, is a coming-of-age story set in his native Nigeria. In Becoming Nigerian: A Guide, he tried his hand at satire.

Today, John lives in Berlin, where, in addition to writing, he works with academic institutions to foster collaboration between scholars and writers. I first encountered him on Clubhouse, the live-audio social-media platform, where I’ve listened to him hold forth in conversations with members of the Nigerian diaspora, Americans across the political spectrum, and anyone else who’s awake when he is.

Earlier this month, I invited him to lunch, hoping to better understand his perspective on the social-media era: We both use some of the same platforms, but I wondered whether we worry about the same threats to public discourse, and to what extent our experiences of the same spaces might differ.

This is a condensed, edited version of our conversation.

Conor Friedersdorf: You’re Nigerian. You live in Berlin. And you regularly talk on U.S.-based social-media platforms. We first encountered each other on Clubhouse during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns. What value did you find in the live group-audio conversations that app offered?

Elnathan John: I could find people from all across the world with whom to have conversations that I couldn’t have elsewhere––for example, to talk about Afrofuturism without having to plan some special event, or science fiction or history or philosophy with people from 10 different universities around the world that I would not otherwise meet, and who would not tweet. In the beginning, people treated Clubhouse like a safe space, and many people felt freer to talk about what ideas they actually had, unlike on Twitter, for example, where many were wary about sharing opinions.

Friedersdorf: Because they feared professional consequences?

John: Yes.

Friedersdorf: Do you think such fears about what many now call “cancel culture” are justified or overwrought?

John: There have always been codes of silence. At every time in history, to have access to people's true thoughts, one needed to learn a community’s codes and go deeper than superficial conversation. But today many people feel disoriented because the code is changing very fast and few understand where the changes come from. It used to be that if I didn't offend the chief of the village or the gods of the village, I could have freedom in other aspects. Now the source of power is less clear. It is globalized. You can say something about someone thousands of miles away and have instant repercussions.

And it is democratized: So many more people, especially young people, exercise power in controlling these public conversations. With their savvy and their numbers, they can demand consequences for certain kinds of speech. But their code is always changing, often very quickly and unpredictably, so many people feel that until they understand the new equilibrium, they must be circumspect observers and cannot talk freely.

Friedersdorf: Is this an American phenomenon, or do you see it in Germany and Nigeria too?

John: I would say that it is globalizing––you know, it is in the process of doing that, because the biggest site of these contestations is the United States, and the United States is the greatest exporter of culture. So its conversations quickly become the standard for conversations elsewhere.

Friedersdorf: Is that because most of the big social-media platforms are American companies?

John: It's not just the apps. It’s everything America has done to spread its influence, because America dominates the media. We all consume it. In some way, shape, or form, things trickle down.

And it’s pervasive when you speak to Americans that they are unaware of their position in the world and this cultural hegemony––that their conversations very quickly dominate the public space because everybody is affected by these influences. You grew up watching American TV. You grew up listening to American music. And often you might have to remind people that maybe we want to step back from America being the center of this conversation.

For example, say I want to talk about slavery in northern Nigeria. One of the books I'm writing now is set in a time when the so-called caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria was at its peak. At that time, at least one in four persons was an enslaved person or in indentured servitude. At one point, we had probably the highest number of slaves in the world. I’d like to talk about this without talking about slaves in the U.S. or white people. You know, why do I have to talk about white supremacy when writing about this period in Nigeria? But the conversation always goes there.

This U.S. hegemony is true regardless of race. Even if you are oppressed in America, you still have this outsize influence globally, and the rest of us are choking on it. And we would like to have conversations in our local spaces that do not always devolve to American tribal wars.

Friedersdorf: When members of the Nigerian diaspora connect online, what issues are of particular interest?

John: I think more Nigerians abroad are becoming politically active because they are increasingly affected by the ineptitude of our government at home. We find this in things such as very poor consular and embassy services. For example, during the pandemic, Nigerians in many countries have been unable to get passports. The embassy in Germany has not issued passports in many months. If your passport expires, you are stuck. You can’t go anywhere. My passport expires in two days. So I’m stuck here for a few months, and work travel is part of how I pay my rent.

Nigeria has many ways of extending its reach even to those of us who moved away, most dramatically with its increasing violence and spate of kidnappings, because if your brother is kidnapped, if they call you with a gun to his head, you have to send money no matter where in the world you are. We can no longer hide from Nigeria. Unless you have zero family, its tentacles reach wherever you are. You know that the hardship there is increasing, that inflation there is skyrocketing, so if you make remittances, you must increase those remittances. In these ways, Nigerians all over have an understanding of what happens in Nigeria. They support dozens of people back home. They hear the news reports, and they feel them in their pocket, too.

Friedersdorf: How has all of this affected the political views of the Nigerian diaspora?

John: I think that more people are questioning the idea of Nigeria. Especially abroad, I hear people questioning the reason why Nigeria is a single country. I don’t think I have ever heard as many young Nigerians question that as I have just in the past few months––they have a desire to break up the country or to restructure it. And, of course, we have all of these separatist leaders who are emerging. We see Nigeria fracturing and hemorrhaging from a million cuts, and everyone is starting to think maybe we should go our separate ways, or talk about whether we want Nigeria to be a country, because we are such different people, and we are not getting along.

And now people are leaving without an end date. The idea is: When I leave, I will try to make it permanent. I don't know anyone who says, “I just want to spend two years abroad.” Everybody I know says, “I’m not going back.” When I talk to my friends in Nigeria, they tell me, “Don’t think of coming back. Things are bad.” They tell me, “Whatever you’re doing, make sure you can stay.” With such uncertainty and violence, middle-class Nigerians are leaving in droves.

Friedersdorf: The United States is divided between people who believe our democracy is threatened and those who believe such fears are overwrought. There are concerns in Europe about the far right. How do Nigerians pondering whether and where to migrate view those questions?

John: I had a conversation with a bunch of Nigerians on Clubhouse, many of us abroad, where we discussed “What is a safe place for a Black person in the world?” We kept saying, you know, a white person can just up and go to Europe—they mix in, and they’re fine—and we kept asking, “Where can a Black person go in the world and feel at home? And where can a Nigerian person go?”

For a Nigerian, we can’t go to South Africa and feel at home, because we experience xenophobia. Whenever there’s a crisis, they attack us as Nigerians. We can’t even go to Ghana, which is one of the most stable places that you can go in Africa. We increasingly have anti-Nigerian sentiment there, too, because there’s a lot of us, and there’s this tendency for people to feel overwhelmed by our presence. We upset the balance of things in many places by our sheer numbers alone, but also by our sheer hustle, the way we show up and we are like, Okay, we’re not having fun; we’re here for business. So often we don’t feel at home elsewhere in Africa.

But we also understand the instability in some European countries. We know that this kind of far-right rhetoric is affecting local politics. In much of Europe, countries are moving to the right, you know, which means that people who are immigrants will be at the receiving end. And we certainly don’t feel welcome in America, not just because of police violence or whatever, but because of the friction between Africans and African Americans, which is a very big problem.

Nigerians go to America, and they don’t always support African American political movements, for, say, reparations, or progressive movements. While some queer Nigerians and women find escape by leaving Nigeria and joining progressive movements, many Nigerians are actually very conservative in their beliefs. And they are focused not on politics but on hustle. Nigerians go and say, What business is to be made? And many African Americans feel undermined when Black Nigerians get scholarships and achieve in universities and get benefits. That can grate on many African Americans, especially because some people on the right use Nigerian successes as a cudgel: “You see those Black people doing well. Why won’t you stop complaining about race?” In turn, African Americans think, These guys don’t understand our context. It annoys them that many Nigerians are oblivious to their long struggle against racism.

Of course, that’s not going to stop Nigerians from coming to the U.S., because they know there’s opportunity in America. They know that if they put their head down and participate in the grind, it is likely that they can make something of their lives, because America is the kind of place that, you know, if you’re in the right place and you hustle right, you are likely to hit something.

So this is something Nigerians worry about: Where in the world can we feel at home too?

Friedersdorf: You’re always blunt, even when discussing sensitive issues. Why?

John: There is too much skirting around issues. Too many times, in academic writing and in communication in general, meaning hides in the folds of politeness, in the folds of doublespeak. It’s a waste of time. How about you just say what you actually mean? And then it’s easier to confront whatever feelings exist. If you know, from the outset, this is exactly what I think, then we can have a conversation, then we can get angry and perhaps move past the anger. Or then you can decide, Actually, I don’t want to engage with this. So it saves everybody time. I do try to not be unkind when I’m direct. I’m not fond of speaking without any understanding of the effect that one’s words have on others. But there is elegance and utility in clarity.

And I’m against attempts to stop people from speaking clearly, or stifling or criminalizing thoughts or dissent, because the only way that we can improve our thoughts and ideas is if we know exactly what other people are thinking. So I worry about this collateral damage that I see.

Friedersdorf: Do you mean that efforts to advance social justice are doing collateral damage to freedom of expression?

John: At times, yes.

I think that right now, centuries-old oppression and discrimination are being challenged, often by people who were not able to talk about themselves with human dignity before, because they weren’t present in the imagination of the people who shaped public discourse. Now they have the power to claim space for themselves and to say, “I have been here; I demand to be acknowledged.”

The demolition of injustices is good and necessary. I think of it like a house being constructed. Construction usually begins with demolition, right? It’s not always elegant, and it’s not always painless. You know, there will be glass that will splinter, bricks that come down, that kind of thing. So sometimes we have this collateral damage that happens when things are being demolished.

But there are ways of having controlled demolitions, where you think, How can we bring down this 20-story building, this mammoth of oppression, without destroying the buildings around it?

Friedersdorf: What specifically would you recommend to people who want to demolish injustice, when they speak or converse, without destroying other important edifices in our society?

John: I want to protect free speech, for example. And a multiplicity of ideas and views. And inclusivity––real inclusivity, which is not excluding others because you want to include some. I also want to hear outliers, people who challenge even my deeply held beliefs. I need those people because outliers usually are the ones that push us to find new ways of thinking in the world. The right way to do the discourse is not to lump people who have genuine questions or disagreements with what you see as a perfectly just world with people who are antagonistic to your very existence.

There’s value in separating those groups.

I distinguish people who might mean well, but who nevertheless run afoul of what constitutes justice to me, from people who are committed to reducing the space in which I can exist as a free human with dignity. With the former, I want to reach points of compromise. And not just compromise. I want avenues of open discourse and debate. That’s more important than any type of compromise. If you have free, open conversation, you show an awareness that you alone do not have all the answers. And that you’re working with other people who may have answers.

Of course, there is no substitute for having a healthy political space. One way of defining that is a space where the most privileged are open to challenge and the least privileged are sure of protection—the most privileged are not above scrutiny, and the least privileged have, at least, safety. In between those points, the stakes are lowered in ways that open up space for conversation.

Friedersdorf: In today’s political space, do you feel free, as a novelist and a satirist, to speak your own mind, or do you feel hemmed in by social pressure?

John: I have great privilege because I’m able to say what I want to say, and I have a publisher that knows me, who will stand by me if I am simply expressing my thoughts. So I can talk about sex and the fact that people are so prudish, which many people are afraid to discuss, or about how people police language and don’t want you to talk about your body or your politics or the things you really hate or that you really love. But right from the start, I guarded my ability to speak my mind, by showing people what to expect, so that they would not treat me like a role model.

Once you’re treated as a role model, everybody wants you to say the perfect thing. But no human being is like this in real life. You know, we all want to be able to falter. We all want to be able to figure things out. Yet we elevate these people and we say, “You cannot have inchoate thoughts. You cannot have thoughts in progress. You cannot have wrong thoughts. You have to always speak quickly and speak directly to every issue and also speak perfectly. You cannot say, ‘I’m thinking about this’ or stay silent.” Then, you are supposedly siding with the oppressor.

You’re not allowed to be human anymore.

Friedersdorf: Why do you guard and value your independence so assiduously?

John: There’s a trade-off. Some people take love and adoration, and they sacrifice some part of themselves, some part of their humanity, and say, “Okay, I sacrificed the ability to say what I want to say—I will say nothing that upsets anyone—but give me love, admiration, and money,  and I’ll take it.”

I’m not interested in that kind of trading. I cherish being able to say what I want to say, but not as an irresponsibly exercised freedom, like I just want to run my mouth. I try to think deeply about what I say. That’s why sometimes I don’t answer questions: I’m still thinking about this or that. And as a satirist, I have a responsibility to interrogate power, and there is power in what is popular.

Friedersdorf: Do you mean the power of the masses?

John: There are many kinds of power. It irritates me, simply saying a thing that many people want or expect to hear, and people say, “Oh, he called out that injustice; he’s so brave.” I'm like, this is not bravery! Bravery is when, in spite of all of the things I have to lose, I still say exactly what I think.

Satire can become complicit with any kind of power––the power of government, the power of a political faction, the power of what the masses like––and whenever it does, it is time to recalibrate. So we have these satirists who are super powerful, you know, they can call on Hillary Clinton, and she’ll show up and do an interview with them. They can call on whichever politician.

They should admit: Look, I am power now. They can't say, “I'm calling out power.” No, you are power. Satirists must interrogate their own positionality. I try to say, “How am I implicated in this thing personally?” Because satire never used to be popular. You know, it was always unpopular because it rubbed people the wrong way, and people are mostly agreeable. They want to be around agreeable people. And real satire has no intention to pander to anybody’s desire for agreeability. So when my satire becomes popular, I must ask, What is the problem? Why are there so many people that are comfortable with my work? People mistakenly assume that there is just one group of powerful people, one level of power, government or old white men, blah, blah, blah. If you keep attacking them, everyone applauds, as if you are attacking power, but if everyone is applauding, then you have not properly interrogated all of the levels of power. To do so is not “punching down.” It is to recognize that there are many different levels of power.

Friedersdorf: So how should a satirist decide where to “punch”?

John: Satire is always more complicated than just punching in a certain direction, because you can possess and wield power even as others wield power over you. You can oppress even while being oppressed.

If I am being praised for my satire, I keep asking myself, Why is the applause so loud? Who are these applauding people? And I often find you guys are too comfortable. Then I zero in there, and some people always say, “Oh, now you are attacking the wrong people.” But they are also holders of power! What is popular has power and can be oppressive, even if it is determined by people who do not perceive themselves as powerful. If you can spur a crowd, if there are people whom you can hurt, if there are communities that can be harmed by your activity, if there are systems you can help demolish, then no, whoever you are, you are not just the good guy.