Medical doctor and author of ‘Blurring Boundaries, Embracing Chaos: Reimagining Health to Counter Violent Extremism’ Natasha Chilambo, believes understanding the many faces of violent extremism in Nigeria will illuminate the many approaches to managing it: ‘For example, it is as much about the socio-economic status of the local community as it is about the connection to the so called global-war-on-terror.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I don’t have a distinct memory of reading when I was young. However, the first thing I remember reading is Mulenga and Jelita, although I think every Zambian kid had to read these books. Then a massive gap. Then going to my local library after I had moved to a little village in England and becoming obsessed with The Sleepover Club (embarrassed to say I read all 54 books) and books by Jacquelin Wilson. I mostly remember being the kid who was around the adults, especially my grandfather, asking too many ‘why is…’ questions. This made me super unpopular amongst my cousins.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ – T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets.
I mostly remember being the kid who was around the adults, especially my grandfather, asking too many ‘why is…’ questions. This made me super unpopular amongst my cousins.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
A lot of the mainstream commentary grappling with Qatar hosting the World Cup whilst having terrible rights for migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’ve been rolling my eyes at the notion that no one should be allowed to criticize Qatar because we probably live in a country that also has an awful human rights record. I think we have the capacity for a more complex take on the matter.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I’m currently reading Luster by Raven Leilani where the main character—a young black woman—starts seeing a middle-aged white man who is in an open relationship. Initially, I really struggled with the style—there was something about it that felt rushed, almost as if I was made to have a short attention span (it felt a bit Gen Z which I found irritating). Then something clicked and it almost feels like a confessional: the pace, the tense that’s used, the abrupt feeling of things that feel like they should have more time more weight. In the end I was like this feels like life—so haphazard.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
If I had to choose, I’d say how its written. Any subject can be made interesting by finessing how its written.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Edit as I write—I’m a recovering perfectionist—and then big edit at the end.
What was your process for writing ‘Blurring Boundaries, Embracing Chaos: Reimagining Health to Counter Violent Extremism’?
Like a lot of people, I tend to spend a longer time grappling with an idea than the time I spend physically writing about it. A lot of the things that excite me about writing are about the things that exist within a tension—what can I learn about two seemingly opposite things? I spent a lot of time going to music jams in London, especially jazz. At these jams, musicians will offer their interpretations of jazz because of their individual influences—we would hear afrobeat and afrobeats, grime, indie, hip-hop and lots of other genres mixed in with the jazz. A critique that would often come up would be around this kind of music not being pure jazz. But actually, this blurring of genre boundaries is what made these nights special. This made me reflect on who dictates the purity of a certain kind of music. I then started thinking about how this relates to knowledge production and power, about what it means to subvert these hierarchies.
I tend to spend a longer time grappling with an idea than the time I spend physically writing about it.
Why was it important that you wrote about the mental health and violent extremism?
There is something elusive about mental health—what it is, and what to do about it. I think this can be said of violent extremism too. Power ultimately gets to dictate how we define and manage mental health and violent extremism. When in the wrong hands, this can impede advances in these fields, or it enacts further harm. Interrogating the way in which power is at play helps illuminates what is truly at play and how we can steer away from harmful practices.
What’s something you wish people paid more attention to as regards violent extremism in Nigeria?
The many faces of violence. I think a more comprehensive understanding of this will illuminate the many approaches to managing it. For example, it is as much about the socio-economic status of the local community as it is about the connection to the so called global-war-on-terror.
What’s one book you would recommend gifting a loved one this holiday season and why?
God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy because it is an infinite treasure chest. It is devastating and stunning—I disappear into it and never want it to end whenever I read it.
The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel is a book that I love. It’s interrogation of totalitarian systems is so astute. Havel uses a simple story to illustrate the mechanics of oppressive systems. This makes the text so accessible—so many books about totalitarianism are so dense—and ultimately leaves the reader realizing that they too can resist oppression. It’s such a hopeful book, which I think we really need in this time.
What’s the best book you read this year?
I haven’t read much this year, but I really enjoyed Luster by Raven Leilani. It challenged me in ways that I didn’t expect.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
I once wrote a paper with some colleagues about the epistemic injustice within academia in the height of COVID-19. In the UK Black people were dying due to the disease at higher rates than other groups. Our paper was a critical look at how racism underscored the kind of knowledge was platformed to explain why Black people were dying more in the UK: scientists and politicians maintained that genetics explained this difference, we disagreed, pointing to several structural factors. The editors said we were ‘finger-pointing and accusatory’ The journal didn’t accept our article.
There is something elusive about mental health—what it is, and what to do about it.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Super simplistic when you deep it but it is that I should not write for perfection. I should write because what I have to say matters.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
I’m really looking forward to Prentis Hemphill’s upcoming works! The collision of healing justice and embodiment alongside movement building is so exciting to me. I think it speaks to my curiosity about how creativity and tenderness can collaborate with knowledge systems to make a much kinder world.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I’m trying to learn about how we create optimal conditions for imagination. I’ve been enjoying Experiments in Imagining Otherwise by Lola Olufemi and Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture by Anais Duplan.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently a research associate as part of the Leading Practitioners series at the African Leadership Centre. I’m working on a book looking at the intersection of leadership, trauma and peacebuilding.
I should not write for perfection. I should write because what I have to say matters.
Question from Helon Habila: Why do you write?
I write to pull the future closer to now. Most of my writing is around interrogating the systems of the world and playing around with alternative ways of being. I kind of see it like an exercise in imagining fairer futures in a concrete way.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If not writing, what would you do and why?⎈
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