Today I warmly welcome Majok Tulba to Behind the Pen. Majok’s latest novel, When Elephant’s Fight, was released on Monday (you can read my review here). It is such a moving and thought provoking novel and I am so pleased to be able to give you all some further insight into the story via this interview with Majok.
How much of When Elephants Fight is inspired by your own experiences?
My experiences of the civil war in Sudan are very broad and ongoing with my connections to family still living there. The perspective of the novel is not to reflect me but the broad experiences of so many vulnerable families and children still living in Sudan.
What propelled you to choose writing about these experiences in novel form rather than as a memoir?
I am only one man and my personal experiences are limited in contrast to the nation’s experiences and that of its children. A memoir would be about me but my novels enable the story of so many more to be heard.
What comes after a refugee camp in terms of getting from there to here? With so many hundreds of thousands of people living there, how does a family or an individual go about this process?
Painfully slow and hope quenching time is spent in the camp while the wheels of different governments decide how many refugees they will accept. Then there is the paperwork – mountains of it, to prove who you are and what visas you are suitable for. You have to write or retell personal accounts of why you are a refugee and why you want to leave. The process tears open old wounds and memories as you have to recount your experiences to justify your acceptance as a refugee to a new country. Then there is just the sheer luck factor – the right UN worker who vouches for you or remembers you when there is an opportunity.
I can hardly even imagine what it must be like to come to Australia for a new life after having come from what is described in When Elephants Fight. If you cast your mind back to when you first came to Australia, what was the most difficult thing to adjust to, in terms of lifestyle? What was the best thing you encountered once you were settled?
The most difficult aspect of arriving in Australia was the cultural shock of wondering if I had the survival skills to find my way in this new strange place. You go from knowing your place in the refugee camp to where everything is new and not many around you understand your background. It was difficult to make a new circle of friends while struggling with the language and the social niceties. However, the feeling of being safe at last was wonderful. To be able to move around freely without fear of attack and the access to food and services such as healthcare was overwhelmingly wonderful.
I was struck by what a fine line it is between hope and despair and I could see how life in the refugee camp could harden and embitter a person. In your time there, did many people leave the camp and join up with the South Sudanese rebels?
Many people become wary and cynical from their experiences. However, many do not join the South Sudanese rebels because of their experiences but rather many feel vulnerable in the camps which are not really a place of refuge, and they wish to have the security of a gun to protect themselves.
You have been in Australia now for seventeen years. Has much has changed for the people of South Sudan during that time?
South Sudan has still not experienced peace. Though the war with the North has settled there is still civil unrest within the different power groups within Southern Sudan. Most importantly, South Sudanese families are still not free of fear and able to resume normal life.
What are your hopes for When Elephants Fight?
I wanted to raise the awareness of the plight and background of many refugees from South Sudan. Australians were on the whole ignorant of the issues and experiences of the people fleeing from Sudan, the novel gives them insight and perhaps raises empathy levels for the traumas many have experienced. It is also a novel about the rites of passage of any young man, finding his own identity, determining his values and maturing into adulthood. These issues are universal for all young people and though Juba (the main character) is Sudanese, in many ways he could be any young man growing into manhood.
About the Book:
In the South Sudanese village of Pacong, Juba is young and old at the same time. Forced to grow up quickly in the civil war, he is nonetheless fun-loving as well as smart. But his little world cannot deflect the conflict raging around it and soon he must flee the life he loves.
Ahead lies a long trek to a refugee camp, a journey arduous and fraught. When at last it ends, Juba comes to wonder if there’s any such thing as safe haven in his country. Yet life in the camp is not all bad. There can be intense joy amid the deprivation, there are angels as well as demons.
Poised part way between heaven and hell, When Elephants Fight draws a horrifying picture of what humanity can do to itself, but Juba’s is a story of transcendence and resilience, even exultation.
Majok Tulba’s debut novel, Beneath the Darkening Sky, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and likened to the work of Nam Le, Markus Zusak and Primo Levi. No less brilliant, When Elephants Fight is an important testimony of the harrowing lives of refugees.
About the Author:
Majok Tulba was born in South Sudan and came to Australia in 2001. His first novel, Beneath the Darkening Sky, won the 2014 Kathleen Mitchell Award, and in 2013 was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize. He was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists of the Year in 2013. Majok is the founder of Okay Microfinance, a social enterprise launched in 2016 that aims to improve education for girls and community health, and to find sustainable solutions for families to break free of the cycle of poverty in South Sudan. He lives in Sydney with his wife and children.