When I came across Dr. Fahnbulleh’s novel, “Behind God’s Back” at a local library in Monrovia in 2010, I was fascinated to know that he’s not only a militant agitator for social political change in Liberia, but a very good creative writer. I had read so much of his militant polemics of vexing Liberian social issues. But I could not imagine he had written a brilliant novel such as “Behind God’s Back.” Perhaps what fascinated me more than anything about this novel is the fact that as much as Dr. Fahnbulleh is well known in the Liberian political circle, his novel is not known by Liberians. I figure that the major socio-political issues fictionalized in the book would have generated some high level intellectual discussion in the media as well as on university and college campuses. But no, the novel is gathering dust in some places and Liberians for whom and on whose behalf it was written don’t even know it exists. Book of this magnitude would have caused a serious buzz in literary community in other countries. But in Liberia, forget it. It’s out of that sense of disgust with the society’s lack of truly intellectual ambiance that I sought to speak to the learned militant agitator about his work. I sent him a text message saying that I had just read his novel and would like to talk to him about it. For two consecutive days he and I had an interesting discussion. It was a fascinating experience for me to have met him–not talking about politics that he’s mostly known for in his homeland– but literature.
Uptown Review Magazine: The name Boima Fahnbulleh is well known in Liberia but not many people know you as a novelist with a brilliant novel, “Behind God’s Back.” Why?
H. B. Fahnbulleh: I guess people have not stopped to look behind Boima Fahnbulleh the revolutionary nationalist. One can ascribe this to the tunnel vision of most of our people. We tend to be one-dimensional in our outlook and thus in our judgment. I am a political activist and have always been. This, no one can dispute. My activism has to do with the struggle for social justice which I feel is an obligation if we are to fulfill the ultimate destiny of humanity which is the harmonization of people in society and their collective efforts in conquering nature and advancing culture and civilization to the highest level that liberated man’s ingenuity can attain. I do have other interests apart from social activism. The time is coming soon when I will take a break from politics and government and pursue those other interests which include writing a few more novels. Maybe then, our people will focus on the writings when Boima Fahnbulleh is no more active in the political arena for a few years.
URM: This is a definitive novel about the 1980 coup and its historical significance and as such one would have expected it to generate some intellectual discussion in the society. If that was your mission, did you succeed with this novel?
HBF: You can say it is an attempt to grapple with the historical anomalies that contributed in more ways then one to the social eruption which we called a coup. In that sense, the coup is the backdrop to highlight the trajectory that saw us plunged from a supposedly Christian preserve to the fratricide that was unintended. The novel is part history and part fiction but with more emphasis on the historical. As to whether it generated intellectual discussion, I would answer in the affirmative but with the proviso that only within the student population and a limited part at that did serious debates take place. This is good because the student population was the intended audience. They must get a different insight into the causes of our national tragedy whether through political writings or literature as the future they shape will depend on the consciousness that they garner through reading, research and exploration. I think the novel tells the story the way I have understood our historical malaise and in this sense, it has dramatized the hidden absurdities of a nation choking on its own contradictions while at the same time gluttonously stuffing itself with other people’s historical contradictions and mind-set.
URM: Most people know you as a revolutionary militant who has been in the vanguard for revolutionary change in Liberia. Should we see you as a literary celebrity as well?
HBF: No, I am far from being any kind of celebrity. I am a simple fighter in the service of Africa and its revolution. Our celebrities are too great and noble for me to be compared with. Who are they in my estimation? In the political field, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Neto, Mondlane, Cabral, Lumumba, Nasser, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Felix Moumie, Dadan Kimathie, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Thomas Sankara, etc. etc. In the field of literature, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, Sembene Ousmane, Leopold Senghor, Nadine Gordimer, Efua Sunderland, Kole Omotoso, Ben Okri, Fatmatta Forna, etc. etc. I am sorry if I appear Afro-centric but we are dealing with the African situation. There are others far afield who belong to this genre of celebrities.
URM: In many other societies with name recognition, you could sell million copies of a book. In Liberia, or anywhere else for that matter, how many copies have been sold?
HBF: Frankly, I have not checked. I do get some royalties now and again. But let me say that I was not interested in writing a best seller. I leave that for the literary geniuses in Africa. After the death of my son Fidel from leukemia, I decided that instead of grieving uncontrollably, I would write a novel to keep my mind off the agony of confronting the death of a child. It worked in a sense. The novel is a short one, but it helped refocused my mind at the time.
URM: Why your generation of political agitators is not known for writing anything biographical that could be instructive to coming generations. For example, Baccus Matthews died few years ago without an autobiography or biography.
HBF: It is always a difficult thing for revolutionary participants to write the history of a struggle with themselves as focus without seeming to be egoistical. It is the nature of most men who make history or alter the course of history to shy away from exaggerating their roles. This kind of conceit is against the ethics of the humble simplicity that is expected of revolutionaries as they struggle and interact with the masses. Maybe in the twilight of their lives, they sometimes manage to write autobiographical sketches which are released after they leave this world. As for biography, that is up to those who are interested in the examples of these lives.
URM: Malcolm X was a revolutionary and he’s known not only for his revolutionary activities, but his autobiography shares more light on his life and legacy as a revolutionary.
HBF: The case of Malcolm X was different because he rose from the bottom of the society to national and international prominence. He is good example for the African-Americans, particularly young African-Americans in the ghettoes to whom he serves as a great role model because Malcolm X overcame great circumstances to achieve what he achieved in life. In a situation like that of the African-Americans, someone may rise up to become the spokesperson of the struggle. Here in Liberia, we have individuals and groups that became prominent in the struggle. While MOJA was intellectualizing, Baccus Mathew came along and talked about regime change and that message resonated well with the people. He spent his life time in the struggle for the people but the struggle was not over when he died at age 59.
URM: Why did you write the novel?
HBF: As a form of therapy to refocus my mind after a very personal tragedy.
URM: How different is the novel from volumes of your political writings?
HBF: Very different indeed. My political writings are calls to the barricades. Most are polemical and they ooze out the passionate indignation against tyranny, national betrayal and injustice. The novel is calmer and saddled with humorous anecdotes.
URM: Besides this novel, are there other creative literary works by Boima Fahnbulleh?
HBF: There are two other unpublished manuscripts. I am not satisfied with them yet and will do some more alterations and editing before they are published.
URM: Why you wrote the novel from the point of view of Joe Benson, an Americo-Liberian?
HBF: It was my way of delineating social classes and their reactions to the questions of patriotism and nationalism in a situation of political crisis. Again, the attempt was to draw our attention to that facet of our history which some ethnicists were trying to deny after the coup: that there ever were progressive and enlightened members of that social group called Americo-Liberians. This perception was ahistorical and downright reactionary. There have always been enlightened and progressive members of that group as one could see from the works of Blyden, Barclay, Bracewell, etc. Joe Benson was a symbol of that progressive tendency within this group which had maintained power after Barclay, would have altered the history of our country in a very positive direction.
URM: Reading the novel, one may think that your goal was to let your readers know there were progressives among the Americo-Liberians who wanted change as well. Coming from someone like you may be a bit of a surprise to some. What do you say about that?
HBF: It is obvious that most of such people do not know me. I am above tribal bigotry. I have only dealt with classes in history. I did an article on “Social Classes and the struggle for democracy in Liberia.” That article says it all as far as my political orientation is concerned. It can be found in my book, “Across the Landscape.” Those who dwell on this dichotomy and use it as a point of reference miss the lesson of our national tragedy.
URM: You are a novelist. Your sister Miatta is a singer. Can we say that creativity runs deep in the Fahnbulleh’s family?
HBF: There are creative people in every family. My sister is a creative singer with political message. She is gifted in the art of singing. In my case, I was privileged to be drawn to my father. I would sneak into his library, read some of the books he had on his shelves. That’s why I kind of took after him as lover of books and as an activist.
URM: When I read the novel, I kind of figure that the character of Dr. Magaumpy is no different from the young militant Boima Fahnbulleh.
HBF: No, I am not Dr. Magaumpy. He could be any of the student activists that were fired up for the struggle of the people.
URM: Thank for the time and the opportunity to talk to you.
HBF: You are most welcome. I appreciate the opportunity of talking about my book in particular and Liberian literature in general.
Editor’s Note: This is an Uptown Review Magazine’s interview with Dr. Fahnbulleh, but it’s being published online for the first time by The Liberian Journal, thanks to the working partnership between the two media institutions. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main Photo: Dr. H. Boimah Fahnbulleh Jr.