Interview with Speculative Fiction Writer Nnedi Okorafor
by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Specter Magazine
The American-born daughter of Igbo Nigerian parents, Nnedi Okorafor’s speculative fiction maps new territory for all readers. Taking inspiration from the likes of Octavia Butler, Ngugi wa’Thiongo, and Hayao Miyazaki, Nnedi’s stories are vivid and brave. In this interview with Specter Magazine, Nnedi discusses why she writes with a “close up” view of local
cultures rather than whole nations, the evolving inspiration behind her work, her deconstruction of the term “African American”, her collaboration with Wanuri to translate Who Fears Death into film, and her writing process which includes long piano fingers dancing across a worn down keyboard from 1998. A teacher as well as a student of literature, Nnedi recounts her first experience reading Octavia Butler in 2002: ”I read the first page and my eyes nearly popped out. The main character had an Igbo name and she was in Nigeria and she could shape shift! I bought that book and read the hell out of it and my mind was blown…It showed me that I wasn’t alone and that what I was writing was ok. Octavia gave me strength.” Giving her the strength to write beyond existing parameters, the young girl who once desired a career as an entomologist has now garnered accolades such as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for the Parallax Award and Kindred Award, named a finalist for the Golden Duck and Garden State Teen Choice awards and nominated for a Locus Award.
And of course, Specter Magazine, a publication for the outcasts couldn’t leave this interview without hearing Nnedi’s thoughts on the hyper-visibility of outcasts in her work.
You grew up between Nigeria and the States. I’ve read some interviews about how while you were dealing with racism in your small South Holland, Illinois community, you were being taken back to Nigeria to visit family. Two questions–your parents immigrated here back in 1969, what was their motivation for taking you and your siblings back to Nigeria? And second, how is this shuttling back and forth between the Nigerian political and social landscape of the 1980s to the 1980s climate in your Chicago suburb reflected in your work?
My parents wanted us to stay connected, so they kept taking us [my siblings and me] to Nigeria. Plus they, too, wanted to see everybody and that set a strong example for us. On top of this, neither I nor my siblings have European names (first or middle). Most Nigerians do. Though my parents weren’t out there protesting or anything, there was definitely a strong thread of subversive-ness in them. My parents wanted us to be what we all eventually became- strong Nigerian-Americans who never questioned who we were.
One of the first African writers I fell in love with was Ngugi wa’Thiongo. I read “Petals of Blood” and loved it, but it wasn’t until I met him in Johannesburg in 2007 and read “Wizard of the Crow” that he fully satisfied my taste for the speculative fiction. What about wa’Thiongo’s work inspires you?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o inspires me in a plenitude of ways. I love that he faces politics head on in his work. There was an article in the Guardian that said, “Ngugi has dedicated his life to describing, satirizing and destabilizing the corridors of power.” Yes! He is the only African male author I’ve read who consistently creates realistic conflicted strong independent active female characters in his African narratives. I love that his stories are African stories and thus the magic, witchcraft and sorcery in the stories are so natural, so deeply infused in his tales that you can’t do anything but accept them and move on. I love that his prose is lean; his stories are so rich that there’s no need for literary acrobatics. He is a storyteller. First and foremost, I love that he writes in Gikuyu first and encourages other African writers to write in their native tongues. That’s a powerful thing. I’m a speaker at a convention next year where he will be the guest of honor. I am hoping that I can maintain my composure when I meet him.
I noticed that your work does not necessarily deal with whole countries. Instead you are very “local” in that you explore the minute details of an individual culture. Beyond I guess the notion that the national borders being artificial, is there any other reason why your lens is focused on an individual culture, rather than an entire nation?
Yes, the other reason is that I get really bored when you pull the camera too far back. Once you start referring to whole nations and whole armies, whole this, whole that, the characters get lost and I lose interest. This is why I dislike reading history but love reading memoirs. In history books, they talk about whole groups of people and then only focus on the kings and queens and generals, etc. People get left out. I’d feel like it was all a lie or an illusion or a sterile summary that shaves off the rough edges. An “army” doesn’t defeat another “army”. It’s thousands of individual people killing thousands of other individual people in thousands of different unique horrible ways with millions of consequences. It’s billions of stories, not one story. I think a story about any kind of history, real world history or the “real” history in stories, is best told from up close because that’s the way it really happens.
I see that "Who Fears Death" is becoming a movie which excites me even more. What role will you have in the making of the film? How do you imagine this text “shape shifting” in Wanuri’s hands? Is there anything you hope the audience gets from this film that they may not have captured from the text?
I’ll be a consultant to Wanuri for the film. I know a bit about what she plans for the film. Yes, the story will shape shift and I couldn’t be more excited about that. Stories are natural shape shifters. Wanuri and I operate on the same wave-length, so I have complete faith in her vision. I hope that the audience will enjoy actually seeing a future Africa on the big screen- one that is full of old ways AND new ways, an honest Africa from an African perspective. I hope that the audience will also see a deepening of the main character Onyesonwu and many other things they haven’t seen before.
Somehow, when I imagine you sitting down to write, I think about, for lack of a better phrase, “a magical process”. What does your writing process look like and more specifically, how did you come to create "Who Fears Death"?
I have long skinny piano playing fingers. I type pretty fast. And I type without looking at the keyboard. My keyboard is an ergo keyboard that is so old, that many of the letters have rubbed off (I’ve had it since before ’98). I like silence when I write (except for the sound of creatures like birds, katydids and squirrels chattering in the trees) and white walls. I shut my eyes and let it pour. Writing "Who Fears Death" was an eerie process. There were scenes in that novel that I did not know where going to happen until my hands wrote the words. They deviated from my outline; they went in the opposite direction of what I wanted. Some of the scenes shocked and terrified me. A few delighted me and satisfied my taste for justice and revenge. It really was like having a story dictated to me.
On Twitter, you mentioned that one reviewer at Cold Iron & Rowan Wood noticed something about "Who Fears Death" that few other reviewers noticed: “Another interesting—and entirely appropriate—representational issue is that there are no white people (except one, Sola, whose milk-colored skin and flat lips mystify & repulse Onye) and no legends of white people.” This was intentional, I am sure. Why the absence of white characters?
It’s not “intentional”; not in that way. My story takes place in West Africa in the future after…something has happened. Need I say more?
I’ve noticed a couple times on twitter that you’ve mentioned that there are “no Black people” and “African Americans are not a race”. Can you talk a little more about this? I feel like your 140 character comment had a lot of more subtext than a simple dislike for labels and categories.
Well, it’s pretty simple. I was merely commenting on the fact that the labels for people of African descent all suck. The term “African American” needs to go away.
1. It makes people assume that all blacks who are American citizens are the descendants of those Africans stolen hundreds of years ago and forcefully brought to the US as slaves. My ancestors were not dragged here on a slave ship; my parents came here on an airplane. Though I was born and raised here in the US, my history and the way I relate to the Slave Trade is slightly different. I am of the Aro people who participated in the sale of enslaved Africans. That’s a fact I live with every day.
2. I notice a lot of Americans calling ALL people of African descent “African American”. They’ve called “African American” a race. That’s just wrong. Not all blacks are American, duh. I’ve heard people use the excuse of trying to be “politically correct”. Oh, so in order to be “politically correct” you are factually incorrect? No.
3. The term “black” is an ugly exaggeration. I’m not black at all. I’m brown. Literally. And we all know the stigma the word “black” has in the English language, and in most other languages.
At this time, however, I’d rather be called “black” because it’s the only term we have that encompasses all people of the Diaspora. That satisfies the pan-Africanist in me, at least.
After “Akata Witch”, I was thinking about how much I wish I’d taught high school English instead of History so I could teach this book. Even as a World History teacher, I am thinking about ways to integrate it into my curriculum. “Akata Witch” focuses on Sunny, an albino and the struggles she has as an outcast. Some of your other work looks at characters, particularly young people with so-called “abnormalities” that cause them to be outcast. Specter Magazine prides itself on pushing the work of outcasts and invisible people which seems like is what happens in your work–the invisible and the outcast are made hyper-visible and present. Why does this happen in your work?
Because I am an outcast and I dwell on top of many borders in so many ways, I guess. Oh, let me count the ways. I embrace and own these things rather than try to hide them, regardless of what society tries to push on me. It shows in my work.
I love Octavia Butler. “Kindred” was the summer reading for my college back in 2002 I remember hearing her speak at my college and thinking to myself that this woman crafted this whole world inside these book pages. How did you first encounter Butler? How has she influenced your work?
I first encountered Octavia Butler in 2000 while I was at the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. I was in the bookstore during one our breaks and I was perusing the science fiction and fantasy section. I’d never heard of Octavia Butler. At the time, however, I was writing a story about an angry, trouble-making promiscuous woman in pre-colonial Nigeria who had the ability to fly. I saw a novel with a mysterious-looking black woman on the cover. That was why I picked it up- because of the African woman on the cover of a book in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. I read the first page and my eyes nearly popped out. The main character had an Igbo name and she was in Nigeria and she could shape shift! I bought that book and read the hell out of it and my mind was blown. Wild Seed showed me that the publication of the type of stories I was writing was possible. Itt showed me that I wasn’t alone and that what I was writing was ok. Octavia gave me strength.
For some reason, I expected (or secretly desired) for your work to talk about “space”. Maybe I listen to too much Sun Ra, but space and otherworldly bodies fascinated me at a young age. In a July 15th blog post, you wrote, “I’ve always had a hard time writing about space. I am very much an earthling. I don’t see myself ever leaving this planet while I am alive (I may be more adventurous after I die, heh). There is so much yet to discover (and fix) on earth, why look elsewhere? And my spiritual beliefs and the systems of magic I’m attracted to are earth-based, born and rooted deep in the soil. They are not in the “heavens”. Also, when I write about something, I have to get and feel close to the subject. I never feel close to “space”, no matter how much research I do.” You end that post saying that now that you’ve witnessed a shuttle launch, “I think I can write about space travel now.” What kind of work should we expect from you regarding “space”?
I’m not sure yet. I’m processing.
I know you have a daughter and I am constantly thinking about the creative energy that is shared between a mother who is a writer and a young imaginative child. How has motherhood shaped your work? Anyaugo and Dika (your sister’s son) are featured on your site which has to be a bit amazing for them. What is Anyaugo interested in and do you imagine of any future collaborations with her?
Anya just finished her first novel yesterday. It was Zahrah the Windseeker. I didn’t give it to her to read. One day, she just picked it up and started reading it. Soon, she was engrossed. She fell in love with the book. For three weeks, she’s been raving about every detail of the book. The creatures, the Greeny Jungle, Zahrah’s journey (both inner and outer), her energetic friend Dari, the world of the novel. I can’t fully express how utterly awesome it was to hear that from her and watch her read with such relish.
She watches me write all the time. Asks me questions. Reads over my shoulder (which can get on my nerves, haha). There have been plenty of suggestions she’s made that I’ve used. A collaborations is only a matter of time.
I wouldn’t say Motherhood shaped my work. I am a mother and I am a writer. Those two things are forever enmeshed.
Our Editor-in-Chief says “Baldwin is an archetype for Specter magazine: minority, queer, hyper-intelligent, seemingly unafraid in his work.” I think as writers we sometimes run from what is uncomfortable. What advice would you give to emerging writers who are scared to write, scared of their voice, scared of what might be exposed?
Buck up and stop being such a ‘fraidy cat. Then sit down and write. Deal with the consequences when you are done.