Nnedi Okorafor Interview
Interviewed by Jean Marie Ward
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com With me today is award-winning writer Nnedi
Okorafor: Welcome Nnedi.
Nnedi Okorafor : Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
JMW: Your fiction is closely connected with your heritage. How did Nigeria become you muse?
Nnedi Okorafor: I think that it was something that was completely organic, and not something that I could have predicted. It just was. The first story that I wrote was set in Nigeria, and it’s been like that since then. I think that when I look back, if I were to kind of deconstruct things, I think it became my muse from the early trips that my parents took us to Nigeria. They were so full of the wonderful and the terrifying, but at the same time full of so many extremes and so many details and so many memories that those not only colored my childhood almost the most, but they were the most memorable memories that I have.
JMW: On the flip-side, how has your American heritage and sensibilities play into your writing?
Nnedi Okorafor: I think that the American side of me,it’s more of the craft of it, the idea of writing science fiction, or what’s considered fantasy is more of a western construct, and it something that I learned in this country. It’s not something that I can say I learned from the Nigerian side of me at all, and so I think that that’s the most strongest influence. Also, I think the fearlessness that I write with about difficult issues is probably a very American thing too. That whole idea of freedom of speech and the need to tell those stories regardless of anything, I think that’s my American side. So I think the idea of writing something that where I wasn’t hesitating at all in telling the story is the American side and then also just the craft side of it, the format of it.
JMW: And so the craft and the writing is what scares you comes from the American side of it.
Nnedi Okorafor : Yeah.
JMW: And you’re still writing what scares you, that’s cool. You love creepy crawlies. I know that you once considered becoming an entomologist?
Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah.
JMW: Nigeria had some amazing creepy crawlies in terms of both real creepy crawlies and legendary creepy crawlies.
Nnedi Okorafor: Can you tell our viewers a little bit about them?
Nnedi Okorafor: Okay. I think that one of my favorite creepy crawlies that I caught when I was in Nigeria was a multi-colored grasshopper and it huge, and it was the kind of thing, and it was just sitting right outside the house that we were staying. This is when we were staying in one of the more remote parts of the country, and I just saw it right outside the house near the doorway. And it was one of those moments where you see it and you cannot believe it’s that. And then also you think, Okay, that thing must be poisonous. It has to be. Look at it. It is a very strikingly-colored grasshopper. Grasshoppers usually aren’t poisonous but, so I made a choice, I made a choice. You know I’m going to get poisoned here or regret this for the rest of my life. And for me, I’m very big on grabbing insects and let them go but I have to grab them. So this one, I grabbed it. I grabbed it, and it gave me the hardest kick a grasshopper has ever had given me in my life. And so, but it did that and I held it. It was hardy and it had a very hard exoskeleton. It kicked me, and then I let it go. And so I’m glad I did that because I would have regretted not grabbing it. Then there was also the dinner-plate sized spider that was in the house.
JMW: Sort of as a pet?
Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah. It was so huge that I brought in my cousin. He was like 20 something at the time. He took one look at this spider and got scared too. So this was not a normal spider. So yeah, both of those creatures have made it in my stories in some way, especially that spider. You’ll notice that spider a lot.
JMW: Yeah, well spiders have a mythology all their own in many, many cultures.
Nnedi Okorafor: They do.
JMW: Do you feel you have a writing mission with respect to Nigeria or Africa as a whole?
Nnedi Okorafor: I think that, first and foremost, I love stories. I just love stories. First and foremost, I want to tell a good story. And that whole idea of reading something and it reads so smoothly and so effortlessly that when you’re reading it,it’s like you forget where you are. You’re somewhere else. You are someone else. You kind of disappear. Like I like to imagine that I’d disappear if I am reading that kind of story. And I love that phenomena and I wanted to duplicate that. So that’s my number one mission I’d like to say. It’s my number one mission, and I want to take people to a different place. And when I bring them back, I want them to be changed. I want them to be changed and affected so deeply that they are not the same from that point on. Even if it’s in a young adult book, I want to do that. So that’s the first thing. In terms of a mission for Nigeria or greater Africa, I think when I am writing, I’m not thinking about it at all. I’m just writing the story, but when I look back and I go through the editing process, which is when you’re more conscious, because when I am writing, there are times when I actually disappear from there, and I don’t even remember where I actually got that story from. I’ll read things that I’ve written, and I’d be like, “Who wrote that, when did I write that, that’s good.” So when I’m editing though, you’re not in that trans-like state anymore, and so you’re looking at things more closely, you’re amping things up, or toning things down, or shaving this thing, and that’s when I realize certain things. One of the things that I want to do is write strong female African characters. That is the thing for me. Why? Because I read a lot of African literature. I do see strong African characters in African literature by women, not so much by male writers. I think that often they subjugate female characters in ways that a lot of them I don’t think even realize. But I want to see not just strong African female characters but complex and heroines, that’s important to me, the heroines doing heroic things even if they make mistakes or do stupid things. I want the heroines. So I think that’s something that I’m bent on doing. In terms of male characters, African male characters, the same thing, but in a different way. Not so much in the forefront but it’s still very similar to that. I want these strong characters in African settings. I think that showing Africa in the future is important. I think that my voice will hopefully be one of many. There is a need to show Africa in the future, because science fiction is a predictor in so many ways of the future as a whole. And if there are no Africans being shown in science fiction, that’s basically erasing us from the future, and so there’s that. So I think if I had an agenda, which I don’t, I don’t think that I have a conscious agenda, but I think I have an unconscious one, I think those are a few.
JMW: But in crafting a story about Nigeria, you also draw on wonderful stories from the past. You mentioned that you come from a family of storytellers. And here in the U. S., we don’t see those stories in the same way we see Snow White or Cinderella. Where can people go to learn about these wonderful stories that are out there now. I know where they can go find you, but where can they find these other stories?
Nnedi Okorafor : Well, there are books on African folklore. So there are those. You’ve got the books that are specifically on books of gathered tales from whatever. But I notice that when I read those, I don’t enjoy reading them at all.
Nnedi Okorafor: And I don’t feel badly when I say that. I just don’t enjoy them, because they are in writing. And those stories are best told orally. They are made to be told orally, and they just are more fun and enjoyable when they are told orally. So I notice that the stories that I get are from talking to people, especially older people or even younger people who have gotten to hear those stories and who can recite them.
Typically when they can recite them, they don’t know that they have this valuable story. They don’t even know. It’s not important but they just know it. And so I’ll get to these moments where they can just tell me. Like my ex-husband was able to tell me there was this one specific story about how tortoises got its cracked shell. He had been told this all of his life and it was nothing to him, but when he told it to me, I was like, you know so I’ve found that getting the stories directly from sources is the best way. Then there are times where, outside of the books, its doing bits of research. There was one story I found about a West African writing script and I used this in “Zahrah, the Wind Seeker”. They have these baboons in “Zahrah, the Wind Seeker”, who can tell fortunes and do all of this stuff, and they speak in sign language. I got this specifically when I was doing research on this West African writing script, and it was a small little tale where the researchers were told the origin of this writing script from the natives and it was a story about these baboons, who came out of the forest and sat with two men and taught them this writing script orally, They told it over a fire. It’s the kind of story where if you read this in any Western book, people would feel insulted. They’d be like, “So these Africans got their writing script from monkeys?” But when I read it, I was fascinated. I thought the story was brilliant. It was brilliant, a small little thing. You find the tales in that way, these oft chance different ways. So it’s difficult in a lot of ways. Getting them like that is difficult. You’re not going to find them just from a book that’s been published. You’re not going to get them that way. You can get some of them but you’re not going to get the really good ones, and you’re not going to get the essence of them in that way, which is unfortunate, and it’s difficult because this whole oral story telling thing is different. You can’t look it up on the internet. You’ve got to actually got to talk to people and get it that way.
JMW: What a scary concept, talking to people.
Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah.
JMW: What are you working on now?
Nnedi Okorafor: Right now I am working on several things. I’m working on the Part 2 of Akata Witch. It’s called “Breaking Cola”, and it’s a direct continuation. It’s the first time I’ve written something in a series where I’m doing a continuation of a story. And writing it was a lot easier than I thought. I always have too many ideas so I’m all over the place, and I don’t want to continue with the same thing, I want to move on to something else immediately when I’m done with that thing. Well Akata Witch I knew was a series to begin with so when I returned to it, it was easy to write, much easier than I thought so I did that, and we’re in the editing process of that. And then I recently sold my adult science fiction novel, Lagoon, to Hotter and Stotton in a three-book deal and that one is basically an alien invasion in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. So there’s that.
Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah. That one is going to be fun in so many ways. In that three-book deal, I also sold the Book of Phoenix, which is a prequel to “Who Fears Death”, but it’s a very creative prequel. Like I said, series. And the Book of Phoenix started off as a short story which was published by Clark’s World, and I kept going and it expanded to Novella, which was published by Subterranean. So you could easily get a good preview the Book of Phoenix and then I expanded it. I wouldn’t even say expanded. I finished the story in full-blown novel, and then lastly, but the next thing that is going to come out is my short- story collection called Caboo, Caboo, which comes out in October from Prime Books, and that one features Novella that I wrote with Alan Dean Foster called Caboo, Caboo. It features a story that is in the world of Who Fears Death, directly connected to Who Fears Death and one of my favorite super short story is called, “The Magical Negro”.
JMW: Oh dear, I’ve read your thoughts on the “Magical Negro”.
Nnedi Okorafor: The story is just as biting.
JMW: Oh wow. Anything you’d like to add?
Nnedi Okorafor: No. I think that’s everything. I’ve done a lot of talking.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.