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INTERVIEW: Nnedi Okorafor

(c) Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. She holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Chicago State University. She resides in the suburbs of Chicago with her daughter Anyaugo.

Though American-born, Nnedi’s muse is Nigeria. Her parents began taking her and her siblings to visit relatives there when she was very young. Because Nigeria is her muse, this is where many of her stories take place, either literally or figuratively.

Because she grew up wanting to be an entomologist and even after becoming a writer maintained that love of insects and nature, her work is always filled with startlingly vivid flora and fauna.

And because Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are her greatest influences, her work tends to be…on the creative side.


John Ottinger: In Who Fears Death, you describe, in detail, a female circumcision requested and desired by the protagonist. Was this a particularly difficult scene to write, and why did you feel it essential to include in the novel?

Nnedi Okorafor: I felt it was essential to include in the novel because it was part of the story. :-). My stories grow organically, so it wasn’t something I knew was going to be there until I wrote it. Still, female genital mutilation has infuriated me since I learned about it back in undergrad and the topic has shown up in another novel I wrote (this one unpublished and set in 1920s Nigeria). I do feel that this topic is something that needs to be discussed and protested until it stops. I’m happy that I’ve added my voice to the collective.

The scene was horribly difficult to write, mainly because it was Onyesonwu’s story and therefore her actions were her own, not mine. I was just the writer, so I had to watch, with horror, this girl make some very brave, bold, naïve, guilt-riddled choices. Also, that scene was tough to write because of the details. I felt that if I was going to go there, then I had to go there and when I got there, I did not like it there at all.

JO: Who Fears Death is a tragic story of a powerful tragic heroine. It is important to write tragedies? Why?

NO: Is it tragic? Really? I admit, I love a good tragedy. Hamlet remains my favorite Shakespeare play. I’m fond of “end of the world” stories and stories where everyone dies by the end. Maybe that’s part of why I love Stephen King so much, ha ha ha. But Who Fears Death, to me, when I finished it…REALLY finished it, was uplifting. By the end, it all made sense, it all came together and there was truth and justice. Though it was not at all what I expected.

That said, I do find tragic stories to be important. Life doesn’t always end happily. And the ending is not often the purpose of the story. Sometimes it’s how you got there. Also, the purpose of stories shouldn’t only be to opiate. There is darkness in the world, as there is light. Sometimes the light wins. And sometimes the darkness does, too.

JO: In Paul Di Filippo’s review of Who Fears Death he states that “as a science fiction novel, the book is exiguous and unfulfilled” meaning that though the setting is a future Africa, all of the focus of the novel is on the magical and mystical side. Could you explain why you do little with the science fictional elements in the story?

NO: As a what? As a science fiction novel? Oh, there are rules for that? I didn’t know. Heh, if you haven’t noticed by now, I’m not so good at following rules. When I was in high school, I remember getting into a huge fight with my trigonometry teacher. She took points off my test because though I’d arrived at the right answer, I didn’t follow her rules. I’d used my own rules because, well, I felt my way was better. Hmm, yes, I’m reminded of that here.

Who Fears Death wrote itself. It wasn’t following any template. Plus I don’t think Onyesonwu was all that concerned with the fact that her capture station was nuclear powered or that there was Sector-C level android-created nanotechnology coded into the adamantium-enhanced scalpels used to slice off a girl’s clitoris. The first part of that sentence is true, the second part is not.

While writing, I knew the details about the technology of this novel’s world. I knew clearly what happened to the earth, etc. However, I did not feel it necessary to explain everything in the novel. Is Who Fears Death science fiction? Why does it matter?

JO: In writing this often somber story, how did you keep yourself grounded, keep yourself from despair as you encountered the injustices you so eloquently elucidate over and over again?

NO: Onyesonwu’s temper often kept me laughing. There were some things she did that just cracked me up. She’s such a spit fire. And I admit, I can relate. Also, the people she meets, the relationships she develops, though there is much despair she has to deal with, there is a lot of love, too.

When I had to write an especially dark scenes, however, and I was overcome with everything she was feeling, I would go to the gym and work out really hard or I’d hang out with my daughter. That girl is pure sunshiny energy. Then there were the times where I had to simply wade through the despair. I had nightmares and there were times where I was deeply sad. But this novel is deeply connected to our world. Many of these things are happening right now and being emotionally connected seemed the least I could do.

JO: In your Big Idea post at John Scalzi’s Whatever, you mention that your intent in writing this book was to present a good story. What makes for a good story?

NO: There is no definition; you just know it when you see it. For me, a good story will make my hour on the Stairmaster 100 percent painless. I won’t even notice that I’ve just killed thousands of calories because I wasn’t there, because the story took my mind elsewhere. THAT’S a good story.

JO: What first drew you to science fiction and fantasy and why do you choose to write in this genre?

NO: I didn’t grow up specifically reading science fiction or fantasy. I read whatever drew my eye in the library. I had a habit of not looking at category labels when I was there. So I read science fiction, fantasy, horror, nonfiction, literary fiction, whatever. I do the same thing when I’m reading. I have a bad habit of skipping over chapter titles (which can be a problem. Worst example for me was when I was reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver).

Nevertheless, I naturally view the world as a magical place. When I started writing fiction, though I was writing “realism”, there was always magic. As the years passed, my stories grew more and more magical and people started calling it fantasy. So that’s what it became.

As for the science fiction aspect, that started with my NEED to see Africa presented in the future. I was sick of seeing it presented as a place of the past that enslaved Africans left behind or a primitive exotic dark place that the main character visited. The Africa that I knew (which was Nigeria) was very much in the present and on the edges of the future. So I started writing about my vision of Africa’s future. I love technology, so then I started playing with that, too. Also in the last two years or so, I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement from John Joseph Adams and Jonathan Strahan. I think my taste for science fiction will only grow stronger.

JO: In your essay for the Nebula Awards blog “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?”, as you explain the problem with why science fiction has such a small toehold on that continent, you say that “one will have to deliberately combine the concept of ‘art as a tool for social commentary and change’ and entertainment.” Could you explain how an author can do this without swinging too far one way or the other?

NO: If you have to swing one way, let it be toward entertainment. Social commentary for the sake of social commentary in fiction is boring, ha ha ha. But seriously, African literature has always served a purpose first and foremost. The following quote from professor George Joseph in Understanding Contemporary Africa comes to mind: “Rather than write or sing for beauty in itself, African writers, taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate important truths and information to society” (304). This has been the tradition. But science fiction will be something completely new. You have to mix in some sugar and maybe something more addictive like literary caffeine. African science fiction cannot follow the old tradition, no one would read it.

JO: If a reader would like to read more science fiction or fantasy by, for, about, or thematically related to Africa, who should they be reading?

NO: For fantasy, there are a few I’d recommend. Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of my all time favorite novels. So is Famished Road by Ben Okri. Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi was pretty good. And Nick Wood has a young adult novel called The Stone Chameleon. Science fiction is far scarcer. I highly recommend Lauren Buekes’ Moxyland. She has a new one out that I need to get my hands on called Zoo City. There are others I listed in my essay, “Can you define African Science Fiction?”.

A few non-speculative African novels I’d recommend to speculative fiction readers would be Things Fall Apart, The Joys of Motherhood, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Palm Wine Drinkard, Infidel, Waiting for an Angel, Petals of Blood, and Woman at Point Zero.

JO: Where can readers find you online?

NO: I’ve grabbed many of the “Nnedi” user names. They can find me on facebook, twitter, my blog, and my website, Nnedi.com.

JO: Thank you very much for your time and insight.