Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a graduate of the 2001 Clarion Workshop. Her novel Who Fears Death was a 2010 Locus Award Finalist for Best Fantasy Novel, a 2010 Nebula Award Nominee and a Tiptree Honor Book. It won the 2010 Reviewer’s Choice Best Book Award for Science Fiction, was 2010 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Fantasy and was chosen a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2010, an Best Book of 2010 and Library Journal Best Book of 2010. Currently being made in to a movie, it is on the ballot as Best Fantasy for the 2011 World Fantasy Awards. Her other novels include: Zahrah The Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker and Long Juju Man and her stories have been published in magazines like Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Active on Twitter as @nnedi, she can also be found on Facebook and at her website

SFFWRTCHT: You were born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents, correct? And raised experiencing both cultures?

Nnedi Okorafor: Yep. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. From the age of 7, my parents started taking my siblings and me to Nigeria, so while I had my American experience, I had a Nigerian one, too.

SFFWRTCHT: It’s clear that had a big influence on you since Africa infuses your work. How did your love for speculative fiction come about?

NO: The magical and mysterious in my work is merely a reflection of the way I see the world. It’s been there from the first story I wrote. The science fiction interest came later, when I started wanting to see Africa in the future and an Africa that reflected the one I knew.

SFFWRTCHT: You grew up a fan of Stephen King and Octavia Butler, right?

NO: Yes, I’ve been reading King since I was 12. He taught me to love storytelling. The first book of his that I read was It. Scared the heck out of me but …wow. The first time I heard Cujo was as an orally told story told by my uncle who’d read it on his flight from Nigeria. But Octavia I discovered in 2000, while in a bookstore during Clarion. Pathetic. But better late than never, and when I did, my world was blown.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with the variety of African cultures?

NO: I tend to keep the camera very close. Africa is a huge place, so when I deal with a culture, I deal with that.

SFFWRTCHT: The Shadow Speaker, a children’s book Long Juju Man and then Who Fears Death followed which all have African themes. Is specfic  a natural fit with African traditional religion and mythos? Are there popular speculative fiction writers in Africa?

NO: Who Fears Death was in the future, after many cultures had mixed, migrated, died, etc. It was a about a new African people. Ben Okri, Amos Tutuola, Nurudin Farah, there are a few. The mystical is naturally a part of African literature. Ben Okri’s work is nuts. Check out Famished Road. Love that novel. Big influence on me. It’s also a good example of a story from the p.o.v. of a child that is for adults.

SFFWRTCHT: How much of Who Fears Death do you consider fantasy-based vs tech-based, and how did you choose to weave them together?

NO: I can’t measure such things. The science fiction and fantasy aspects are organic parts of the story, always mixed, never separate  It’s not something i do consciously. It just comes. My father and his brother-both natural storytellers.

SFFWRTCHT: Was there any intended symbolism in the red, black, and gold complexions of the three races in Who Fears Death?

NO: The Okeke are African,the Nuru Arab, the Red People…simply other. I got the idea when I saw a red woman in Nigeria. Seriously. She looked African but her skin was red. And I saw such a woman on another occasion in Nigeria, too. Aro is a mash-up of several Igbo elders I’ve known in my life. I am of the Aro Igbo sub-group, that’s where the name came from.

SFFWRTCHT: Do any of the traditional views of the characters & their community reflect those of your family in growing up Nigerian?

NO: Many of the women’s and men’s views in Jawhir, yep, straight from relatives.

SFFWRTCHT: Did your parents’ have traditional beliefs which tested you and your siblings’ American ideas growing up?

NO: My parents are/were a bundle of contradictions–modern and traditional at the same time. Drives me nuts, ha ha.

SFFWRTCHT: How much work did you put into building the framework for magic or was it a mostly organic thing?

NO: Much of the magic in Who Fears Death is simply Igbo traditional belief. Some things I tweaked. Some I created. The fact that much of the magic in Who Fears Death is stuff I actually “believe” helped keep it in check.

SFFWRTCHT: Onye is very complex. It’s fun to experience life through her eyes. How much research did you do to get in the mindset? Because you’re born and raised American so your worldview is very different from hers, I’d imagine.

NO: Yep, my world-view would be quite different but there would probably be some crossover, too. Onye’s rage comes from me. That I know. And the slapping part, ha ha ha. I used to fight a lot as a kid and there was one boy I did that to after he called me a nigger.  He deserved it.   But in general she was easy to write, once I stopped resisting her. That’s the way into your character’s head.  You have to find that common thread and take it from there. That’s the struggle. You have to open yourself up and admit things you might not want to in order to write the story. There’s a specific issue of cultures that I think children of immigrants are more familiar with as well.

SFFWRTCHT: You deal with a lot of tough issues in the book, including rape, female circumcision, and incest. In fact, you describe the experience of female circumcision. Did you actually talk with women who had experienced it?

NO: Yes,I did speak with women who’d suffered it. What’s funny is that I didn’t really need to. What they told me, I knew intuitively

SFFWRTCHT: Who Fears Death is being developed as a movie. How involved are you with that process? And how’s that going?

NO: I’m very involved. It’s going…well. For those who haven’t seen the first bit of concept art for the WFD film, look here:

SFFWRTCHT: What themes from African tradition do you think resonate the best with outsiders for storytelling?

NO: I think all of it is relate-able in some way. It’s very broad and diverse, so there is something for everyone.

SFFWRTCHT: I know the African’s traditional sense of community, all members belonging to each other, appeals to me greatly.

NO: Yes, the idea of the community being more important than the individual. I struggle with that but am also fascinated by it.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you deal with cross-cultural conflicts? And what would you consider good references on African cultures?

NO: What do you mean “cross-cultural conflicts”?  That’s a broad, broad topic. References on “African cultures” are infinite but you have to get yourself as close to your subject as possible. Also, remove your ego and p.o.v., which is harder than you think. And remember that the future is connected to the present which is connected to the past.  

SFFWRTCHT: Is it harder to sell African themed stories and novels to publishers of specfic?

NO: Yes. Many publishers assume your audience is instantly narrower. Especially if you are black and writing about Africa. A narrower audience means less dollars and it’s all about dollars, isn’t it?

SFFWRTCHT: Right, so put lots of mentions of money in your prose.

NO: Money is boring.

SFFWRTCHT: Monopoly’s still wildly popular.

NO: That game always bored me as a kid. I always felt there were better adventures to be had than making money or losing it.

SFFWRTCHT: Is it possible to retain traditional cadences, speech patterns and mannerisms in characters without turning off American readers?

NO: You have to find the balance. It’s really tough. But you shouldn’t shy away from it because it’s tough.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written both YA and adult. Besides the age of the protagonist, what differences must a writer be concerned with?

NO: Point of view. That’s about it. Such things vary from novel to novel. I don’t get bogged down with labels.

SFFWRTCHT: Your writing is very poetic (in a good way ). Who are some of your favorite poets?

NO: The poets I’m most into are Kanye West, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. ha ha.  I dont read much poetry but I love hip-hop.

SFFWRTCHT How’s your work recieved by Africans? You’ve gotten great accolades in the US for it.

NO: So far, so good. More and more Africans are finding me, especially Nigerians.  I got a fan letter from a 12 year old in Tanzania. I’ve been invited to a literary festival in Nigeria later this year. That should be very very interesting.

SFFWRTCHT: Oh how exciting! There’s a picture on your website as well of you with a Nigerian poet & award there, right?

NO: You mean the pic with Wole Soyinka—playwright, writer, poet, activist, Nobel Laureate? He is amazing. I nearly fainted when I met him. One of the most overwhelming moments of my writing career.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your approach in writing? Do you start with characters? Plot? Do you outline or wing it?

NO: I always always,  always start with characters. I can’t have a plot without characters first.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you do character sketches then?

NO: Sometimes I do but most of the time, I know my character. He or she is real to me, speaks to me. I know them, and the more I write them, the more I know them. I dunno, I write stories rather subconsciously.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you thought of doing any African space opera?

NO: First I need to know what a “space opera” is. But seriously…outer space makes me feel claustrophobic.

SFFWRTCHT: Ok, so you teach writing during the day/night. Do you set aside specific time for writing or squeeze it in as you can?

NO: During the semester I write between 10am-4pm. So no one try to call me at those times because Nnedi isn’t home, ha ha.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever get writer’s block? And if so how do you deal with it?

NO: Nope, no writer’s block. All I need to do is look in the news. Stories galore.

SFFWRTCHT: Besides Akata Witch, what future projects are you working on which we can look forward to?

NO: Akata Witch is already out in the world making trouble. The rest is a secret, but an adult novel and two YA and oh some other stuff here and there.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.