In one town like this, not too long ago, lived an enterprising young girl. Ugonwoma, her parents called her, as she was the pride of their lives. She was so rich that she built a house in the village for her retired parents before any of her brothers could say taa! and painted it white so that under the sun it was like staring into the flare from a welder's torch. People would use the house as a landmark in the village: "Take right until you come to the white house," which made her parents very happy.
Her mother wore the latest cloth in the market and held her head high, for her daughter was young—had just finished university, in fact—and was doing strong things. Her father bought himself an ozo title; one could hear him laughing kwa-kwa-kwa as he sat with his friends on the veranda of his new house, drinking palm wine and eating bush meat, flicking flies with his horsetail whisk. Yes-men and boy-boys would sing his praise names from the compound below and he would get up to spray naira notes on them like manna. Life was good.
From the title on, "Story Story" starts out like a family-told tale, the equivalent of "once upon a time." It stands back from a Western reader, who is asked to work out things from context. What is an ozo title?
A Westerner might wonder if the writing is exaggerating or even makes things a bit exotic? "Drinking palm wine and eating bush meat, flicking flies with a horsetail whisk" seems to echo Tutuola, and that horsetail whisk feels like it could be from the colonial era. Those elements could set the story in the past, until they collide with the daughter going to university.
"Story Story" signals that it is drawing on traditional belief and storytelling but is set in the modern world. Chikodili Emelumadu, the author, has lived back and forth between England and Nigeria all her life. She was born in Worksop in Nottinghamshire, and then moved back to Nigeria at age two and a half. She shows that use of local languages is a concern for some West African as well as East African writers.
Chikodili says, "'Story Story' was written in a purposeful style, basically a transliteration of how it would be told in Igbo as my grandmother or my mother would tell it, to get the cadence of it echoing oral storytelling." Later she adds, "But exotic? No. Palm wine is still the traditional drink of hospitality, we still enjoy bush meat with a passion and as far as I know, flies haven't gone extinct in my country.
"I usually let each story have its own voice. I'm finishing up a novel now. One of the narrators in it is a housemaid sent out to work by her parents to bring in extra income. She is comfortable telling the story—'gisting' as we say in Nigeria—and she tells it in a voice that is a bit like 'Story Story.'
"The novel's working title is As I Was Saying…but that might change. It's speculative fiction. I found that with the first draft some literary elements, though carried by the characters, didn't seem to go anywhere. There is a curse/gift passed down through the family of another character and things happen that trigger it.
"I'm very interested in ancestry and how little of it most of us know. We have lost the art of asking questions, I find. Our parents were encouraged to forgo certain practices in order to be 'civilized,' to be able to mingle with a world brought to their doorsteps by missionaries and early educationists. There were some harmful practices, yes, but it all got lumped together with benign and even beneficial customs.
"For example, ancestral reverence, which is a big deal where I come from. In the old days and in certain parts of Igboland still, people will call upon their ancestors for guidance. It has spiritual connotations of course, but on the other hand, if you don't tell stories and sing songs with the names of ancestry you will forget who they are.
"This girl, my character, knows just three generations of her family, but the gift links her with generations gone before.
"She finds out how much of her ancestry is present in her, but also how much she is a conduit for things that happened in the past she has no idea about. Spirits don't forget. They have nothing but time.
"The novel has two narrators, maybe three. At different points, different people wanted to speak so they took over the narration. I might choose to let that be, or I might hack them all off in rewrites. Kill all my darlings.
"The first is the nanny/house help. She is not literate having come from a farming community. Narrator two is my girl who is the conduit of ancestors. I don't want to tell you who the third person is, in case I kill him. Suffice to say, right now he is a schoolmate of the girl. And no, he is not a 'love interest'."
So how has Chikodili found life in the UK?
Chikodili: "Moving to London, I found my culture was presented as an otherness. That made me want to reconcile with it. I wanted to go deeper into my culture and find out things which people at home—for fear of Christianity or whatever—might not wish to talk about.
"Reincarnation is part of the Igbo tradition and religion. In none of the foreign religions (that are prevalent in Nigeria) is that allowed. You die, you go to heaven or hell. If you're Catholic, there is the hope of purgatory if anyone cares enough about to you dedicate rosary hours to praying you out of it.
"The Igbo pre-colonial relationship with death has been disturbed. We had good deaths—old age. We had bad deaths from illness, the ogbanje phenomenon where children died early and frequently to torture their parents; and we had hard deaths—accidents, murder.
"But death was not the end. It was like another plane. You passed through and were … recycled, for lack of a better word. Now we fear death. We don't give people death names any more. We have absorbed the Christian idea of death."
Chikokili did not speak Igbo for a while—her first language was English. At home, she was made to speak English all the time.
"But I learned Igbo gradually. I speak Igbo very well, can read it slowly and write in 'Central Igbo' which is like the Igbo lingua franca. However, in everyday conversation, I prefer my dialect. Sometimes, it becomes even more casual than that, the sort you'd use when speaking to a friend or an age-mate, a mix we call Ingli-Igbo.
"So if I were to come into a friend's house and they were eating they might say to me, 'Your legs are fine.' That means your legs are good luck. You've come at the right time to have some food, so join us. 'She picked up running' means 'She started to run'."
Chikodili's family moved from the UK to the town of Awka in Ananabra State, not her family's hometown, which is Oba. Her first secondary school in Imo state provided some background for her novel. She then went to the Federal Government Girls' School in Onitsha.
"I always thought I was going to be a writer. I thought everybody was a writer, that everybody had pictures in their head and reams of plot. I worked at being a writer for a very long time. I started writing plays when I was about six."
Like so many parents, the family seem to have demanded achievement and hard work from their children.
"My dad made us work on the farm. He grew up poor so we had to learn to do things for ourselves. My parents made us read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, which had little plays in the back. So I started to write plays. In my teenage years I wrote poems and attempted novels."
Chikodili studied English Language and Literature at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, then came to the UK in 2004 to study for a Master's degree in Cross Cultural Communication and International Relations at the University of Newcastle. After a concentrated education in English literature, Chikodili found Britain a culture shock.
Chikodili: "My parents were anglophiles, so I had to read the classics; swashbuckling explorers on 'the dark continent,' tea and scones and cucumber sandwiches, that sort of thing. It was a bit of a shock coming to Britain to see that people weren't that proper anymore.
"They spat on the streets and smashed each other's heads open on Friday nights after downing a couple of drinks. It was a bit too Dickensian and not quite as my father had brought us up to conduct ourselves. That probably sounds snooty but I'm sure some people can relate to those expectations our parents had. It's almost as if they had to be ultra-British to 'pass,' as it were.
"My dreams of England had no foundation and basis—I couldn't reconcile them with what I was seeing. Since I couldn't be English in that way, I had to dig around in my own psyche. I started looking back at history, my own history. Both of my grandmothers were alive and taking steps towards them made me aware how much I was like a little grain of sand in the hourglass of time. I'd taken my grandparents, language, culture all for granted. I had to figure out what I wanted to be in myself."
She followed her MA with a postgrad diploma in Journalism at Harlow College. Afterwards, she spent time working as a journalist for the BBC World Service.
"I quit the BBC at twenty-seven and went into short stories. I practiced using the skills of journalism in fiction, being concise, writing to length."
She began submitting fiction in October 2013 and has had a run of publications since in Running out of Ink, Omenana, Apex and others. Her story "Candy Girl" was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. Her most recent story "Soursop" was published in Apex in 2016.
For me, "Soursop" is completely different from "Story, Story." It's set in a joyless, post-human world. The rich have all migrated, stripping the Earth—what's left is a wasteland where nothing grows. The taste of food exists only as other people's memories, sold to a planet-bound workforce. The language, instead of a flavorful brew of Nigerian expressions, mimics its world—techno and militaristic.
It's undoubtedly science fiction, perhaps too crowded with backstory, but an effective dream image of Nigeria now.
Chikodili: "Right now in Nigeria, the tomato crop has failed. We don't have proper infrastructure to transport tomatoes. We don't even can them. So if they are not in season, we don't have them. 'Soursop' is a bit of a fantasy about how there is no food.
"My parents are still in Nigeria, so the state of the country worries me. I worry at some point that the currency will become useless. 'Soursop' is a nightmare of stripping Nigeria in which the rich are Ascendant, meaning they leave the ground to live in space colonies. The heroine of the story, being the granddaughter of a rebel, is condemned to work, working for nothing.
"Nigerians tend to be complacent. The Arab Spring, we just don't have that. There is no sense of a coming together for the common good. There are more than two hundred languages and as many dialects. It's easy for those in charge to divide people against each other and let them fight for scraps; perceived territory, resources, whatever. And while we fight, they loot."
When we spoke, the UK was about to lose Chikodili. Since 2006, she has been an enthusiastic blogger, and she met her future husband through blogging. He recently got a fellowship at Harvard, so the family, including Chikodili's son, now live in Cambridge, MA.
"I am not completely gone from Nigeria though just now I'm being bombarded by newness. My son really wants to go back to Nigeria."
Why does she think SFF has taken off in Africa?
Chikodili: "It's a silly question: why is Africa reading science fiction? What does that mean? Science fiction is just a way of inventing new ways of living or doing things.
"African writers are just like you—only better … naw just joking. We have the same concerns, we have to eat, and we worry about money, children, and good health. The ways we are different are not a threat.
"Life sucks. So SF allows you not to be in life anymore. I don't understand how people can stand not living in all possible futures, why they get stuck in their existence—bill paying, car tax, wheel-clamping. SF not only gives you a glimpse of an alternate reality but a future one. Even when I've shut a book, my psyche keeps thinking it over. When I started submitting, I was worried about my stuff and having it be 'professional' or 'normal.' Now I am over worrying about if I sound crazy, I just don't care anymore.
"The kind of mainstream literature that was winning awards—child abuse, slavery, domestic violence, FGM, child soldiers, poverty, rape, HIV. That was Africa. People are so entrenched in their view of what is African that they can't reconcile a story about people sitting in a café. It's not African enough, they say. And that influences the way writers think about their work. I am through feeling guilty that my version of African is so different from everyone else's.
"A lot of us science fiction types, it's our duty to do what SF and fantasy do—which is not conform to any norm, just break the rules, write and say what you want in any form. There is a resurgence in speculative fiction right now because literary forms are not working for us. It seems a lot more people are writing a speculative fiction element. Writing should come from a place of rebellion.
"But don't listen to me. Just do it."
Others stories by Chikodili Emelumadu available online:
- "Candy Girl" (nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award): A bewitched umbrella threatens a young woman's life.
- "Jermyn" (runner-up story, South Million Writers award): A naughty but loyal dog and something like a vampire—that inhabits paper.
- "Tunbi" (recommended reading by Lois Tilton and Ellen Datlow): Modern-day spells.
- "Bush Baby" (shortlisted for The Caine Prize): Magic and the love between siblings.