We surround the casket and I know who the dead man was. I have seen dead bodies before, even of family members, but none affects me as much as this man whom I have never seen before but who is not a stranger. He is bearded, with scattered grey and white hair. His face is scarred as if he ran through an entire warehouse of razor blades. His eyes are sutured shut, although the thread is small and I only see it because I am interested in such things. There is perfume, but also the faint whiff of formaldehyde underneath it all. I feel deep sorrow and surprise myself by being on the verge of tears.
Korede sidles up to me.
'You don't always use your cane,' I say.
'I'm all right for short distances,' he says. 'How are you feeling?'
'Upset. Why do I feel I know him when we've never met? Why do I feel sad?'
Korede sighs. 'You're upset because you feel the absence of a person like you, different from others, but not in a visible way. You feel like you know him because people like us are always aware of each other, but not in a conscious way. It's like breathing. Most of the time you don't know you're doing it, but try holding your breath and I bet you'll miss it.' He laughs, a short bark. This close I can see all of his pores. I cannot believe this will happen to me some day.
'Who are we?'
'We are people who know,' says Korede, as if that explains it.
—From "Child, Funeral, Thief, Death". Published in Apex Magazine, Sept 1 2015
Tade Thompson may be one of the better known African SFF writers, with stories in Omenana, the Crises and Conflicts anthology edited by Ian Whates, the African Monsters anthology edited by Margrét Helgadóttir, and many other journals and collections. He has two novels to his name.
For some reason we started talking about language.
"Yoruba wasn't my first language. I learned after seven years old. I was born in England. It was more difficult for me than my sister because she is better with languages. I was very lonely in Nigeria. We left England in an impromptu manner. I didn't have people to socialize with. And I was taught Yoruba language and mythology in school for say an hour a week.
"I also speak Igbo from going to University for seven years in the east of Nigeria. There is no agreement on standard Igbo as there is for Yoruba. This goes back to Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He was a Yoruba who had been captured, sold to the Portuguese, liberated by the British, and deposited in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He translated the English Bible into Yoruba, and tried to do the same for Igbo and set up rules of Igbo grammar, but he did no work in the north. The friends he had, the dialect of Igbo he used was a marginal one.
"I have written fiction in Yoruba—but it has never seen the light of day. I'm aware how stiff it sounds. To proceed with this, I'd need more Yoruba books. With English I have my reference books, I have my usage dictionary, but there are not the same resources in Yoruba here. A written language is a different animal from its spoken version.
"I have written a flash piece in Pidgin and will do more with Pidgin. You can toss in Hausa words; you can mould it to the local culture. I wrote it first in English and then translated it. I tend to think in images (Tade is also a painter and illustrator). So I translate into English from visual and then into Pidgin."
One of his best known stories is "The Last Pantheon," a superhero novella that he co-wrote with Nick Wood which appeared in the anthology AfroSFv2, edited by Ivor Hartmann.
"Superheroes have moved into the mainstream. They are broadly science fiction, but they are also another legitimate form of myth, like mermaids, minotaurs, and alien invasion. It used to be that comic books were not a topic for adult discussion. It meant your IQ was stunted. To say a character was something out of a comic book was a criticism. But the regular readers have grown up, are in the money, and it's interesting to write for them. The movies can be good, or they can be made by people who don't understand comics.
"It's fun to circle back around and start writing prose fiction for adults about superheroes.
"'The Last Pantheon' was a whim of delight, nostalgia for both me and Nick. We're both comic fans. I knew West Africa and he knew South Africa, so it was a chance to set something convincingly in the two locales.
"I started making comics when I was five. All I wanted to do was draw. Mom couldn't coax me to do any reading at all. In Wimbledon I remember one day I saw a Fantastic Four (the first Marvel comics series), with the Human Torch. I remember saying over and over Mummy read it for me; no, you have to read it. Immediately I began to draw them.
"I also loved the Alice in Wonderland illustrations, by John Tenniel. I redrew them over and over in different contexts.
"When Nick and I started chatting, we both had a similar appreciation. We said, let's write a story in homage to childhood. As well as explore the way history has been dealt with in Africa."
One of the ways in which this alternative history with superheroes interacts with reality is its description of the disappearance—in this story murder—of Patrice Lumumba in the former Belgian Congo. Nick's South African superhero fails to prevent his killing.
Tade: "There is a lot of rage in my generation of Africans, at the way the Soviet Union and the USA played out the Cold War in Africa. Patrice Lumumba was a victim of the Cold War. He was a left-leaning guy with egalitarian ideas, a true leader. The Congo had uranium and that would give the Soviet Union access to uranium, for nuclear weapons, so the CIA needed a leader they could control.
"On the Nigerian side, there is the murder of Murtala Muhammed, a military leader. History said he was killed in a military rivalry. But he was killed after praising the ANC in South Africa and the rebels in Angola."
The story has two very different superheroes—one a black-power, left-leaning radical, the other a business-orientated modernizer, neatly summarizing the two main trends of African ascendancy since independence.
Tade: "We couldn't explore all the things we wanted to explore, compressing it into one novella.
"It was important to me that my character reflects some Yoruba aspects. His origin story is drawn from Yoruba mythology. The creation myth has a guy come from the sky with a chicken and a mound of sand. I made that an alien landing. I made the traditional Yoruba markings into something like barcodes. My Yoruba superheroes were in origin aliens … with barcodes. A spaceman with a chicken is as plausible as Adam."
Any possibility of a series?
"I would like a female writer to write the sequel with a female team of superheroes. If I were to do an anthology of African SFF, I would say specifically I want women, specifically LGBTIA writers, I would go out and find them, and I would be a pest until they contributed.
"The leading female names in African SFF are, you'll notice, all in the diaspora. Nnedi and Sofia live in America. Helen Oyeyemi is essentially English. Chinelo has spent time in the USA as well. It sometimes feels like in Africa science fiction is not a respectable thing for women to be doing.
"The laws on homosexuality in Nigeria make me feel ashamed. The hero of Rosewater (Tade's forthcoming novel, published by Apex) was fostered by a gay family.
"Rosewater is outright science fiction, no magic, nothing is not scientifically explained, none of it is magic realism. It is set solely in Nigeria. Even when an American visits, it is strictly about Nigeria.
"I haven't read that much outright science fiction coming from Africa. I want to explore the extrapolation of science. Growing up, I had so many science fiction conversations in Nigeria, but they didn't seem to translate into books or articles. There was a lot of SF thinking in Africa, but it was like it was blocked.
"Rosewater is about an extremely slow alien invasion … by microbes. Most people don't know about it; the world changed in several imperceptible ways. One of the consequences of this is that many people including my hero Kaaro become able to sense thoughts."
Tade's first novel, Making Wolf, felt like a crime novel, except for one slightly speculative element. "It happens in an invented country with an alternative history. It's based on the history of Nigeria, but with a divergence in the Civil War. It's not the Igbo who declare independence, but the Yoruba. So you have Yorubaland. I wanted to address the experience in Nigeria without offending complicit people. I love pulp fiction. I can't enjoy it like I did at 15, but it has a place in my heart. It's a love letter, a thank you to Raymond Chandler."
Tade's story "Budo" was originally published in the Steampunk World Anthology edited by Sarah Hans. A text and audio version read by Suyi Davies is available online from Escape Pod. It's a story that intertwines traditional elements with a super-scientific hero. I couldn't tell if he came from the future, or some kind of Afro-steampunk alternative universe.
Tade: "It was inspired by a biography of Leonardo da Vinci (by Maurice Rowden), by how otherworldly he was. They would have described him as an alien if they could. This is an African Leonardo da Vinci who has travelled the world. Africans did travel at that time. Being black did NOT mean that you were a slave. My hero has actually been around the world and experimenting with a flying machine like da Vinci. Budo is like Icarus crashing to Earth.
"The heroine is more in charge than he is. I wanted her to be strong and a scientist as well. She rescues him; she has all the agency in the relationship. She is modelled on many actual African warrior queens. She is also modelled on Caesar Augustus's daughter, who had a prodigious sexual appetite, but only had sex outside the marriage when she pregnant. I liked the world, so there will be another novella set in the Budo universe."
"Slip Road" is an earlier story, still available online from Expanded Horizons. It is written from the point of view of a ghost. To what extent is this a traditional belief story—and how far does it stray from traditional belief?
Tade: "In Yoruba culture, spirits are around us all the time, but there are three basic types: the people in the Afterlife. The people not yet born but aware and they can converse. And in the middle are the people who are alive but their spirit can be communicated with.
"The character in 'Slip Road' doesn't realize that he has slipped into a different category. He thinks he's in the middle but he has passed into the Afterlife. This is a staple of ghost stories. His wife survived but he did not; the slip road is a slip road into death.
"This story is linked to Rosewater the novel. His wife's sister in 'Slip Road' shows up in Rosewater. The story becomes science fiction in the novel, though not this story. There is a scientific explanation which is quite close to Yoruba beliefs."
"The Madwoman of Igbodi Hospital" is available online from Interfictions. It's a strongly voiced story about a ghost.
Tade: "That story started with an image of what I witnessed when a child. I wandered into neighbour's house and saw the husband beating the wife in silence. Not shouting, but with a blank face, not angry. She was taking the punches and not saying anything. I was eight. I stood there as if for ever, it seemed to take for ever. I can still feel the impact. It was being done with force. Before that I had only seen violence on TV.
"I needed to the get the image out of my head in some way. The story was built around that image. How would I feel if it was my mom? What would the relationship be with that kind of man?
"It's in short sections, fragmented. It's about memory, about the memory of a child. Narrating a story, you are constructing over time—memory is always collapsed, people remember what is unique. That's why the story is in fragments and not objective."
"Monkey House" is a story Tade published with the online magazine Omenana, which you can read here. For me it draws on Western models, like Kafka and Borges.
Tade: "That is my oldest published story, probably written 2000 and 2001 as an exercise. When I was writing it, I may have been reading a lot of Thomas Ligotti. He writes work that is described as Lovecraftian, beings beyond perception behind the curtains.
"The folk tale in the middle is an actual folk story, how the monkey gets tricked and caged. At the time I was in a toxic work environment and I would wander on my lunch break. I would find strange empty places in the building that had no function that I was aware of. I began to imagine that I would find something staring back at me. It's a kind of nightmare version of the atmosphere of that place. The monkey was both me, in a sense trapped there, and my sense of fear in the place.
"We live with stories in Africa. When I was growing up, everybody believed one of the guys could glide about a foot off the ground. In my boarding school, there was a guy who said he could read in the dark. He would prove it to us—and then it turned out that he would memorize and recite the text. There were always stories … 'someone disappeared in the market the other day.' Interestingly, I think there is something pan-African about it."
The story "Honorable Mention" (in the anthology Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver) is another atmospheric nightmare, about a made-up sport that exploits immigrants to the UK and involves sorcery. To succeed in the sport the hero signs himself over to the spirit of a fetish—but the spirit eats him. It's hard not to read it as nightmare version of the experience so many migrants to Britain have.
Tade: "You cannot leave your context and stay the same person. The people who migrate always say, 'We'll go back to Nigeria' but you change if you live in a different place, you become a hybrid, not accepted here or there. You become a new thing especially if you see success in a field in which you are not expected to succeed. There are a lot of compromises and the darker side might not be positive. Sometimes the choice may be between being a security guard or something illegal.
"The sport in the story, a staying-awake competition, is made up; but it is inspired by what happened to me when I came back to the UK. I took two jobs. One, I took blood samples at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. And at night I worked in a Securicor depot. No sleep, no respect.The Yoruba term for working like this is 'Fa gburu'.
"I was made to take an English exam when I arrived, even though I was born here and went to grade school here. Also a Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board exam and a medical exam to show I was properly trained. I had no problem with that—I always do well on standard exams. But I needed to prep the exam and eat at the same time and I didn't want to depend on my parents, so I did two jobs and spent the rest of the time studying. Basically, I never went to bed.
"I left for Nigeria in '76/'77 as a little boy with a UK passport and came back in '98. I got a bit irritated with the UK so I left and went to the South Pacific to work in Western Samoa. I worked as a doctor there for a year. I used to speak Samoan but I've lost a lot—I can still understand it when it's spoken."
Tade now works as a psychiatrist in a UK hospital. He also paints and draws, wants to do a graphic novel some day, continually writes, and rather famously suffers from insomnia—one of the reasons, perhaps, why he gets so much done.
After "Honourable Mention" was finished, Filipino writer Rochita Loenen-Ruiz met Tade in Amsterdam and gave him a gift of a fetish in a little bag. "What she bought was exactly like the fetish in the story, a small creature crouched and painted black. So I said 'I've just written a story about that.' Writer's synchronicity."
Tade was also inspired by Jan Švankmajer's animated film Moznosti Dialogu about a conversation that involves devouring each other (rather like the competitor and the spirit in the story).
Tade: "English is my first language, I was born here, it's part of my identity. I am as much English as I am Yoruba. I am a Londoner. I've got a novella coming out December 2016 from Solaris Books called 'Gnaw.' It's a ghost story all about British life, my British experiences.
"On the one hand I have a strong ambivalence about being called an African writer. It creates a sub category, like woman writer or gay writer. Categories exist because of oppression. I certainly don't wake up saying, 'oh I am a tortured African Writer.' In my writing I try not to make that an issue. Most of the time I'm a human being. I can see the potential harm in being identified as the label, the potential for erasure.
"On the other hand, in science fiction, Africans have been erased. Except as examples of the primitive, the brutish, the Magical Negro with folk wisdom who exists only to help the white protagonist on his journey. There is only one of us on the Enterprise, or we wear the red shirt and step off the ship and get killed. Before 2009, there was a pervasive idea, a received wisdom, that Africans don't read science fiction.
"Racefail was necessary and a lot of good came out of it. People talk about Joseph Campbell as if his ideas are universal, but the thinking is so Eurocentric. I actually threw Hero of a Thousand Faces across the room fifty pages in. Stories from China and Japan are different from that; African stories are very different from that. The Monomyth is, well, bullshit. There's no three-act structure, the picture of death is very different. So I guess though you want to be seen as an individual, for now you have to sign up as a binary.
"I want to write everything. I am a lover of books, I don't want to write one thing. Publishers want you to be one thing. I'm not interested in that. I want to do my crime fiction, my fantasy, my horror, my science fiction, my painting."