“They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic,” writes the late Virginia Hamilton, a children’s author who was one of the very first African American writers to pull from the myth and folklore of Africa and the American South, and one of Nnedi Okorafor’s literary heroines. Indeed, Okorafor’s people can fly, and in her award-winning short stories and novels Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker, she has taken readers to new heights with her magical word-building all set in Africa. Born to Igbo, Nigerian parents, Okorafor has painted a rich, multi-layered futuristic Africa without the stereotypical motifs of cannibalist zombies, superstitious witchdoctors, or the "magical negro."
In the midst of creatively fertile environments, Okorafor blends science fiction with fantasy, technology with horticulture, and politics with spirituality to illuminate dichotomies that can coexist peacefully. African culture and tradition in the forms of ancestors, elders, spirituality, and reciprocity with the earth and its creatures stand at the forefront of Okorafor’s stories. And in the case of her last two YA novels, and the forthcoming Akata Witch, a gutsy young African girl must save a loved one, and ultimately, the world with her powerful, yet untrained magic. These stories can be seen analogous to the career of the prolific and tenacious Okorafor, as the Nigerian-American speculative fiction writer navigates the literary world of science fiction and fantasy.
With Who Fears Death, to be released this year by DAW Books, Okorafor ventures into adult fiction and magical realism in the form of post-apocalyptic and genocidal Africa. She makes it clear that this is a very grown-up novel whose heroine tackles brutal horrors and atrocities against the backdrop of shapeshifting creatures, soothsayers, and politics. Like her predecessors, the late Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due, she envisions a world where the people can fly and they can do magic too.
Okorafor is a winner of the Carl Brandon Society’s Parallax Award. She won the Wole Soyinka Literary Prize, the Macmillan Writer’s Prize of Africa, and is a guest of honor at the 2010 WisCon along with Strange Horizons’ own Mary Ann Mohanraj. She holds a Ph.D. in Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Ibi Aanu Zoboi: One thing that distinguishes you professionally from many speculative fiction writers is that you’ve earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. How does this differ from the more common M.F.A.?
Nnedi Okorafor: The Ph.D. in Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing is equal part literary study and writing. It prepares you to be both a writer and a scholar. You have to take an exam based on your book list (which can be over 150 books). This exam is three parts, each about 3-4 hours long. The difference is that your dissertation is a creative dissertation instead of a traditional dissertation. In my case, it was a novel, specifically The Shadow Speaker. And you also have to defend your dissertation.
In short, it was hell. The courses were tough. Many people in my program had the “writer” beaten out of them because of all the work. This was not the case for me. But that program really worked me. I used to play competitive tennis and I ran track. I knew how to handle great pressure. When it came time for my exams, I actually got sick from the stress. My gums swelled up, I started breaking out, I was sick to my stomach. Right after my exams, it all stopped.
M.F.A.s are far more focused on writing.
IAZ: Your second YA novel, The Shadow Speaker, was originally your dissertation. How did a futuristic story about a little girl from Niger with magical powers go over with the academic crowd?
NO: Smoothly, surprisingly. Though I did make sure I gathered professors who not only had a love for stories, but were opened-minded and had some experience with the speculative. One of my committee members was Luis Urrea; he loves speculative fiction. And another was Gary Wolfe, who has one foot in academia as a professor at Roosevelt University and one in the speculative world as a columnist for Locus Magazine and a writer of award-winning speculative fiction. My other professors knew me and I’d already warmed them to my brand of writing in fiction writing classes before that.
IAZ: How did your experience in academia affect your creativity?
NO: Academia helped me to see beneath and into the story. It helped balance out the commercial side of the business which kept urging me to write what sells. Basically it’s because of academia that I write what comes from my soul, regardless of salability. Academics are concerned with “truth”, not sales. Academia also taught me how to really do research, how to find information, and how to read it.
IAZ: Do you think a Ph.D. made your query letters and manuscripts shine just a bit brighter as opposed to a mere mention of a six-week stint at Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop?
NO: Do you mean telling those to whom I was submitting that I had a Ph.D.? No. I don’t think people care about that. They care about the quality of your story. And quality can come from many places, be it a university or Clarion or the classroom of life.
IAZ: When you first started submitting, what was the response to your work from the publishing industry?
NO: “This is wonderful and really, really weird but utterly un-catagorizable, so therefore we’re going to have to pass on this.” I heard that soooo many times. What do you do with that? You can’t really go back and change anything because really these experienced editors are saying there’s nothing wrong with your work. It was a painful predicament for YEARS! My reaction was to just keep writing and submitting, but I mostly kept writing.
IAZ: Your work has been described as quite imaginative, ranging from floral-scented peace bombs and witty sand cats to carnivorous flower pods. How did you become so fascinated with flora and fauna growing up outside of Chicago?
NO: Above everything, I had a natural love of nature. My father, a cardiovascular surgeon, loved animals and plants, too. He totally passed that on to me. He taught me how to look and see what was crawling, creeping, running, biting, flying, digging around me. He gifted me with a sense of wonder that did not leave me as I grew older.
Also, when I was growing up, urban sprawl had yet to take over the patches of unused land around my house. I spent a lot of time during the summer in empty lots overrun with weeds and rogue trees. Spittle bugs, crayfish, earth worms, katydids, the one-legged toad that managed to escape from my happy meal box and get recaptured by a friend of mine who lived five blocks away—these were great sources of joy for me.
Also, as I was growing up in the U.S., my parents were taking my siblings and me to Nigeria pretty often. So it was a dual thing. During these trips, I encountered the infamous spider the size of a dinner plate in the house! The multi-colored grasshopper with a lethal kick. The wall geckos in the house. The spider thin as paper with a red, blue, and yellow stripe on its body. The clicking grasshoppers. The mean lizards. Etc. It was all very fascinating.
IAZ: Do you pull from just Nigerian culture, or does your work cover all cultures including the more typical European ones found in the genre, e.g. fairies, vampires, werewolves (oh my!)?
NO: The root of all that I do is Nigerian or West African. Why? Because.
I’ve written about a vampire before in an unpublished story. But instead of turning into a bat, mine was from Ghana and turned into a firefly. But a lot of the more typical stuff doesn’t really interest me. I can always pick up other books and enjoy them. There are many other creatures yet to be given stories. I’m starting with the ones I’ve been hearing about since I was a kid, like masquerades, ogbanjes, and Mami Wata.
IAZ: Although your stories are all set in Africa, you grew up here in the States. In what ways do you think American girls can relate to either Zahrah or Ejii?
NO: When I wrote Zahrah the Windseeker, I wasn’t thinking of American girls or American anything, really. I was thinking of the Nigerian girls I saw doing too many chores and not having the time that their male counterparts had to chill. No time to dream and imagine. I wanted these books to somehow make it to them and cause them to sneak away from their ten thousand chores to read and dream.
I think all children need to have time and space to dream. Yes, even American ones. Just because a story isn’t written specifically for you, does not mean you can’t relate to it. If that were the case, growing up, I’d have had nothing to read.
Zahrah and Ejii are young folk who have hard choices to make. Neither comes from wealth or royalty; they’re just normal kids. Each is afraid but still must push forward. Each has emotional and cultural baggage. I think you can be from any part of the world and relate to Zahrah and Ejii’s plights and adventures.
IAZ: A spunky little seven-year-old girl is lucky to have you as her mother, and we all know of a couple of hugely successful writers who are mothers. How has motherhood informed your writing and creativity?
NO: Anyaugo is six going on seven. Motherhood forces you to be more disciplined and organized, even more so if you are a working mother. So there’s that. But creatively, that’s harder to say. I still write with the same intensity as before I became a mother. There was never a time where I said, “Let me stop writing and focus on Anyaugo.” I’m always focused on Anya and I write all the time. To me, writing and being a mother are a part of me, so they are mixed together and balance each other out.
My stories are no different than before I became a mother, either. Well, except for "The Chicken in the Kitchen." I’d never have written this if every night for a year and half Anya did not demand that I write it. It’s about a giant emotive somewhat bipolar chicken who Anya finds in her kitchen. It was her idea and she gives me little details that need to be in there. For example, the story MUST end with Anya becoming friends with the chicken and doing a dance. So Anya gives me ideas.
IAZ: In The Shadow Speaker, you have a character named Dieuri, a Haitian mad scientist whose name means "God laughs" and is responsible for igniting a "Peace Bomb." Do you see any correlation between this and how people are responding around the world to the earthquake in Haiti?
NO: This is a great question and it's been on my mind since the earthquake in Haiti. Also, the editor who bought this novel is Haitian American, Jaira Placides. I remember that it was Dieuri who initially caught her attention.
Yes, Dieuri was the Haitian scientist who created and detonated the Peace Bombs that helped the entire earth go haywire when it needed to go haywire. He was later believed to have either thrown himself into the Caribbean Sea or sprouted giant wings and flown into outer space where he supposedly came from. I loved Dieuri so much that I wrote a lot more about him in Stormbringer, a sequel to The Shadow Speaker (which I'm working on).
Dieuri's real name was Jean-Pierre Toussaint and he lived in the affluent hills of Petionville, Haiti (this area was mostly spared by the recent earthquake, btw). He later attended MIT until his research in physics began to get a little . . . dodgy
It's no surprise that this environment-loving genius who combined magic and science came from Haiti. Haiti carries the descendants of the most rebellious black people on earth. People who suffered slavery yet and still burned hot enough to snatch back their freedom and hold on to their traditional African beliefs. Unheard of. And Haiti has also been a focal point for pain, conflict and suffering.
I doubt any of this is the reason for the outpouring of help the rest of of the world has responded with. In my experience, not many people knew much about Haiti before the earthquake. Few knew of the country's previous struggles. I think people are disturbed, saddened, and sincerely want to help . . . most people.
IAZ: The term Afrofuturism describes the body of work in literature, art, music, and film where diasporic Africans either envision or question their presence in a future, technologically advanced world. Would you describe your work as Afrofuturistic?
NO: According to that definition, certainly.
IAZ: Do you think speculative fiction writers, especially those writing about the future, are diviners in a way?
NO: Yes, very much so. Especially when they are really in tuned to what they are writing, when they let go and let things work through them. We've seen it time and time again. A writer will write something that somehow comes to pass. There are mysteries in the world that we cannot possibly understand. When I think about writing, much of it is trance-like for me. One minute I'll be typing and the next it's like I've disappeared and something else takes over. Then I'll look back and be shocked by the story I see. It was this way with Who Fears Death. Someone else wrote most of that, not me. All this can be a little scary. But it's a beautiful thing, too, and makes our work that much more important.
IAZ: You're a former athlete who maintains a hard-core workout schedule. Does this have anything to do with you being so incredibly prolific?
NO: Very much so. An enormous amount of physical energy builds up in me every day. If I don’t release it, I can’t sit still and write for long. So I usually hit the gym in the morning. My worksouts are exactly an hour and therefore they are very vigorous. The Stair Master is my favorite because it’s really tough AND I can read on it. On alternating days, I lift weights and do other anaerobic exercises, which are equally as vigorous. Oddly enough, this is how I feel about writing, too. The stories build up in me and if I don’t write them, I can’t relax. So it’s all from the same place.
IAZ: In your upcoming adult novel Who Fears Death, you tackle some heavy issues such as genocide and rape used as a weapon of war all within the context of magical realism. Are there any fears on your part of the sort of backlash this may cause?
NO: It is not really in “the context of magical realism”. When I wrote this, I was writing a world that I saw as real (I believe in magic. I really do. I’m not using tropes or writing metaphors). . . if that makes sense. Fantasy, science fiction, futurism, magical realism, all these labels . . . ugh, I am yet to find a proper fit.
Anyway, the greatest fear that I had was, with all the sex and horrific violence, what my mother would think when she read it. Lol!
But seriously, the issues I am addressing in the book, they are issues that I have deeply considered. I am Igbo and during the Biafran War, some of what happened was damn close to genocide (whether or not there was genocide depends on who you speak to). That war’s monstrous ghost still haunts my family and every other Nigerian. So, when I began to look at Darfur, I started making connections. Also, women’s bodies are a war zone in every culture. I can go on and on. Everything that I touched on in Who Fears Death, everything that happens in the story, I have deeply considered.
Because of all this, I’m not afraid of any backlash. When I workshopped some of the first chapters in my novel workshop during my Ph.D. program, several fellow students accused me of being pro-female circumcision. Can you imagine? Me? As if. They didn’t get what I was doing. I was coming at it from the inside. Heh, they’d only read a chapter, they didn’t see the rest of the story . . . so maybe I shouldn’t blame them so much. Though, they should have had more faith in me. Come on.
IAZ: Certainly there have been African authors who've dealt with these issues in their novels, some who have been imprisoned or exiled. Who are some of your favorites?
NO: Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist author of Woman at Point Zero, is the first to come to mind. She was a big inspiration to me. She was circumcised as a young girl and she went on to become a doctor, a novelist and a huge force to be reckoned with in Egypt. She played a pivotal role in getting the practice of female circumcision (a.k.a. female mutilation) banned in Egypt in 2008 (she fought for this for 50 years). And she spent years in exile because of it. She wrote a wonderful quote for Who Fears Death which I will cherish forever.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali feminist author of Infidel, is another whom I idolize. Indeed, she’s very . . . controversial in her views, but I just love her. She spoke out on problematic issues of gender and race within Islam and because of it had to flee to the West (of course, the West certainly isn’t perfect, either, but at least here she’s less likely to be beheaded for her beliefs). And of course, there’s Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who was imprisoned for trying to broker peace between the two warring parties in Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War. I’ve idolized this man for years and years and years.
These are the warriors who I looked to when writing Who Fears Death got difficult. I thought to myself, “If they could face these issues on the page while fearing for their lives, I certainly could do it.”
IAZ: Can you describe a typical fan of Nnedi Okorafor and her work?
NO: Ha ha, no. I think those who like my work are like me, very hard to pin down.