Every single magick, every word of incantation and every atom of power that would make this day had been wept, sweated and bled for by Iya Agba.
Patience, she had learnt, was hard won; now that the time was near, she found herself growing impatient. She then remembered the price that had to be paid and her body went cold.
“... we die, so we can live,” she muttered to herself as she moved her aching bones to a more comfortable position on the recliner. It wobbled, jolting her body. She swore continuously underneath her breath as her bones screamed their vengeance for her sudden movement. Even her legs, which had gone dead earlier in the year, ached.
Damn it! Fuck! Fuck! Shit! Shit! Hell!
The stream of curses dried up as slowly as the pain disappeared. Iya Agba kept her eyes firmly shut, reminding herself resolutely that time was nothing. Pain is nothing.
“Hey! Iya Agba!” a child’s voice piped up beside her.
Iya Agba forced a smile to her lips as she opened her eyes.
Amope grabbed her hands and placed her head, gently, carefully, on Iya Agba’s lap before a smile of happiness lit up her face. “Good evening.”
Iya Agba placed her hand on Amope’s sweaty forehead briefly, then moved to the woolly, black hair which contrasted with the blue-black of her skin. She could feel the energy of magick pulsating like a wild thing through Amope’s five-year-old body. Instinctively, her arthritic fingers tapped into some of that energy, and her gnarled digits began to straighten. She yanked her hands off Amope’s hair.
Amope gave an accusatory look. “Why did you stop? I want to take your pain away.”
“Not now Amope,” Iya Agba whispered. “You will know when it’s time to take the pain away.”
From “Phoenix” in Luminous Worlds
Ayodele Olofintuade speaks rapidly, forcefully, with a lot of chuckles. She can be extremely kind. At one point, she stopped our interview because she said I looked tired.
I was. It was my first Ake Festival (in November 2016), and I had not gone to bed the night before. Thankfully Ayodele did most of the talking. As soon as I thought she’d told me about all of her stories, she suddenly mentioned more. Her conversation, like a TV series, has story arcs—diversions circle back around to a nearly forgotten point.
Ayodele: “The story ‘Phoenix’ is actually part of the trajectory my life is presently taking. In the story I examine witchcraft, both as a tool of disempowerment and demonization of women and as a real spiritual power, witchcraft as a way of passing down freedom and independence (economic and spiritual) from one generation of women to another. It’s an intergenerational story of a hundred-year-old woman and a five-year-old girl and how that old woman died to live again so that she can mentor the young girl.
“The story’s most important aspect is the belief that witches can morph into animals, particularly black goats and birds (Laughs), which I played around with. There’s also a lot of Christianity, as it’s presently practised in Nigeria, in the story too. I was a Christian for about ten years so I had enough material to work with.”
GR: “Past tense?”
Ayodele: “Past tense. (Laughs) I just dropped off the scene. (Laughs) During those ten years, I had so many questions that weren’t being answered by the church. So I started trying to figure out the answers myself and I found out there’s no way the Bible could answer my questions.
“The biggest of my problems was that I entered the church as a single mum and I was harassed sexually by a pastor and I was blamed for it.
“During that period, there was a girl was accused of witchcraft and banned from the church, although the rumours making rounds then were that the girl was accused of lesbianism and that was why she was excommunicated.”
We were talking in the Ake art gallery space, quiet at first, but very suddenly there was a book launch. We moved twice during the interview. The recording blossoms with party sounds, then echoes with music, and then in the canteen it clanks with spoons.
When the recording starts again, we are talking about stories based on traditional beliefs.
Ayodele: “I don’t know why a lot of African writers are talking about those stories because I can’t speak for everyone, but I know why I do it. I’m exploring the past because there aren’t a lot of books telling you the truth about your past or how you became who you are. So you are on this journey, still looking back, and at the same time trying to stay in the present and figuring out what’s next.
“I think Africa is exploring its past, its precolonial past—let me be specific about that—more than ever. We haven’t realized how much impact colonialism had on us as a people. How deeply traumatized we are as a people—I found out recently that memories can be passed down through DNA. That’s actually a fascinating thing. Memories being passed down to you coded in your DNA, memories from your ancestors, and in some ways certain things become clearer to you.”
As important as the past is, it’s also important to visualize a future, the way we want it to be.
Ayodele spent a lot of her childhood in the hometown of the Ake Festival, Abeokuta, near Olumo Rock, with her grandfather. Her great-grandmother was a travelling saleswoman who travelled through the west coast of Africa. “She would sell cloth in one town and buy fish there, and then sell fish in the next town.” Ayodele is planning to travel the routes her great-grandmother must have taken, and might write about her experiences.
She got into science fiction by reading short stories in her brother’s early issues of Playboy and the science fiction books, comics. and magazines he would bring home. She wishes she could remember more about an anthology of stories she read, about an alien who had parasitic relationships with human beings, s/he (depending on her victim’s sexual behaviour) would feed off their memories while fulfilling their greatest fantasies, with the victims kept in a dream state till they died from starvation. “It was so creepy, I really loved it. Speculative fiction made me a writer.”
But it isn’t an easy life.
Ayodele: “I tried to sell a novel recently, and I actually got a contract for it. They just up and tore the contract, they said, because I didn’t want to work with the editor they chose for me. I said I want an editor who understands that I’m a feminist, not accusing me of writing about feminism or saying that I am being unfair to the male gender. Give me something I can work with. Don’t tell me I’m being unfair to the male gender. Tell me this particular male character, I have made him too plastic, too one-dimensional. Don’t tell me I’m favouring the female gender. What does that even mean?”
GR: “Was it a he?”
Ayodele: “No, it was a she.” (Laughs)
The two of us share various tales of being edited and the usual writers’ nightmares. When we get back to the interview, it starts afresh.
Ayodele: “My first children’s book was published by Cassava Republic. It nearly won an award (the NLNG Prize for 2011). For your first book—ah!—to get all that attention. It was really a dizzying period for a writer who had been trying for years to get one book published, and everybody kept saying, ‘No, we don’t do this kind of book. We like our children’s stories to actually be like children-children, aunty-aunty kind of stories.’
“My books don’t talk down at children. I don’t think children are stupid. If children are stupid we all wouldn’t be here. I believe to get more children to where you want your world to be, you have to deal with them as human beings in transition, not just a Mini-Me.
“The book was titled Eno’s Story. It’s a witchcraft book too (like “Phoenix”). I’m a bit obsessed with witchcraft. It’s about a child accused of being a witch. A child that talks back. The book was banned in a lot of schools because ‘children shouldn’t be encouraged to talk back.’
“The girl does the sleeping on the streets thing. Gets rescued. She talks back at the pastor who was trying to deliver her from the spirit of witchcraft. That was the a big deal for some, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing what I want to write.
“I started writing a YA because I like crafting stories for young readers. But when I’m writing, I don’t think of just one book. I sometimes think of a one-off novel but which will have to be long. But most of the time, I think of writing for children in series of three or four books. I break it down into bits that they can enjoy.”
Publishing in Nigeria can be tough, as Ayo’s anecdotes reveal.
“I wrote the first of a new series raw, unpolished, just off the top of my head. This publishing house had said they liked the way I write and would love to see something from me, so I sent them the first draft of this fantasy Children of the Rainbow.
“They just took the manuscript and published it. They didn’t edit the story. They didn’t pay me a dime. (Laughs) They didn’t even tell me they had published it. And it was on every bookshelf of every government secondary school here in Nigeria. I didn’t hear about it until somebody in a state about two hundred miles away from where I live called me and said, ‘Ah, I really enjoyed that story, it was so much fun.’
“Turns out that the publishing house got a contract from the federal government to publish books for young adults, so they just took books off writers who were on shortlists for prizes and went straight to press with them—they didn’t even read the stories. It was a pretty upsetting period for me.
“I tried to go to law and it was dragging on and on. In the end I forced them to pay me some money and got a letter from them promising not to reprint the book. I heard this year that they reprinted the book. (Laughs)
“The first print run was about a hundred thousand copies, but I don’t know how many copies they printed this time. I’m waiting until I can get my hands on the new edition, and then I’m taking them to court. But I’ve heard horror stories of people going to court here in Nigeria —you be there for ten, twenty years. Especially when it comes to copyright laws because, really, there is no justice, and no real laws protecting creatives.
“The book was called The Mask. If you had seen the quality of printing. It was horrible. (Laughs)
“My first adult fantasy was published by Brittle Paper. It’s called Adunni: The Beautiful One Has not Yet Died. Yes, it’s a play on the title The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born (the classic Ghanaian novel by Ayi Kwei Armah).
“It’s a story about abiku (the vexatious spirits who keep being born as children over and over to the same family, dying young each time). In this story I tried to see into the mind of an abiku, how it feels not to have a home, a body of your own, because, in the legends, the abiku are basically bodysnatchers. Would an abiku prefer to be human? What does an abiku gain from coming and going? Do they become stronger?
“It was a series too, published in eight episodes with really beautiful illustrations by Laolu Senbanjo.”
The two of us talk about Brittle Paper, the explosive literary blog/online magazine started by Ainehi Edoro. (The next chapter of 100 Africans will have an interview with Brittle Paper’s contributing editor Otosirieze Obi-Young.)
Ayodele: “I don’t know how Ainehi does it. She’s also teaching at Duke University. When she started Brittle Paper, I saw it and I was like, ‘This is kind of spaced out.’ A lot of people won’t take the work I do, but I thought these people seem a little more open. After I sent in the first draft of the story (which was originally meant to be a one-off), Ainehi called me and was really enthusiastic, we struck an eight-episode deal and that was how I got my first payment from writing a short story.
“I also had a bit published in NigeriansTalk, a literary magazine that is part of another platform. Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún ran it for a while but it’s gone into a bit of a decline now. I published an excerpt there called ‘The Family Meeting.’ It explores family, feminism, and jazz-like ju-ju kind of thing. The story’s actually about a kid whose grandmother had just died. And the child had to be fostered.
“I can’t call the story speculative fiction, but everything I write has magical elements. My villain (in that piece) really believes in dark magic. He does a lot of stuff like incantations to curse his enemies and is quite insistent on the potency of the powers of the orisha. All my work has darkness, black magic. Black, black magic. Black is magic.”
We talk about Unathi Magubeni, the South African working sangoma and writer who makes a distinction between the sangoma who use spiritual power for the community and people who use power to do harm.
“I’m trying to embrace everything. You are supposed to be scared of black magic. I’m not going to make excuses for darkness. If that’s how others see spirituality I’m going to take them at their word. In Yoruba spirituality, there’s no extreme of good, no extreme of evil. There’s always a balance. My favourite saying these days is, ‘There’s good in every evil and there’s evil in every good.’ It’s two parts of a whole; it’s yin and yang.
“What other religions offer is a distinction between light and darkness. They forget that without darkness there’s no light; without light, there’s no darkness. One is the reflection of the other.
“For example, I run a not-for-profit project for low-income schools and students that don’t have access to libraries. Each year, I give away books to these children, creating a thirst for knowledge in them. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve done something good.
“But I might have also done something evil; I’ve created a thirst I can’t assuage. I can’t be giving them free books for the rest of their lives! In fact, I run the project in different schools each year. So here I am giving these children a glimpse into a world of possibilities, but everything around them is the antithesis of what they read. So they see all these possibilities but I can’t actually lead them into that world. So they will have to find a way. Anything that they do along the way to get into that world might be my fault. Even when you think you are doing well, you might be harming somebody.
“I dealt with self-righteousness in the church. It’s something I keep questioning myself about. Sometimes when I got all mad about people behaving in a certain ways, I used to call people stupid. Like Teju Cole did this afternoon (during his interview at the festival). He said that the mass of people were stupid. I used to think people were stupid, but I realized people are not stupid, they’ve made their choices, that’s how they’ve chosen to be. I’m in no place to tell them how to live their lives, because that’s the beginning of self-righteousness. The best I can do is live my life, be free.”
We take a break for food. We talk about her mainstream novel, The Whirlwind, how it was an anomaly. Then we go shooting off describing yet another fantasy series.
Ayodele: “Every other story in my head has been a fantasy adventure. I wrote six fantasy books for a publishing house. But because of what’s happened with dollars, the books are stuck in India now, and they can’t bring them in. One of them is called Robot Mommy. A story about a woman who created a robot which looked like her, but behaved the way her son imagined he wanted his mum to be. She then took herself on a holiday and left him with his robot mummy.
“I even read the proof copies. They were supposed to be out last year. I’m learning patience. If I tell myself that often enough I will learn patience eventually.
“It’s difficult to be a Nigerian writer and get paid because people don’t want to pay you at all. They think that anybody can write, so what’s your problem?
“My son and I did the last two books I wrote. He writes speculative fiction. We have this weird relationship going on because I’m a writer, but I tell him, ‘Don’t be a writer. You don’t want to be a broke writer like me. I want you to explore your other talents.’ He’s trying to find his way, his voice. He likes manga art and he’s trying to fuse that with his blackness. I think he’s young enough to explore all those things. And he’s smart enough.
“We did a book together. I wrote it, he illustrated it. Then we had the books published. I won a grant last year to the tune of one million naira to publish books for children. So I published two of my own books and two of other people’s. One of my books was called King of the Heap. It’s about a street child who sells ‘pure water’ for a living.”
GR: “It’s amazing. You keep telling me about more books you’ve written.”
Ayodele: “I think it’s just sheer stubbornness, not-giving-upness. Having a big dream of living an alternative lifestyle. People who have chosen the alternative path, making their own way, having their own voices, and on insisting you have your own voice. Because people will drown you out, they will bully you, they will talk you down. When you do your thing, you are giving freedom to other people to do theirs, too.
“I think I have writing-itis. I am always writing. Even when I have no fiction. I run a blog called 9jafeminista. Is there something wrong with that?”
I tell her she seems to have done a pretty good job of making a path for herself. And taken some very hard knocks.
Ayodele: “I did want to die but I didn’t. So I guess you just keep on. The one that nearly killed me was the contract that was cancelled because I rejected the editor. I did actually want to die. I cried for months, then I wrote another story.”
We story-arc back around from the cancelled contract to The Whirlwind.
“My first non-speculative adult fiction book is my last non-speculative adult fiction book. That’s it. I needed to get those demons out. Just like any other writer. You just need those demons out so that you can see clearly and think clearly, get those voices out of your head.
“I am a speculative fiction writer. That is what I am. That’s what I do.”
Since this interview, Ayodele had a story, "The Woman with a Thousand Stars in Her Hair," published in Anathema.
A non-fiction about fey Lagos, “Shuffering and Shmiling: A Lagos Odyssey,” was published by Megacity Fictions and will be included in an print anthology to be published by Boiler House Press.
She has several submitted manuscripts of fantasy. Two have been accepted for publication but they're not out yet, and she is presently writing an SF novelette. She’s also been commissioned to write a five-thousand-word essay exploring queerness in the Nigerian music and entertainment industry, tentatively called Queering Fuji: The Art of Papa Tosibe.