Photo courtesy Chinelo Onwualu
Abiye hated coming to the Galleria. She preferred to shop on the island, but she could never find any appropriate games for her students there. The Immersive Reality stuff that the island kids liked would not work in her classroom, where access to the grid was spotty at best. And none of her kids had the implants or body mods that would even make those games work. Alas, the Galleria it was.
It being a Saturday, the space was crowded with teenagers showing off their latest body paint outfits, AIs herding tired and unhappy children, and couples high on pheromone stimulants. The touts were also out in full force eager to hustle you the cheaper, less legal version of whatever you were looking for.
The woman looked like a tout: Euro-African with scruffy shoulder-length blonde hair, she wore their baggy, fear-ground trousers and faded t-shirt, but she was doing a poor job of it. Rather than calling out to passersby, grabbing likely customers to shout quick descriptions of her wares, then briskly moving on if they showed no interest, she seemed to be waiting for something.
“Madam, wetin you dey find?” the woman called out when she caught sight of Abiye.
Normally Abiye would have looked away and hurried on. Buying knock-offs was a serious criminal offence. You could go to prison, or worse, destroy your credit score. However, she had been wandering around the mall for the last few hours with little luck, and she was intrigued by the woman’s crooked smile.
“What are you selling?” Abiye stopped to ask.
“Ah, madam, you go like am. E go sweet you well, well.”
“Yes, but what is it?”
“No o I no fit talk am anyhow like that, now,” the woman said cajolingly. “Make you follow me, I go show you.”
Abiye scoffed at that. Did this woman think she was a fresh-come mugu? Follow her, so that her crew could roll her and clear all her cred once they were in the bowels of the building.
“Abeg, it’s ok. Forget,” Abiye said and turned to move off.
‘Wait, wait, no be like that. Na obonge thing I wan show you… Madam, abeg, see the thing for here,” she said. Abiye had never seen a paper pamphlet before. Even her school in the eco-slum of Agoro had switched to digital years ago. The novelty of it alone stopped her and she read the title of the tract: THE WISH BOX.
— From "The Wish Box," Imagine Africa 500.
Chinelo Onwualu is one of the indispensable figures in the history of the rise of modern African SFF. As a writer she was there, or nearly there, from the beginning. As the fiction editor and co-founder of Omenana (along with Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu, interviewed in Part 10) she has already shaped the writing of a generation, and continues to be one of the still points around which the entire field revolves.
She has a real talent for improvising long, grammatically perfect sentences, though sometimes the talking trails off into reflection. Her accent is rather North American, I think from a childhood spent following her parents who worked abroad. I ask her which story she wants to quote in the opening, and that gets us talking about her own writing.
Chinelo: “It’s interesting because I think my stories are rather lightweight. I think the story that speaks most is the one in Imagine Africa 500, ‘The Wish Box.’ I really like that story in terms of its impact.
“There’s magic in it. The wish box itself is a mysterious McGuffin. We don’t know its origins. We don’t know why it does what it does. It’s something I made up entirely. It was an object I saw in a dream. I have a tendency to dream in narrative, which here is not common. It’s unusual. My dreams tell stories and sometimes I’m lucky enough to see it end. Sometimes I get flashbacks. Sometimes I wake up and go back into the dream, into a different part of it.
“‘The Wish Box’ is about poverty and how being well meaning is not enough. Just having a desire to do good is not enough to diminish structural inequalities.
“We live in a society (Nigeria) that is one of the most unequal in the world. The rich are incredibly rich and the poor are incredibly poor. As a person you sometimes have a desire … (breaks for thought) ‘OK … if I could just give alms to the poor or pay the school fees for just one family or donate to charity, then I’m sure everything would work out.’ When what needs to change is the way society actually works.
“You have to be willing to accept that you may lose your position of privilege should things change. Without willingness to give up your own privilege there’s a chance that all your good intention is just that. It might even backfire and make things worse.
“The story itself came out of a dream, but it also intersected with something I’ve been struggling with, living in Nigerian society and trying to figure out how I can make things better for the world. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the best I can do is make sure that those around me, those with whom I am in contact, are at the very least not being exploited.”
We talk about the difficulties of ensuring diversity is represented.
“A good example is Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSFV2, which I still have real problems with. It is illustrative of what happens when you don’t examine your own place in the structure. When you do something without looking.”
All the contributors to AfroSFV2 were male.
“Someone in the diaspora complains that an anthology printed in Nigeria is full of really bad stories. While the fact is that most of us here don’t have access to educational resources that someone in the diaspora does.
“So when you’re talking about empirical quality or you’re talking about grammar, sentence structure, and the like, you’re not going to get the same kind of quality here as you do over there.
“But when publishers see that, publishers are more likely to want to publish people in the diaspora, A, because there is a certain empirical quality that they are dealing with but, also B, because people in the diaspora are spending more time talking about engagement with the West than we are.
“This is starting to make this an Us-versus-Them thing, but the truth is Western readers want to see themselves in works of African fiction. Which is why we see one thousand—I don’t know how many—versions of the dispossessed, displaced immigrant longing for home. So much more than we see stories about people who are here and just living their lives.”
We start to talk about the importance of languages—styles of English certainly—but also use of or roots in African languages.
Chinelo: “Language has its own role to play, but I think we should also acknowledge the reality that we live in which is: that for all of us to read each other’s work, we do have to read in a particular language and that language is increasingly becoming English or French. The reality is that those are the colonial languages.
“I’m sure there will be a backlash. Things come and go, right? There will be people who say, ‘No, I’m not writing or reading in colonial languages,’ and that’s great for them. But the fact of the matter is that the number of people who can speak and read and write in a language like Igbo is fast declining. And that is one of the big ones in Nigeria. We have to acknowledge it.
“I would love to see more translations of things. I would like to see things that have different rhythms. I love that absolutely. I just have to understand that I have to be able to set aside prejudices and my understandings of the way things are written to see, to acknowledge, and appreciate that. But the fact is that English is the language that binds … how many of these different countries together? We wouldn’t be able to have these conversations or engagements with each other if we didn’t speak the language. As noble as what Ngũgĩ (wa Thiong’o, focus of the Jalada Language Project and author of Decolonialising the Mind) is doing is, he is still swimming a little bit upstream on this.”
Stories by Chinelo were in Mothership, AfroSF, Terra Incognita, and Imagine Africa 500. At each step of the progress, she showed up. She just missed being in Lagos_2060. Only Dilman Dila has been a more continual authorial presence in African SFF. Her mainstream stories have been published in Kalahari Review and Saraba.
Chinelo: “That was right at the beginning. I did have a period where I really struggled with what I should write. I love speculative fiction. My ears perk up if I hear, ‘It’s a story of a women who’s lost her husband and she’s struggling with grief.’ Yeah, OK, that’s great. ‘But she’s also slipping in and out of time.’ (Mimes delight) … Oh really? Once you throw in a speculative element, I get interested.
“To be honest I was a bit opportunistic about it. When I decided to focus on writing speculative fiction, I started looking for places that were looking for African writers. I was very disappointed not to get into Lagos_2060 because I didn’t hear about it in time.
“My policy has been whenever I hear that someone wants specifically African writing, specifically spec fic, I’m there with my hat on. It’s one of the reasons why I agreed to let Ivor have that story (‘The Gift of Touch’) because I really wanted to be in that collection (the first AfroSF). It’s actually been quite deliberate. For me to say ‘Oh, it was a happy accident in every one of these cases’ would be a lie.
“I was submitting and I was lucky that people thought it was good enough to publish. I’ve tried to be conscious about representation, making sure that if there is a woman’s voice to be heard that I’m at least there to help represent.
“There is only one way to do it. You do have to be deliberate about it. You can’t sit around and hope that someone will discover you. You have to send in your stuff and keep working on your stuff until it’s good enough to publish. It’s the only way I can think of.
“I struggle very much with ‘Ah, Africans don’t do speculative fiction.’
“The kind of speculative fiction that people are looking for from Africans is the kind that has Juju in it or a shrine and a priestess. And it has to be closely tied to traditional beliefs.
“Or it’s a kind of sword-and-soul fantasy like Milton Davis is doing or Charles R. Saunders. As wonderful as those are, they are not that much different from Tolkien. Their foundation text just happens to be a different continent. They mythologize the continent in a way that when I look at it, I can’t recognise. People are still behaving in very American ways.
“When I first started out, I did have these stories that I actually had to go through and edit out the speculative element. The story I wrote for Kalahari, the original idea was that there is this woman who has found herself slipping in and out of reality for years.
“I based that on a real thing I’d heard, that a woman woke up and believed she was a twelve-year-old from seventh-century France and had a lot of problems because of it. I wrote that story and thought ‘OK, no one’s going want to publish this,’ so I went back in and I stripped it of all the spec elements, and wrote it from a different character’s point of view and truncated the ending so we wouldn’t get to the speculative parts. And it sold. To Kalahari. And I was like, ‘Eh.’ I always felt it was missing something. It was very stately and literary. The Saraba story was basically an essay that I fictionalized.
“So the conscious decision to write spec fic from an African point of view came to me oddly enough with Clarion. I only applied to Clarion because my story got into Mothership.
“I’ve always admired Nnedi Okorafor’s work. For a long time … I still kind of want to be her (Laughs) and live her life. Because she is doing something pretty extraordinary as an African woman. But she’s also doing it from the perspective of someone in the diaspora. Having lived in diaspora, I know how isolating and out of touch it can make you very, very quickly with what is happening on the ground in cities, in neighbourhoods.
“Not to say that my life is somehow … that I am a woman of the people or something. But when I go out in a taxi, I listen to people speaking pidgin, and I know that pidgin has shifted in the last ten years.
“When I read Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf, one of the things that struck me even though it was a fictionalized Nigeria, it was a Nigeria that was stuck in the 1990s, a Nigeria under (dictator Sani) Abacha. This was a Nigeria still under military rule. It’s nothing like it is today. I think Tade recognizes this to some extent, but that’s what happens when you live in the diaspora. In some way you start to drift from things that moor you to a culture.
“I love Nnedi, but her … but her book Lagoon is problematic for me precisely because having visited Lagos quite a bit and having lived there at one point in my life, I did not recognize Lagos in that book. I spoke to some other people who have lived in Lagos and many of them, they say the same. It’s a very good book; it’s excellently written, it’s a beautiful story. It just isn’t a Lagos book; it’s not a Lagos story. The Nigerian spaces she writes about have a clinical, detached quality to them that for me speaks to the fact that she doesn’t live in these places. She doesn’t spend living, breathing time in these spaces and that can sometimes rob you of vitality. Which is why I prefer her books like Zarah the Windseeker, which I loved, because it exists in this fantasy space but still has recognizably African elements. I think Who Fears Death is the same way.
“It’s hard being the lone voice, being the only person saying these things. I have to be careful because she gets a lot of backlash from African writers who say, ‘You’re not authentic enough to be writing this.’ She’s already getting that. Just because I have problems with some of her work doesn’t mean I don’t admire her greatly, because I do. But I also don’t want to add to the chorus of unwarranted criticism that she faces.”
I ask about what she’s writing now.
Chinelo: “The novel I’m working on now was based on a dream. I have a series of things I want to work on in the future and a lot of them are based on dreams.
“In the way you know something living in the moment, you know your past, you have the backstory in your dream. Dreams are full of symbolism. I think that’s why the short story framework seems to work better for me. ’Cause I’m writing the novel and I’m having a bit of a hard time generating enough words for it and keeping it going sometimes.
“Whereas I can work with stories because they are short to the point, they encapsulate the story I’m trying to tell. I have trouble enough with my endings. (Laughs) When you’re writing a novel, you’re writing to scale and the scale is so much larger.
“I think like a reporter. For me … words are precious and the more ideas you can cram into as few words as possible, the better. (Laughs). So … writing these long sprawling narratives, I’m having a hard time doing that. I want to see if I can write a good YA novel and work my way up into more lengthy narratives. Right now I’m at the beginning of my career.
“I am an editor. I enjoy revising. I have much more fun writing when there is stuff to play with.
“In my writing career I’ve had to be very deliberate and say this is what I want to do, this is the niche I want to occupy. There are ten thousand other people doing this other thing.
“It’s the same with editing. There are tons of people who are writing out there, especially in Nigeria. Everybody you meet. They have written a novel; they have written a collection of short stories that they’ve self-published. But nobody was saying let me publish some stories or let me primarily edit. It’s about seeking out spaces where expertise is needed and trying to see if I can provide it.
“Frankly I enjoy writing spec fiction. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy reading it. I do have a literary bent to my tastes, but only because I love a well constructed sentence. But more than anything I love a good story. And spec fic tends to be heavier on plot than other genres and I really like that. There’s nothing I like better than having read a book and sitting back going ‘Hah, that was a fun ride.’
“It’s the reason why I keep reading John Scalzi. Even though I have serious issues with a lot of the stuff he’s doing, he can tell me a good story and he can keep me reading up until the end of the book.
“In terms of Omenana, I have to give all the credit to Mazi because he had been thinking about doing this for years. I do remember the day he called me up and was like, ‘I’m finally going to do this thing. Are you in?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, with both legs and a swimsuit on I’m in.’ (I get her to repeat that phrase so I can type it).
Mood indigo: Chinelo and Mazi Nwonwu at the Ake Festival 2016
“We need someone doing this. We have so many places where people publish stories, but we don’t have the level of curation that I would love to see sometimes, and I think that can only come … (breaks for thought) I used to work for a publishing house, I used to work for newspapers, and I think I bring in a certain eye to the kind of stories I want to tell.
“I also want to be a counterbalance to the white-dominated genre fiction that’s happening in South Africa. I wanted to make sure that we have the space … (breaks off). I was educated in the diaspora so I have much more of a tendency to go for things written in a particular way that I find easier to recognize as a story. I’ve had a couple of stories come across my desk where I’m not sure if the person is playing with language or if they don’t understand that language very well. And that can be a difficulty sometimes when choosing stories. And I admit that that is a bias I sometimes have.
“But I like to think we are providing a space that nobody else is quite doing right now. That gives me a kind of joy. It’s a lot of time (Laughs). It’s not easy. But it also gives me an excuse to read writers and say ‘I love this thing, I’m going to track this person down and get them to send me a story for Omenana.’
“I’m so glad that we’ve been able to publish first-timers that were just these gems. They had stuff on their blogs, but that was it. I’m actually surprised at how much … play Omenana has gotten and how much positivity has come along with it.
“Because we really thought it was going to be this thing in the corner that we were doing that hopefully some people would like. If they liked it, great, if they didn’t like it, oh well. But we’ve gotten so much goodwill? And I think that is what has surprised me more than anything else.
“We also got so much, just sheer good excellent content. I shouldn’t be surprised because that’s why we were doing this, but I am surprised that Ekari Mbvundula had not been published until Omenana. I find that strange. Sanya Noel, we were one of the first places to publish him. I’m like, ‘You guys are way too good. You should have been published by Apex or Interzone or something by now.’
“I sometimes worry that the stories in Omenana are a bit simplistic? But I also realize even in my own writing—because I recognize that English is one of many languages—my aim when I write my stories isn’t to dazzle people with my structural pyrotechnics or sentence flourishes. I want to be as clear as possible in what I’m saying. I want everybody to be able to read it. As long as you have a basic education you can understand what I’m trying to say. And I think that comes from being a reporter and valuing clarity of thought over beauty of structure.
“I want to tell new writers that if you can express yourself in the simplest of language then your idea stands a greater chance of getting across. So when I edit, I go for the jugular. I cut out all the hundred-naira words, all the words that are trying to perform English. I find that is something that happens much more when I read stories coming out of the West.
“I find the best kind of African writing is doing so in very very simple words, simple clear constructions. Which I think has to do with learning English as a second language, I suspect.
“I want stories written by a wide variety of Africans telling a wide variety of stories and doing it well. There were a couple of stories in the last issue that I turned down. They were basically performing Africa for me. I don’t know anything about the background of the writers but they were set in villages. There was a lot of pot carrying, a lot of visiting the haunted forest at night. These are tropes and clichés of African writing. These are written by people who don’t themselves live in a rural setting, who are creating a romanticized past, this amorphous pre-colonial time where everything was once-upon-a-time, but they are not doing folklore. So they are just sort of setting it in a village.
“I’m looking for stories that are trying to do something different, what I really love is to be able to get to the end of a story and go “Hah! That was nice, that was good.’ And every single story in this edition (Issue Eight) made me do that.”
I change the subject to her time at Clarion.
Chinelo: “I applied to Clarion because Nnedi applied to Clarion. I always thought my work was not good enough for Clarion yet. It was not until I got published in Mothership. I was looking at Mothership and seeing these amazing stories by Daniel José Older or Junot Diaz, and my story was there among those amazing stories. It is a really really good collection.
“I noticed that people who were making it in the industry had either MFAs or they’d gone to some kind of rigorous intensive workshop. So I chose Clarion. I just said let me put this out there and see what happens. And I got in.
“That was a huge validation for me and my writing. To be able to say I really am … it’s not just arrogance or inflated sense of self. Maybe I really am good enough for that laurel I am always chasing. Getting into Clarion did that.
“While I was there, there’s a lot of great talent in that room … But what I didn’t see was focus. I didn’t see people who were saying OK, I want to write because …
“A lot of people were there because they enjoyed writing, because they enjoyed playing with words. Everybody is hoping for recognition. I was one of five people of colour, the only African woman there. And I noticed that for a lot of the people of colour there was a greater sense of ‘I’m not just doing for myself but for others, a greater sense of writing for a community.’ And saying ‘It’s not just about me and my enjoyment. I’m here to speak for other people, I’m here to represent,’ in a way that not many white writers are able to do. For some queer writers, I know that there is that sense of representation, of community.
“But I think there’s still definitely in the West a feeling that ‘I’m writing for my own personal fame. I want people to read my work.’ I realized that I have a potential because this (African speculative fiction) is only just starting. OK, I can get ahead of this thing and I can try to make sure we don’t fall into the potholes that genre fiction has in the West where it’s became this enclave for the misunderstood, the lonely white guy who feels like nobody loves him and so this is where he needs to be, and now he has to defend it from all encroachers. I think if we can start it out as something much more inclusive and much broader, we have a chance at the ground level to make this really work for us.
“The fact that I happen to be in Nigeria right now when this is happening is a real opportunity. Because if I were in diaspora, I would be listening to very different voices, I would be competing on a very different stage.
“It was at Clarion that I was able to crystallize the potential role I could have in genre here with my writing. I still have to battle self-criticism. The fact that I still don’t have a novel, I don’t have a collection of short stories. I’m in everybody’s thing but my own. The next stage is to get either a collection out or a novel out and establish some bona fides on that front.”
Suddenly Chinelo begins to talk again about Omenana.
“I don’t want to take credit where credit isn’t due. The fact is that Mazi is doing a lot of the hard lifting. He’s maintaining the website. He is paying for all the art out of pocket; he’s paying for the e-book creation out of pocket. Really the only thing I do is I edit. … I’m doing curation of the stories and deciding the content. I get all the content together and I email it all to him and then he makes the magic happen.
“I’m not trying to diminish my role or anything. This is a man with three kids, a wife, and a full-time job. If he wasn’t finding ways to carve out time to do this, it would just not happen.
“We’re both constantly on the lookout for people, places, phenomena that we want to feature in the book, writers that I would love to have stories from. I’ve already got stories for our next edition, the January edition. But if Mazi did not pour sweat and time—time he could be spending with his children—into this, this would not be a thing. It really wouldn’t.”
GR: “And he has to be willing to do all that and let you be the editor.”
Chinelo: “He has been very good about stepping back and letting me make executive decisions about things. In the beginning we tried to do this thing where he would choose stories and I would choose stories and we would have a discussion. As much as we are both lovers of the story, the fact is that I edit for a living. I ran the editorial section of a publishing house for two years. This is what I do. So when it comes to recognizing a certain level of quality, a certain held–togetherness of story, I happen to be quite good at that.
“Even when I was at Cassava Republic—I won’t lie—there were a lot of things that I did not do well at all. But when it came to choosing a good story, a good novel and saying this manuscript is going to be a pretty good novel, I think I was able to do that. Or even say, ‘OK, this manuscript isn’t quite there yet but here are the things that need to change so that it can be.’
“When you work with a writer who has the craft to take their work to the next level, there’s nothing more beautiful I feel than being able to say, ‘OK, these are signposts. See if you can follow it there and you’re going to have yourself an excellent version.’ Some writers are able to do that, some aren’t. When it all does come together, it’s like music.”
I start asking biographical questions.
Chinelo: “I studied English in college at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s a Christian school, which funnily enough is academically rigorous. It was a direct pipeline from my high school, which was a missionary school.
“My dad was a diplomat, so me and my siblings had the benefit of really good educations in international schools across the world.
“When I was a kid, I was lucky because my mom had this thing. We had these books on tape. They were picture books that came with tapes. She’d sit you down, put on a tape, and then you’d read along.
“Also my parents had a library. They were mostly trashy paperbacks. Lots of Sidney Sheldon. My mom had this romance, A Pirate’s Love. (Smile) I still remember the title.
“I read a lot of old standards. One of the first books I read—in middle school—getting into spec fic was Archer’s Goon (Diana Wynne Jones), and Sleator’s Interstellar Pig cracked my brain open. It’s about a game people play for planets and solar systems like playing cards. They have to play a game for ownership of Earth.
“There was also the Scholastic Book Fair that they would set up in the school gym. You’d get these coupons to choose ten books. I would go insane. I always loved books and would say they were my best friends. I grew up on Dickens’s Oliver Twist or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then came Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and it broke my head. It was amazing; I’d never seen anything like it.
“Then I got into speculative fiction. I read Stephen Donaldson, I read Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. I read voraciously, starting out with a lot of white authors. I read Arthur C Clarke. I read Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness bent gender for me. When I started writing my first novel at thirteen, it was an SF novel about twins who land on a planet that is a matriarchy. I tried but I couldn’t get into Tolkien. Put some black or Asian women into it, make it more textured. I also read a lot of the African Writers series—Mongo Beti, Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa. Then I heard of Nnedi and finally got Zarah the Windseeker and the rest is history.
“My parents were able to keep me going in a missionary high school, then from there to the States. I did an MA in journalism. I tried to be a journalist for a while.
“I loved the rush of it but it put me into too much contact with people which it turns out to be something I’m … not very good at? I’m great at short interactions and when I have to sustain relationships it’s hard to do. Part of being a journalist is to do with being a diplomat, a consummate people-person who can cultivate and maintain complex relationships without tipping into the personal. I’m a freelance editor now and that’s turning out to be a good place for me. There’s a need for it in Nigeria and I happen to be not half bad at it.
“I worked for Cassava Republic for two years with Bibi (Bakare-Yusuf), and that’s what got me into the fiction game. I did that after working in newspapers for about five years. Directly after Cassava is when I started freelance editing.
“I do it mostly for corporate clients these days. I remember having this big back-and-forth with academics that felt I should not be switching between present and present conditional. I might not be able to explain the grammar, but believe me it sounds better.
“My biggest pushback is when I try to get people not to use corporate jargon. You know ‘capacity building’ is not really a thing. What are you actually trying to do? Train more trainers? That’s not hard to say.
“I like it because I can do it without draining myself of the creative energy I need. And the challenge right now in my life is time management and setting out separate and deliberate time for my writing. Even when I have chunks of time free I’m not doing much writing.
Chinelo with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at the Ake Festival 2016
Photo courtesy Chinelo Onwualu
“Cassava Republic was both the most challenging period of time in my working life and the most fun. I think it had to do with the fact that publishing in Nigeria is not easy. And I have to give credit to Bibi for starting and persevering.
“I’ve since learned that my experience is not unique. Publishing is incredibly stressful. It’s filled with a lot of women at the bottom and middle tiers who are burning themselves out reading manuscript after manuscript and scrambling to make writers happy, printers happy or scrambling to be on Twitter every day to make sure the word goes out. There are never enough people and it pays so badly.
“I was living with my parents. Believe me, living with your parents in your thirties is not fun. (Laughs).
“I had just returned from the US. I was still in this place where I was reeling from what I perceived as a personal failure of not making it abroad, and having to come home with quote unquote nothing to show for time over there except a degree.
“I think a lot of authors scapegoat their publishers while at the same time approaching African publishers with this genuine and distinct air of condescension because they think that we are just not as good as being published in the West.
“There are a number of authors who I would still be OK with if I had never worked with them as a publisher (Laughs). Having seen the other side of things I know that it’s much more complicated than we think. When we hear authors complain ‘Oh, the publisher didn’t have the book at the festival. I’m sure I’m selling ten times more than the publisher says I’m selling,’ the truth is more complicated.
“When I left Cassava Republic they were owed millions of naira from bookstores who would not pay, or from corporate and government entities who had ordered tons of books for some programme or other, and then of course the money that was supposed to be paid to us disappeared into the ether and nobody could account for it. Small-time distributors would promise ‘Oh, I will get your books into twenty bookstores in the southeast’ and then disappear with both the books and of course the money those books might have brought in. Things like that.
“It was stressful in that it had its share of interoffice politics. I came in with no previous publishing experience so I was making rookie mistakes, but I did discover my ability to know what a story needs and how to fix it.
“You’d be surprised just how many authors are highly resistant to being edited by an African publisher. Because there is a sense that we just don’t know as much as a Western publisher would. Even though you have a situation where the Western editor is telling you to describe what a (street) market is. And I’m saying you are selling your book to Nigerians. Nigerians know what a street market is. You don’t need two more paragraphs describing the layout of a market and what people wear. There is this real sense of superiority.
“The writer who was great to work with, willing to take editorial direction, until they got an agent and all of a sudden you can’t tell them nuttin as Americans would say. They’re done. They’ve gotten too big for you. I can’t tell you how many times that happened.
“Very often it’s home-grown authors. I found with diaspora authors that there is hunger to be recognized at home. Once they have made it in the West, then they turn to home to see if people in their hometown also recognize them. The Western recognition is great but it’s the homegrown recognition is what they really crave, most of them. And so you find that sometimes they can be a little bit easier to work with.
“There’s a great deal of mistrust I think between African writers and African publishers, and not for no reason.
“Cassava Republic is one of the few publishers that has a traditional publishing structure and isn’t just a glorified printer. A lot of publishers here are pay-to-publish outfits where you find your own editor, you come with your own art and they will bind it and print if for you and that’s that. Even with legacy publishing houses, the editorial strength is just not there.
“A number of African publishers that I would say are doing a lot of great work … (trails off) I think Nigeria is probably unique in that sense. Because our publishing infrastructure was such shambles before Farafina or Cassava Republic came along. Even now if I had to choose places to publish my book if I had it written, there are not many places. I won’t lie.”
We talk about the number of big-name African authors who actually now live or teach in the West.
Chinelo: “It’s kind of the way it goes. It’s something I have to struggle with myself right now in Nigeria, starting the arc of what I see as my career. At some point in my own personal life, in order to have the benefit of decent health care, for instance, I may need to move to a foreign country. My partner currently is in Canada. If I have a hope of starting a family and all that good stuff, I may need to leave Nigeria. But if I do, I will immediately lose touch with where my stories come from, that which brings my stories vitality.
“I saw it when I lived there and I saw the transformation in my writing when I came back. It’s water and fire. There’s no comparison. I got better as a writer when I got back to Nigeria.
“What I found oddly enough is that when I am away, I find the space in my thoughts to be able to write. That’s when all these thoughts swimming around in my head can now get down on paper. With the Nigerian economy as it is, I think what I need is a combination of going away a little bit and then coming back.”
GR: “Why are you a writer?”
Chinelo: “That’s a very good question. (breaks for thought) I’m going to have to get a little spiritual with you for a minute.
“My mom is Catholic, and I grew up Catholic for some part of my time. Right now I’m not religious. I … believe talent is something that comes from the spirit. When your talent and your purpose align, that’s when you truly start to live. Most people in the world do not ever get that chance to discover what they’re good at and then get to do it in a way that brings them joy.
“I’m a writer primarily because I’m good at it, and it turns out, that it’s not something that comes naturally or easily to everyone. It turns out that it’s not something that everyone can do and that’s been a little bit interesting to find out. When I think of a thought and put it down on paper, I can make it sound as it should sound. It’s not something a lot of people can do easily.
“I think I persist in writing because I have something to say. I haven’t figured it out yet. I do believe that your talent is like a vessel and it’s given to you to carry something. There’s no greater tragedy than to have a talent at something and not be allowed to do it, or be made to devalue it because you know, oh, ‘Girls don’t paint’ or ‘You’re a boy and you shouldn’t be cooking.’ And yet your talent is to create food for people.
“That’s not to say that I’m living this life where I get out of bed singing Ave Maria every morning because yes! I get to write!
“The question of why I write is still something I’m figuring out; but as I do it and as I give it more importance, I stop devaluing it—because for many years I thought of writing as that throwaway thing when I have quote unquote more serious things to do. It’s a slow process that I’m still working through, to give myself permission to write, because I find that when I do write, I’m happier and I feel more filled up in a way that allows me to then give to other people.
“So when I edit other people’s writing, it’s an act of nurturance; it’s an act of taking care of them. And I think that for better or worse, nurturing is something that I’m actually pretty good at even though I don’t necessarily enjoy it. (Chuckles) I live in a society where people use the excuse of nurturance to oppress. People insist that you nurture them even when you have nothing to give. People insist that in order to nurture you must stay in a particular place at a particular time and then be excluded from doing other things. There is a gendered notion of nurturance that ends up oppressing women: the cult of motherhood, and that oppresses women.
“But writing is this act of doing that fills me up so that I can then edit, this act of giving.“
Since the Interview
Chinelo did indeed move to Canada. She has become connected with the journal Anathema. She has published fiction, including a story in Uncanny called “Read Before Use” that was shortlisted for the Nommo Award for best speculative short story. She is still editing Omenana with issue twelve due out soon.