The street is quiet. Mosquitoes sing an octave higher than the hum of electricity, often absent. My bed feels like a pallet of lead but I don’t thrash; I lie still as death. I am sweating from wearing three shirts and a sweater over two jeans and a pair of shorts. I click the heels of my boots against each other to keep myself awake.
I hear her in the other room, a drunken bee dancing around our things singing something I can’t piece together in a droning voice. She has been drinking, slowly, but with a determination I almost admire, since seven. It’s nearly three am. That’s nearly eight hours if you discredit the fact that she was hungover even then. I don’t grudge her drinking; if I had as much courage as she did, I’d do the same.
A loud crash comes from the passageway and then the muffled thud of her body hitting concrete, like the sound you make when you punch a pillow. I don’t move immediately; I wait ten, then twenty minutes. Just to make sure. Then I crawl off the mattress, feeling my way in the darkness towards the door that joins the halves of our two room apartment. I freeze when in the near dark I spot a lump. She is splayed out in the doorway, half of her body in ‘my’ room. If I had stretched out my hand any further, I would have touched her, my mother.
I skirt around her body, it takes some contorting but I manage it without touching her. Even dead with drink, I can feel it; the pull of our telepathic connection. Being this close to her it is almost physical, like someone tugging on your arm, but I hold my breath and press my fingernails hard into my palm to distract myself. The front door takes some savvy to pry open but once I slip out into the dark, I feel free. Alive in a way that I had never felt before. I start to run and I haven’t stopped running since.
Edwin Okolo is a handsome devil and he knows it. He has a growling bass voice and is liable to spritzle out a sideways giggle at his own mischievousness.
I just about caught up with Edwin on the last morning of Ake 2016. On the tape is the noise of the festival’s scaffolding, hoardings, and banners being taken down.
Edwin: “‘Maki’ kind of started as a reimagining of Okorafor’s Lagoon. I read the book and enjoyed it, but I felt the end was too sanitised. Sometimes …”
GR: “I’m going to quote you.”
Edwin: (Laughs) “… not everybody in life gets a happy ending, but in Nnedi’s books, they tend to get happy endings. So I just wanted to write a story that wasn’t neutered at the end to make it easy. Also, I wanted to do something about Lagos. A different kind of Lagos, a darker, more feral Lagos. Yes.
“‘Maki’ is a story about a teenage girl who runs away from home because the women of her city control the government, the legislature, and the executive. And the men are basically nonexistent. They are like shadow-wives or something. The girl doesn’t want that life for herself. But in the process of running away she ends up confronting her mother and finding out that the thing women use to control everyone is actually an alien parasite which is a single organism that has put its cells in each woman and acts like a telekinetic network. They can use the network to perform acts of telekinesis or telepathy. Anyone in that cellular network is under their control or in their purview. There’s a bit of matricide in the story … but.”
GR: “I think you just gave away the ending. Do you think that that could be read as a nightmare vision of feminism?”
Edwin: “Yes! Yes, yes.”
Edwin: “Because it asks the question if in order to get power you have to give up something of yourself, what is too much to give to get equity and equality? And it turns out to be a lot. You have to give up a lot to get equity. I just explored the idea.”
GR: “So you have a interest in gender.”
Edwin: (Laughs) “Yes.”
Silence follows, so I ask what else he’s written about gender.
Edwin: “Most of my fiction is gender-based. I like to explore gender and sexuality and mental health and how they all intersect. How not being your true self can literally twist you into something else you’re not.”
GR: “How easy do you find living in Nigeria?”
Edwin: (Grins) “It has its pros and cons. I think living in Nigeria, there is a culture here that you simply cannot understand if you’re not immersed. It’s very beautiful, it’s very vibrant, but there’s also the fact that Nigeria doesn’t really work. Its government doesn’t work. Its social institutions are crippled. So you are almost forced to do everything alone, on your own. So it’s very, very hard. But once you are able to overcome all of that, Nigeria is a really beautiful place.
“One of the reasons Nigeria is so beautiful to me is that I’m multiethnic. My parents are from different tribes. And their parents are from different tribes, so I have so much culture to draw from. And then I’ve travelled to about twenty-two states in the country. I had the opportunity to really immerse myself in the cultures of those places. To understand why they are how they are, what moves them, what drives them. Which a lot of Nigerians don’t really get because there is this whole tendency to stay where you are, not to put your life quote unquote at risk.
“My father is Igbo, but there are Hausa people married into his family. My mother is Edo, but there are Yoruba people married into her family, so we have all four cultures. It used to be a problem. But my generation is a lot more blended than the generations before us.
“Because of the civil war in the ‘60s, and colonialism before that, there was a lot of internalized hatred of other tribes. There was this preconception that a tribe was a stereotype. They are this one thing, and you can’t expect them to be anything else. But being multiethnic forces you to question, because you feel connected to every part. So you are forced to put your biases aside and engage and see that underneath we are all the same. We are all people.
“I tend to explore the urban youth in my writing, people of my generation. There is a really big disconnect between the people of my parents’ generation and my generation.
“One of the things I write about a lot is how my parents, my mother especially, is very convinced that she has some kind of sixth sense that allows her to keep me and my brother safe provided she can see us. If she can see you then she can keep you safe. A lot of Nigerian parents feel that way. You are only safe when you are in your house, when you are not outside, not doing things, not living. And my mom is a lot more of a hippie than most.
“I try to explore that whole rebellion. Even just living to a Nigerian parent is rebellion. Like going out on a day trip. Going out without telling them where you are going. Things that should be normal for a young adult are seen as these overblown big rebellions.
“It’s almost like every Nigerian parent is a small authoritarian regime. And their house is their country. They guard it jealously. And the citizens of the country are not allowed to make any decisions without consulting the dictator at the top. Who is a loving dictator, but still a dictator.
“Our generation has had to rebel to get most of our civil liberties, like our freedom to travel without pre-information, or to marry outside of our tribes. To do a lot of things we have to physically, visibly rebel. So that informs my fiction a lot. How that rebellion works and why they are the way.”
GR: “So is speculative fiction part of the rebellion?”
Edwin: “It definitely is. Because a lot of Nigerian cinema dabbles in fantasy and science fiction. Even the most mundane stories will have some element of the supernatural, some element of unexplained circumstances, like external powers affecting things. The millennials of Nigeria are very self-possessed. We want to do things by ourselves. Our parents are very dependent on a higher power or an external force giving them a thumbs-up to do stuff. We are trying to understand them, parse why they rely so much on these external forces.
“Like with my parents, it’s not strange for them to have a shrine in their house. My dad’s family has had a shrine in their house forever. It’s something we walk past. It doesn’t beep to them when they see it. But to us, it’s just so, ‘What is this thing? Why is it there? How can you kill a chicken and pour the blood on this thing and not see that it’s crazy?’”
“A lot of the speculative fiction I’ve seen in Nigeria from young people is trying to make sense of why the generation before us has taken for granted that external forces and supernatural occurrences are normal.”
I ask (as you do), about his backstory.
Edwin: “I’m a geographer by training. Yes. I enjoy geography. I love the world and I enjoy exploring it and how it works. I intend to practice at some point but for now I just enjoy how geography helps my metaphors—ocean and the solar systems and tectonics. It features a lot in my fiction.
“I went to Ahmadu Bello University in Kaduna State. I enjoyed being up north. Lagos has its perks but … naw. I’m one of those people who think you go back north to raise your children. Lagos is just too hustle and bustle and too fast to raise children. It’s like a dystopian novel for a five-year-old to have to wake up at 5:30 just to get to school because of traffic.
“Where I live, I haven’t made a friend in like two years because everybody stays in their houses. All my friends, I have to take a bus to go see them, which is just ridiculous.
“In Lekki (a recently developed peninsula near Lagos) there are no organic links to other neighbourhoods. Growing up as a kid I would walk to other neighbourhoods and join in football games with people I didn’t even know. There’s none of that in Lekki because everybody is just like, ‘Who are you? Are you an outsider? Are you here to kidnap me?’ When I was a kid I was a wild thing roaming around, home by seven. I want my children to be able to roam.”
Edwin’s bio on Omenana says that he works as a blog administrator and fashion writer. I ask him to talk about other stuff he’s written.
Edwin: “Interestingly enough, I started my career with what I would call epic fantasy. Me and two friends of mine, Dare Falowo and Oluranti Olaose, started a blog called Pass the Salt Band. We never did make any music together, though we did inspire a number of fictional bands among our friends.
“It was about a fictional rock band that also had supernatural powers. And they went around the world saving people and doing interesting stuff. It was partly inspired by the work of Simon R. Green, the British fantasy writer. He created a character called John Taylor. There are like twelve books and they are really amazing.
“Social media was really coming into its own in Nigeria. There was this whole trend where people would write fiction and insert their friends into it. So we created the blog to make our friends superheroes. They were all characters in the stories, so they were angels and demons and all sorts of fancy-schmantzy stuff, and for a while it created a real following, but after a year and a half, we all drifted to other interests.
“But while I felt that the blog was amazing, it wasn’t really Nigerian. We used a lot of fantasy tropes. They were a rock band that toured Europe and America and yes they were black characters cause there wasn’t that much SF with black characters, but a lot of the ideas were Western-influenced. Which is why when I discovered speculative fiction in 2013, it kind of gave me permission to write about what I knew, the ju-ju and all the rituals and orishas in Nigeria.
“I never thought I could contemporize orishas and bring them into the twenty-first century and have them have relationships, and be petty and petulant the way that gods are.
“In 2014, I partnered with Wole Talabi to write a series called I, Shigidi. One of the science fiction magazines published the whole thing. I can’t remember where—I’ll ask him (Abyss and Apex Magazine, October 2016). Shigidi is an orisha in the Yoruba tradition.
“I also did a collaboration with Martins Chidera Ekwe. We reimagined the Egyptian pantheon.
“I write on Wattpad with Imobong Emah, and our collective name there is Promeno, named for one of the characters in Sovereign, one of our books. The link is wattpad.com/promeno. Wattpad is a self-publishing platform that allows you to publish entire books and find an audience, and you can skip the entire process of publishing and just do it yourself.”
They have nearly five thousand followers on Wattpad and the site credits the team with nine stories.
Edwin: “We wrote a number of books there. Some were core science fiction, some fantasy, some speculative fiction. We’re working on two more books now in the universe, where all the characters are intertwined and interconnected. One is Conniveo, which is SF. There is Hexus, which is fantasy, and related to that, Ante: Hexus, and Hexus Neo.
“But of all the books Promeno does, Sovereign is the most unusual. The entire story is told through case files and journal entries. There is no narrative. You are forced to parse the story as if you were just given the case files and the personal diaries of the investigator. It forces you to immerse yourself and stop being a passive reader and instead to actively engage.
“We chose Wattpad because the readers search for the fiction themselves; they have to seek it out. There’s no money in it. But sitting on books because you’re waiting for money defeats the whole purpose. The book should be out there. And yeah, some people get money for their books and some people don’t. The point is to get it out there, to get the ideas out there, the thing you’re trying to say. For us, Wattpad is the way to circumvent the establishment and get directly to the reader.
“We have no pedigree, no backstory, so if you read one of our books to the end, it’s because you’ve enjoyed the story. And that’s what’s of utmost importance to us, to write a story people can enjoy, can share, can relate to, that transcends the writer. That becomes its own thing and comes to life.
“The first book I read that I remember was Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. It’s not the kind of book you should read when you’re nine years old, but … yes.
“I enjoy the work of Cheryl Strayed. She had this memoir in 2012, ‘Wild,’ of her mother dying of cancer. The writing is just so beautiful and I enjoyed how she parses the human condition.
“My favourite novel ever is by Melissa Bank, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. It was one of the first novels I read in which women thought. In a lot of the fiction I read, the women think in broad strokes of emotion. They are either angry or they’re resolute or depressed, but her character is funny, self-deprecating, and a little annoying because she doesn’t understand when things are serious and things are not. She is impulsive and immature. She is spectacular. I’m in love with her. A lot.”
“I read a lot of science fiction in my teens. I spent my first year at university reading all the great science fiction and fantasy novels.”
And Edwin proceeds to list a chain of fantasy writers, some of whom, like Brent Weeks, this sixty-seven-year-old, had never even heard of. Other favourites are Brandon Sanderson and, of course, Harry Potter.
Edwin: “They have proper series—six or seven books and you can properly immerse yourself. That was my problem with literary fiction. It kind of just ends. I enjoy the story ending, I just don’t enjoy that the character has gone. Which is why fan fiction exists, and that’s how Wattpad started, as a fanfic site. I enjoy that the character lives on after the story. Sometimes I’m really greedy and I want to know what they got on with in their lives after this great event.
“I enjoy imagining for myself. But with every time J. K. Rowling says something about what happened to Harry and the rest of the characters, it’s more authoritative. It’s more like a family member coming in and telling you, ‘Oh yes, she had a baby.’ Not like me imagining it. Having the author answering the questions is more gratifying than answering that for myself.
“I have always loved science fiction and fantasy, but I’ve loved it as a thing, something that you love from afar that you think you can’t get into. If you read Western science fiction as an African child, a lot of it doesn’t make sense to you. Here, a lot of stuff that is fantastic to other people is normal to us. When you go out at night and you hear a sound an African will say, ‘Yeah, so a spirit is walking; better go back to the house.’ A Western person is more like ‘Oh yeah, why is there a sound?’ It didn’t make sense to me as a kid. If you see an apparition, you don’t take out your phone, you run.
“Then I discovered speculative fiction, where the questions were more existential than fight or flight. If you’ve been alive for a hundred years, do you get tired of it? Do you come to live with people? What is the most perfect thing that that can happen to a god? These are things that speculative fiction in Africa explores.
“A lot of my friends did an African version of Sandman in 2012. Wole Talabi was in charge of that at afrosays.wordpress.com. (Volume one was called False Lives: a season of circles, based on characters created by Neil Gaiman.) It was an homage.”
A tendency to collaborate and to publish socially means that Edwin was in at the ground floor of so much that was happening online in Nigeria. He didn’t say so, but I’m told that he had a hand in managing the literary pages that Wole Talabi edited as The Alchemist on the site The Naked Convos.
It now seems to me that African SFF really got going first on blogs—for example, Jonathan Dotse in Ghana started www.afrocyberpunk.com in 2010. At the end of the interview, I ask Edwin if there is anything he’d like people to know.
Edwin: “I would like to say how much social media has changed the narrative for a lot of fiction writers, especially fantasy writers. Most of the fantasy blogs … there was this explosion of fantasy in late 2010. That was when we started our blog Pass the Salt. There was Afrosays. There was The Alchemist on The Naked Convos.
“These sites just sprung up out of nowhere and they were all doing fantasy and science fiction. They said, ‘We want to read from you Africans about Africa. It doesn’t need to be literary fiction, it doesn’t need to be Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka. It just needs to be you.’ It gave a lot of the writers permission to write. The internet, social media, having visibility, allowed a lot of us to write.
“The reason I’m a writer is because of Pemi Aguda. She used to run this blog called Betty, a column on The Naked Convos. And she was accessible. It was somebody I knew. It wasn’t some fancy writer somewhere. It wasn’t some great big person in some secret weird place. It was just this girl who was fairly ordinary, kind of shy but she wrote every Tuesday. And I thought if she could do it, I could do it too, we all could do it. The blogosphere in Nigeria has changed, but the idea remains that you can have an audience, you can do speculative fiction and put it in your bio on Twitter. You don’t need an outsider to come tell you what you are. You decide that. I don’t think the place of the internet and social media in giving Nigerians permission to do that is emphasised enough. It’s not spoken about. It’s taken for granted.”
I bumped into Edwin again at the 2017 Ake Festival. He sent me an email about what’s happened since this interview:
I got published in the German newspaper Taz.de, in November 2017. The actual story was published in print, but this is the closest I have come to finding news about it on their website. The story was called 'N.B.S' and was inspired by and set in the New Biafra world that Lesley Nneka Arimah created in her short story, “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.”
I also got published in print in the 2017 Short Story Day Africa anthology. The story there was called 'The Fates' and is about how abandonment destroys a family.