Out of breath and with very little courage, Ihumbi stood before the first line of trees. The day was just breaking. Iya’s first rays were just beginning to pierce the night skies. She stared at the tall trees that towered above her like reaching arms twisted in agonized prayer. Past the trees, darkness and thick foliage were all that lay before her. Who in their right senses would go into Iyanibi, the dark forest, a place where only bad things thrived, a place whose name meant “where Iya would not go?” Who would enter a forest that even Iya, the brightest in all the lands, had forsaken? She shivered in the warm night, and the ija-ja on her shoulder shuffled restlessly.
“No go,” the ija-ja chirped. “No go, no go.”
“Quiet, Jaja.” she hissed. She breathed in deeply and held up her itosi, letting it direct her steps.
Nothing prepared her for the darkness ahead as she crossed the first line of trees. It settled upon her and everything else like a thick cloud. The air was dense and heavy with moisture trapped between the thick roofs of leaves and the floor of the forest. It was so dense, she might have grabbed a fistful of it if she tried. Ihumbi stood still, the sound of her breath and heartbeat filling her head as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
She slowly began to make out terrifying shapes and forms. The thumping within her chest quickened. A few more moments and she realized that the shapes were nothing but huge gnarly and twisted roots of the trees that filled the forest. The terrifyingly thick roots twisted, curled and shot out in different directions like a misshapen spider’s web, sleek and wet with moss and dew.
Iyanibi was everything she feared it would be. It lived up to its name. Not one sliver of Iya’s light passed through its dense roof. It was dark and damp and smelled of moist earth and dead leaves. It smelled of a hundred seasons gone by, like a place where ancestors came to die. It felt alive and very old, and Ihumbi knew that old things harbored terrible secrets.
From In the Shadow of Iyanbi, in Brittle Paper
I rather caught Eugene Odogwu on the fly—our interview only lasted a half hour, with percussion sounds courtesy of plates and cutlery at the Ake café. Eugene asked that initial quote come from a novella published in serial parts by Brittle Paper.
Eugene: “In the Shadow of Iyanibi is a story set in a pre-colonial Africa, about two sisters who get lost in the forest. I’m playing on the whole dark forest theme that is common in African literature. They encounter strange beings and creatures. Ultimately, it’s the tale of the underestimated person turning out to be the hero of the story and rescuing her sister.
“It’s an amalgamation of many African cultures. There’s the Yoruba mythology and the Igbo and bits of Zimbabwe. I remembered this old Yoruba tale of a female tree that people sacrifice their children to. I wanted to play with the idea and expanded on it.
“I wrote this in 2014. I realized there wasn’t much African fantasy that I liked to read. I mean, like the Greek mythologies set in ancient times? I couldn’t find much of that in an African context.
“One of the very first stories I started exploring the genre with is called ‘Akane’ and it’s a story about a village with a tradition of not fishing on a certain day. And this young lad decides to break tradition and bites off more than he can chew, and he encounters water deities and other dark spirits from other realms. He finds out that there are some spiritual politics happening that time of year, which is why they were forbidden from fishing in that period.”
The full text of “Akane“ can be found on Eugene’s blog, but you will have to request permission to access it.
At the time of the interview, Eugene had just finished work on a new volume of stories. He started to talk about some of the key tales.
Eugene: “‘Ajani‘—I liked this one because it allowed me to explore writing action, and more dynamic scenes. It was a learning experience for me. The story also deals in a low key with albinism and how albinos were perceived at that time as well as outcasts. It explores a lot of themes that were of interest to me, so it’s one of my favourites.”
I ask him how the collection came about.
“When I first wrote In the Shadow of Iyanibi, I sent it to Brittle Paper, and she [Aihne Ohe] loved the story. Publishing the story in Brittle Paper earned me some good attention and I decided to develop the world in which it was set. So I wrote more stories.
“I’ve been writing for as long as I know. But my problem back then was that I was writing characters with no nationality. They were too generic. It wasn’t until 2008 I started writing for African speculative fiction.
“But I want to branch out. I don’t know what genre it falls under exactly but the next series of stories I’ll be working on will be psychological. It’s dreamy, it’s trippy, it’s psychedelic and about a drug called vudu. It grants its users certain abilities. The series spans across dimensions, and explores the dream realm.
“I do some of my own illustrations as well. There are some publishers—Sevhage Publishers and Wine Press—based in Ibadan. I’ve done book covers for some of their publications. Some of their books have won ANE Awards, one of the prestigious Nigerian awards. They mostly publish contemporary African fiction.
“My day job is as a creative director for Trellis Group, based in Lagos. We’re a creative consultancy into brand development and experiential marketing and we even run a CSR, Socially Africa.
“I’m working on a series, an arc with ten stories in it. I want to bring the comic mentality into fiction writing. No superheroes. I’m talking more about the structure. You know how you have one arc that spans several episodes. It’s urban fantasy mixed with dystopia. It’s very modern. It shows the not-too-pretty side of African slums. The fantasy and the SF elements will be built around that.”
The interview takes place in the Ake Festival visitor’s café—the writers eat fancier fare upstairs. The power had gone off in the venue, and had been going on and off all night before, though it did not affect the evening’s theatrical performance. Power is often off in the Lagos area, so I asked if Eugene was originally from Lagos.
Eugene: “No. I’m from Delta State, Nigeria, in Asaba, but I grew up in Warri. It’s still in Delta State.
“It used to be a very wild, notorious city, but it’s calmed down. It’s like a fallen giant. We had a lot of unrest and civil disobedience. We had different conflicts over the years. And then the investors pulled out and the city went into a decline.
“There’s a lot of superstition in Warri. It kind of spoils your imagination. You have things like Lady Koi Koi. In the dark you only hear her high heels and if you hear those heels, it means she’s after you and you might be dead.
“We have stories about giant birds that will swoop down and carry off children. But the ghost stories were the most predominant. There were all sorts of ghosts, nameless ghosts. After dark we just huddled up and tried to go to sleep and wait for daybreak. (Laughs) Not really.
“I come from a small family, so most of the time I was on my own. So I started reading my father’s books. Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Around the World in 80 Days. Oliver Twist. My father’s books were my first foray into literature. In time I ran out of books so I started writing stories of my own.
“In my teenage years I started watching a lot of cartoons and reading comic books. That was the exploding moment when I saw that writing can be so visual. So I tried to draw, but it was a painful experience because it never came out the way I saw it in my head. It frustrated me so bad that I decided to paint with words. So my stories are usually very descriptive in style, which is my attempt to compensate for not being able to draw.”
Except, as some of the samples below show, he most definitely can draw.
Eugene: “I studied mechanical engineering in Ghana, in Kumasi. Then I did my master’s in Manchester, which is where I met you for the first time. I didn’t tell you I was writing science fiction. Eventually I will write science fiction, but I haven’t found the right story yet. Would you say a story in which people are sucking out psychic matter and turning it into pills is science fiction?”
I’m not sure. We talk about how much SF and fantasy overlap anyway.
GR: “You should have told me in Manchester you were writing fantasy. How did you like Manchester?”
Eugene: “I really loved Manchester. Because it didn’t have the bustle of London. It was peaceful for me. Nobody encroaches on your privacy. It was just simple and WHSmith was just a walk away from me. Waterstones at Deansgate. Ah. The whole building, I could roam around for hours. They had a lounge upstairs. I could just sit down and read books. I miss massive bookshops like that. And I loved Forbidden Planet too. They had one there but I left in 2011. They had the best graphic novels.
“One thing that supported my drive to write was Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It was so beautifully written—the gods, the relationships with people, the dynamics of the supernatural and the mundane; and the way they mingled so perfectly. I love that so much. That was the tipping point for me when I got to 2008 and decided ’You know what? This is what I want to do.’”
GR: “It sounds like there would be a magical element in everything you write.”
Eugene: “Anything I write, yeah. With African speculative fiction it’s going to be a wild ride, a very wild ride. Because the elements we have to play with are limitless and relatively new. You have works drawing from indigenous cultures, from oral traditions, from projected futures, everything is going to come together to make one helluva ride. I think the world should be prepared for what’s coming out of Africa in the next few years.”
Since this interview, Eugene has been busy.
The Fall Town series of long short stories which he speaks about appeared as separate downloads from OkadaBooks. The stories are downloadable for free.
He emailed this update:
Brittle Paper is currently working on re-releasing In The Shadow of Iyanibi (previously published as a three-part series on brittlepaper.com) as a standalone work on OkadaBooks, so that's something to look forward to.
Concerning future works, I intend to finish up the Fall Town Fables series. Five issues will make up the first volume. I'm also working on a series of Lagos-based dark fantasy stories and hope to start releasing them by June this year.
This year, I'll be focusing on putting out as many tangible bodies of speculative fiction as I can.
If you are interested in Eugene's creative endeavours, you can find them on his social media handle @createdbygene across all platforms, most especially Instagram.