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Ikechwu Nwaogu

Dipo, come and join us.” 

“Don’t worry, let me be the photographer.”

“Won’t you snap with us?”

“Much as I would like to, both of you are giggling and jiggling and squiggling with excitement, and none of the pictures you have taken so far is worth anything. So just pose,” he instructed, and he clicked the camera once, then twice more.

 Again, the girls insisted, and got a passer-by to snap several pictures while they posed with Dipo. The girls, Damilola and Bunmi, were course mates, and best friends. They were also close for one other reason – Dipo. Dipo Adesina was Damilola's elder brother and Bunmi's boyfriend. He had just returned from NYSC orientation Camp in the North, and he was taking time to 'flex' with the girls prior to his departure for the North, where he would be until the next time he could tear some time off to visit Lagos again. Their day at the beach passed all too quickly, and soon it was time to go. Dami's digital camera, with its memory card packed full with precious memories, was consigned to the bottom of her travel bag.

The academic session resumed in full swing with both girls studying earnestly for their second semester exams. One sweltering afternoon, Bunmi walked into the library to meet her friend, Tolani. The two nodded amiably to each other and were soon busy flipping through the fashion and style pages of the various newspapers.

“Hmmm, these northern extremists want to destroy this country kpata kpata. Imagine bombing an NYSC Camp,” Tolani remarked.

“Ehn? Upon the many soldiers who they usually post? Shame,” replied Bunmi.

From “The Photograph” in Mashup

I met Eye Kay at my second Ake Festival in 2017. His first name is Ikechukwu, but he much prefers this version of his name. I start out by asking him how he became a writer.

Eye Kay: “It’s mostly my family upbringing. I had a dad who loved to write and a mom who loved to tell stories, so somehow it just seemed natural that all the children would write. And somehow all the children did write. I have two elder sisters and an elder brother. My elder sisters used to write stories and poetry. My elder brother does political commentary and analysis.

“When I was young I tried to read all their novels and literature books … first it was tearing and a little reading, then reading and a little tearing, then finally just reading, mostly. My dad had this radio cassette player, and when I was about seven or eight we’d find old tapes and record over them with our own plays. They were like our own radio dramas. The creativity in those skits was amazing.

“Then I was about fifteen or sixteen. My eldest sister had just gotten married, so I was writing on her computer in her house, throwing a bunch of ideas around. I had this idea that I was going to be the little darling of the whole world and I was going to write and everybody would love my writing. Now, I’m not so little, but perhaps I can still be the world’s darling, maybe?

“One day she just came home, and she was like ‘OK, this computer can’t get to the internet, so how did you find this?’ And I told her I’d written it, and she said, ‘Are you serious? This is very nice. Try to complete it.’

“But I never did. Life happened.

“I grew up in Lagos, Enugu, and Benin. Lagos was primary school, Enugu, secondary school, and Benin, university. Currently I’m in touch with very few people from school. A lot of them, we have so little in common now. And if I think about practically all my acquaintances and friends now, we’re talking about books and writing. I have very little in common with people from back then. It’s sort of weird.

“I finished secondary school, got into university. My parents wanted me to study medicine, but somehow I didn’t make the grade, and I got into agric [agriculture] instead. That threw away everything concerning the arts for me. But then, as time went on, I was in year three and I just felt ‘Agric—what I’m going to do with agric?’ so I just picked up a biro and started writing again.

“I had a group of friends, we called ourselves the Beautiful Minds, and we would hang out and do stuff and most of them were good writers. Or I thought they were. They all wrote strange otherworldly stuff about wars and machines. And I wanted to just try it out because I felt I wasn’t as good as they were.

“I naturally—yes, I’ll say naturally—turned to science fiction and fantasy because I’ve always been very imaginative. When I was little I would get into trouble and I’d spin these fantastic stories and lie through my teeth to get out of them. I have an active imagination, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I try my hand at fantasy?‘

“The first few things I wrote were leaning towards horror and the supernatural. I almost don’t want to say ‘supernatural’ because a lot of the time in Africa, the supernatural is natural. We don’t have to look far for the influence of the supernatural in a continent like Africa where everything has an explanation from a religious figure. If it’s not a god somewhere, it’s the Devil.”

I asked about his early reading.

Eye Kay: “I read a lot of Shakespeare, and other literary fiction, funnily enough. I read a lot of Enid Blyton. I think Enid Blyton was, or should I say is, a very big deal for children. I watched The Famous Five TV series. I liked the idea of being able to connect with someone’s writing and then see it on TV. So she was part of my childhood.

“I had some of the books in the Pacesetters series, or rather, my elder ones had. We had a neighbour who had The Hardy Boys series, a lot of them. We had a deal: I would collect one, go read it, and then return it, so I could get the next one.

“My sister started buying me books. One of them was Chinese Tales of the Supernatural, and the other, a book of folktales from Thailand, Malaysia, or Myanmar. The main character was called Si Kabayan. He was very like our own African tortoise because he was always playing tricks and telling lies and getting his way with deceit and cunning. I read those two books and they made me feel that I could create a character like that.

“Growing up I was kind of a weird child because I was plagued with a lot of respiratory infections. A lot of times, what others could do and go freely, I would do and be gasping and panting for breath. I quickly learned that I was different.

“I confess to being fascinated by the Other because I think I was an Other child. I loved getting physical a lot but I didn’t have the stamina for it. I had difficulties with sleep; practically every day of my life until I left home for secondary school around eleven, I was always taking drugs of all sorts—bronchodilators and stuff like that.

“The funny thing is I never felt at any moment that I wasn’t loved. I knew I was loved but I just knew I was somewhat different. When I talk with my siblings now I understand that my parents’ love and concern for me has somehow spilled over onto them and they feel a need to look out for me. There’s an undercurrent of ‘his health is not very good so we have to look out for him.’ It’s awkward. Nobody wants to feel like an invalid.

“When I was about twenty-one, I went out with my brother once, and we came back the next day actually and my dad was complaining. I was supposed to be out of earshot, but I heard my dad telling my brother that we shouldn’t have stayed out so long because I was not well. That stung a lot. I had tried so hard to be normal. And for me to hear my dad admit, ‘Look, this boy is not all he should be.’

“I think that’s why my thoughts run a lot to spec fiction, that whole idea of difference and non-conformity is one of the strongest themes that runs through speculative fiction. In the African mindspace here there is an explanation for everything. If a child is sickly or dies they immediately say, ‘Oh it’s such-and-such spirit.’ There’s always a spiritual explanation that is not logical. There’s always a looking to the other world.”

GR: “One of the things I keep running across in the interviews is this sense that it’s an African thing to have a Christian worldview and a scientific worldview and a…

Eye Kay: “Superstitious worldview.”

GR: “Traditional belief. All in balance, not contradicting each other.”

Eye Kay: “The average African is perfectly OK to go to church and pray and still do belief on the side. It’s not fetish, it’s not witchcraft, it’s just our culture.

“Maybe the world has coined the term ’African science fiction,’ but the average African is more in touch with a sense of the supernatural. If a woman is having miscarriages or her children are dying, perhaps a Western-influenced person would be looking at Rhesus factors and other incompatibility issues, but an African is perfectly OK thinking of them as ogbanje children or abiku children.

“I think speculative fiction is going to be more popular among Africans. They are more in tune with it. Personally, I think I started reading more intentionally around 2011 about the time Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award. That piqued my interest and made me think, ‘Yes, this writing is something I can really do. This lady is Nigerian and she’s doing this, and it means that anything is possible.’

“The first fiction I published was some stories on naijastories.com. I remember one of the earliest I posted was called ‘Swap’ about a lady who had been lying in wait for a particular man and had found out they had the same date of birth and she was trying to get them to switch bodies.

“I remember when I sent it in. I waited for about a week. I didn’t see any sign of it. And I thought, ‘Well, OK, maybe this thing is rubbish.’ Then suddenly I just saw it with all these nice comments and I thought, ‘These people are talking about me. These people are saying I can write. Wow.’

“I went on to write a few more and then I left writing on Naija Stories and I just wrote a lot in notebooks. I was struggling with depression at the time. In a way. ‘Cause I was having issues of getting free from school. It was a dark period in my life. I wrote a lot of stuff and destroyed a lot of it. Somehow I found my way back to writing. Here we are again.

“I have lot of short stories in my mailbox and my computer. I told myself, ‘If you’re going to be taken seriously for it, you have to stop doing the flash fiction and focus, and finish your stories instead of posting random stuff on Facebook.’ I’ll use an African proverb: ‘A man who carries an elephant on his head doesn’t use his feet to chase crickets.’ I viewed the elephant then as serious writing, longform writing.”

We start talking about African fiction in general.

“I don’t even like the term ‘African writing.’ If I’m African, I’m first of all a human being and I can write. It’s a kind of pigeonholing. When some people check your work, they expect to see certain things, and if you don’t have that they’ll tell you you’re not African enough. I don’t understand that.

“I wrote a couple of stories in 2015 and somebody reading them said they weren’t African enough. And I said, ‘What is African enough? Who is the authority on things African, who is it that determines what is African?’ I was born here, this is my town, my home, my continent. Whatever I do is African enough.

“People don’t take you seriously even when you have passion, even when you have genuine skill, even if you have zeal for the craft, no one thinks what you are doing is worth anything and they end up just … just … forgive my language, they end up bullshitting you. You end up thinking ‘I’m not worth anything. I had better not take myself seriously.’

“I have friends who are fantastic writers but right now they are just bank clerks or they work in fast food joints. When I see these people, I think of them as people whose dreams are languishing because there are no systems, there are no structures that enable these people.

“I have a friend who quit his job in 2016. He left the bank and said, ’I’m going to chase my dreams,’ and of course his family called him foolish, everybody called him stupid. He hasn’t hit it big yet, but he is able to write and get paid for it. He writes nonfiction, book and movie reviews.”

I ask Ike to tell me more about his fiction.

“I haven’t been published in many places. I had one story in an anthology that came out earlier this year, ‘The Tattoo: Love Redefined’ (2017) in Experimental Writing: Africa vs Latin America Vol. 1. We were told to send in our best and craziest stories that wouldn’t fit in anywhere else. So I sent in a story about a girl who found out she had AIDS. One of her lecturers was pressing her for sex. She went out and got a tattoo on her belly, something from Dante’s Inferno, the inscription from the gates of hell: ‘Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.’

“The story is awkward. I wrote from four different viewpoints including two non-physical objects who are perched on the girl’s shoulder, invisible and intangible. They talk to you, the reader. ‘Let’s follow her where she’s going.’ Instead of using first person, I use the creatures to describe and tell us where we are. The girl and her experiences were published in one font, and the two characters in two different fonts.

“Sometime last year I was invited to a writers’ residency in Oyo State [the Ebedi International Residency]. I put in some work on a collection of short stories. We had a chapbook published, and it is available online.

“I was trying to get a collection published, so I haven’t sent many stories out. I don’t have a lot of writing published in many places.

“There’s a group of writers I do stuff with in Lagos at the Mainland Book Café. Sometime last year we published something called The Mashup. And a new issue is out now, it has been renamed The Mainlander. (You can download a free PDF.) Everybody sent in something, stories, poems, nonfiction. I got one of my stories accepted—‘The Photograph,’ a ghost story.

“I have tried my hand at a bit of science fiction but not very regularly. I had ideas, but nothing I particularly cared to put in any work on. I was fascinated by Tom Clancy’s co-authored Splinter Cell series. I told myself I would write one book in that series, regardless of how long it took me. So I ended up writing a bunch of techno-thriller short stories. About a Nigerian-ish special operative based in Nigeria doing all sorts of tough stuff but with a very Nigerian feel to it. The stories will be out soon in various places.

“I had this idea for a really big book, loosely inspired by Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Then some time in 2015 I read Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle and I found some disturbing similarities. So instead of doing the main story, I decided I would isolate the characters and do their backstories as novellas.

“The book is with a publisher but I’m doing a rethink. It’s more important to have your story taken seriously than to just write. If I’m going to gain an audience I need to do it and do it well.”

We talk a bit about the impact of online publications The Naked Convos and Omenana.

Eye Kay: “It’s evolving; it’s a constant thing. In the coming years we are going to see a lot more Africans writing real stuff, speculative fiction. And they are going to be a byproduct of this period where all we had were blogs and small sites.

“I see a future where a lot of African writers take themselves and their craft more seriously. And they actually begin to do great stuff. I see a resurgence coming. When I heard about the ASFS [African Speculative Fiction Society], I got very excited. I told myself, look, you have to do whatever it takes to make this writing more than just a hobby.

“People ask me what do you do and I say I am a writer and they are like ‘And?’ There is this sense that of course you can’t just be a writer. You can’t write for a living. They don’t believe writing can pay bills. “You can’t say you’re a writer in Nigeria. Just say you’re unemployed.’

“With the arrival of spaces like Omenana, a whole lot more people are going to be published and a whole lot more people are going to get taken seriously.”

More stories online:

A piece of fanfic, “Darth Vader, Origins”

"Full Moon, Black Mamba"

"Emergency Room"

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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