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Innocent Immaculate Acan

The heat wakes Red up. It is too intense to be coming from Nyambura’s sleeping form. He throws the blankets back; his body is drenched in sweat and covered in a bright white light that he later realizes is spilling in through the windows to flood the entire room. He makes his way out of the bedroom and out of the house. Outside, the bright light nearly blinds him and makes his sensitive eyes hurt. It reminds him of the days before the Red Giant phase, when he couldn’t step out of the house without layers of clothing and sunglasses. A burn registers on his exposed skin and he steps off the porch; his toes curl involuntarily when his feet hit slush instead of packed solid ice. He slips; his arms flail ineffectually for balance and he lands on the slush with a splash. The pain in his backside goes unnoticed in the face of the blinding burning light.

This is it, he thinks. He half expects the God from Bible stories to descend from the sky, with bronzed feet and a beard and robe as white as the melting snow around him. With considerable effort, he gets to his feet and immediately, a strong invisible wave nearly knocks him back down. Before he can fully grasp the implications of the wave, a gaping chasm cracks across the ground right before him. Red jumps back with a startled gasp. He watches the chasm rip the house he calls home into two and the terror that had been concealed by confusion comes to the forefront. This is actually it. He wants to run into the crumbling house to grab Nyambura, if not to save her, then to throw himself into her embrace and die in the security of her arms. But he can’t get himself to move another step. His mother’s voice is on replay in his mind.

It has always been his destiny to die with the sun, hasn’t it? Of course it has. Red steps towards the chasm. Vaguely, he hears the askari yelling for him to stop over the thundering of a million earthquakes. He couldn’t if he tried to. One foot makes it into the chasm, and then earth’s gravity gives, and Red is floating into the white sky, together with a billion animate and inanimate objects; the askari is visible in his peripheral vision, his posture a study in befuddlement.

From ‘Sundown’, published in Munyori

Innocent Immaculate Acan (pronounced Achan) is a young but already recognized author. Her story “Sundown” won the 2016 Writivism Short Story Award and was published in the literary magazine Munyori.

Six months after this interview, “Sundown” was also nominated by the members of the African Speculative Fiction Society for the Nommo Awards for Speculative Fiction by Africans.

I meet Innocent in the noisy Kampala restaurant I met most of the interviewees. There’s a line in a Bob Dylan song, “starry-eyed and laughing,” which for me describes Innocent. She laughs a lot and sounds at times a bit like how I imagine American students talk, but underneath I also kept sensing determination and drive. I ask how to pronounce her name.

Innocent: “It’s pronounced the same way as the name in the Old Testament—‘Achan.’ But that guy is a thief. So imagine the horror I went through in primary school. Everyone teased me about my name for two years. ‘You are a thief.’ I used to spell my name with an ‘h,’ but then my grandmum said it’s not spelled with an ‘h.’ So I was, ‘Yes! I’m not a thief!’”

I congratulate her on the Writivism Short Story Prize.

Innocent: “I wooooooon! I was truly surprised. I didn’t actually write ‘Sundown’ for the competition at the time. I was writing a story for a friend. And then I decided, ‘Oh let me submit this for the competition.’ And then it won, and I was like ‘Yay!’

“I would say that what I gravitate to in writing is speculative fiction. I move between science fiction and fantasy. I feel like—I don’t know if it’s a biased opinion—but I feel like science fiction stories are more interesting to tell. There is so much to work with. It’s harder for you to get caught up in clichés and what’s expected. I haven’t read a science fiction story that didn’t feel new to me.”

I say that the albino hero of “Sundown” is the perfect choice for a story about the sun becoming a red giant, as albinos sunburn easily. I tell her how much I like the story’s spectacular end-of-the-world finale. Innocent then praises Dilman Dila’s collection, and I talk about Dilman’s film Her Broken Shadow. I then ask if she’s read a lot of SFF.

Innocent: “No. Actually I’ve just started. (Laughs) I started reading it nearly three years ago. Mostly I’ve been reading high fantasy, the basic stuff—C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, that kind of thing, when I was young. Right now I’m reading Nnedi Okorafor and Octavia Butler—she’s good, she’s brilliant. I’m trying to read more African SF so I can get a feel for what it’s like, because it’s different from Western science fiction, way different. And I’m trying to read the classics like Isaac Asimov and H. G. Wells. I have books backed up, but I don’t know when I’ll read them because of school. Maybe I will now, that campus has been closed.”

GR: ”Why is the campus closed?”

Innocent: “It’s a long story. The lecturers haven’t been paid, so they decided not to teach. And the President got mad and said, ‘All of you pack up and go home’ (laughs). So maybe I’ll use the break to do reading and writing. The President said, ‘The staff isn’t serious. The country has higher priorities, they should understand.’

“So I am doing a lot more reading and writing, though it’s like I’m starting from the beginning? Because it’s hard to find creative writing classes here. There is a course for literature at the university, but they don’t have a section for creative writing. The few workshops I have been to, they have a certain way they would like you to write, so fantasy and science fiction are not exactly welcomed. So, yes, I have to teach myself.

“I have a group of four other friends, where every week we write a story and give each other feedback. It helps a lot. I can tell that everyone’s writing has improved. It interesting that I actually have to give a story every week, two thousand words.”

I say that’s basically what Clarion or a good MFA course does. I go on to talk about her prose style, and how she avoids stale, familiar phrases.

Innocent: “First of all, English is my first language. I learned how to write prose from reading fairy tales first. My mom introduced my sisters and myself to a reading culture early. We had an endless supply of fairy tales. I think I read my first Harry Potter when seven or eight. (Laughs) So at first I was trying to mimic such writing.

“Then at high school I had a brilliant literature teacher called Anukur Caroline. Wonderful. Here’s the thing—while other teachers were telling people you have to write this particular way, she would encourage individuality. She would tell us it’s great to use idioms in you compositions, but don’t overdo it. I want a story that I can enjoy reading; I don’t want a story I’m just going to mark. So by time I got to O levels, the foundation of my writing was pretty much solid because of her.

“At A level, I took only science subjects. So I didn’t have the opportunity to polish my skills further. It was just, ‘Oh I used to write stories in school.’

“I would write novels as a series, like it is on TV, in episodes. I would give them to my school friends to read and they would go ‘Oh my god, continue,’ and I would write the next bit.

“We are taught in English from baby class, from elementary school up to university. I grew up in a multicultural household. My mom had parents from different tribes, and then my dad was from a different tribe than my mom. There was not one language we could speak at home, so we spoke English.

“I learned a little Acholi but I forgot it along the way. We moved to the city, and it was hard to find someone who spoke Acholi here. So English was my first language. I grew up with mom and my sisters. My parents separated when I was three. Do I have to give my whole life story?”

I explain that I am interested in how the mix of languages and cultures works in different countries.

Innocent: “I speak a little Luganda. Well everyone has to speak a little Luganda to get along in this city. (Laughs) The thing about most Bantu languages is that when you learn one it’s so much easier to learn others. So if someone was speaking Lusoga next to me, I would understand what they’re saying.

“Sometimes I get posted to Rukungiri; it’s in the West of the county.”

GR: “Posted?”

Innocent: “Yeah. It’s part of medical school. The predominant languages there are Rukiga and Runyankole. (Laughs at my falling face.) They are Bantu languages. Acholi is Nilotic, very similar to Langi; but my mother is Madi. I’m so sorry, this is too much.”

I talk about when I taught in Taraba State, Nigeria. Though only one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states, Taraba speaks eighty-eight languages.

Innocent: “There are fifty-five languages in Uganda. My mother speaks Madi. Madi is absolutely different from Acholi, completely different. Madi and Lugbara—my dad is Lugbara. Madi and Lugbara are Sudanic languages. They have influences from Congolese and Arabic and Sudanese languages. Acholi and Langi are Nilotic. I speak some Madi. Mom’s Mom is Acholi, so I speak some Acholi.

“Writing in Luganda is one of the hardest things I’ve ever come across. The words are so long. In some places there are double dd’s and kk’s, and you are like, ‘Where do they fit in?’ They actually have extra letters in the alphabet because the English didn’t have enough letters for all the sounds. Let me write some words for you.”

She handwrites some Luganda words and I do a pretty poor job of trying to follow her pronunciation, which makes her laugh.

Innocent: “There are phrases in Luganda that anyone in the country would understand. Small things that don’t have an exact equivalent in English. For example, nawe. It means in direct translation ‘but you.’ You can use it when you’re complaining. ‘Nawe. What are you doing?’

I try to use it in a sentence and get it wrong.

Innocent: “It’s a standalone word. You’re complaining. It’s a whole sentence. ‘But you. Why are you doing this?’ But just condensed to that one phrase. Mbu, means ‘that’ as in ‘I told her that’. You just say “I told her mbu.’ Small things but they flavour it.”

GR: “I’m going to shift this, and ask you to talk about your studies.”

Innocent: “I studied biology, chemistry and mathematics for my A levels at Mount St. Mary’s near Namagunga. And then currently I’m at university in my third year doing medicine.

“It’s a terribly hard course, but it’s interesting. (Laughs) So much material there just in that one course. The thing about Ugandan schools during our O levels—that’s like high school in America—we study ten subjects in arts and science. The arts are history, geography, Christian religious education, and many more (Laughs).”

I ask if she thinks medicine and science will be useful in writing SFF?

Innocent: “Definitely! That was one of the first things I was thinking about when I was informed ‘Hey you’re a science fiction writer.’ I was like ‘Hey this is cool.’ I was thinking about Michael Crichton. We share a birthday. Jurassic Park. We share a birthday and he’s a doctor too. I was excited. Yes, this is awesome. I can write about medical stuff, and nobody will say you are making your writing too medical for us.”

We talk about James White, who wrote stories about medicine among aliens. We move on to talking about her stories, finally, including the story ‘The Well.’ I ask if the little creature in the well comes from folklore.

Innocent: “I made him up.”

GR “He’s not traditional belief?”

Innocent: “Nope. I made him up, although the moon goddess does exist in folklore. (Laughs) I told you about the writing group I’m in? It was written for that group. It was the writing exercise for that week. The prompt was photo of a well. We were supposed to make a story based on that picture. I like tragedies in stories. I figured it would be nice to make love look bad. A cynical point of view. Don’t believe in love. A lot of the time people develop affections where they can benefit from something. So that when that benefit is taken away, the affection goes. (Laughs) Now I feel like a horrible person.

GR: “You are, you are a truly terrible person” (Laughs).

Innocent: “I just think it’s safer for people to base relationships on things more than a feeling brought about by chemicals. There should be more.”

We talk about how sad her story “The Well” is. And how it reflects on life. How the heroine is not a bad person, but just doesn’t know the creature is there. We agree that that most fairy tales have a cynical ending. We move on to talking about publishing and African SFF.

Innocent: “I haven’t been putting out my stories for a long time. I could email you two of the stories I wrote. It’s only recently that I realized that there is actually an audience for the kind of writing that I do. I didn’t know about all these websites and magazines. It’s only recently I learned about them and I started to put out my work.”

We talk for a while about how recent most African publishing venues are.

Innocent: “I actually submitted something to Omenena. They accepted it, I’m so excited. It’s a very curious story. Chinelo liked it. It’s coming out next edition. The story is called ‘Wishful Thinking.’ When I say it’s a curious story, I wasn’t kidding. It’s basically a very, very short description of this one young man walking through Kampala in the late afternoon and all the things that annoy him about the city. Have you heard of the boda boda (Kampala motorcycle taxis)? One zips past him and he’s furious. They are reckless sometimes, have you run across them?”

GR: “Oh god, yes! One roared up behind me in the dark on the sidewalk, no lights on.”

Innocent: “Anyway there is a tale about parachute seeds. In my school if a seed landed on you and you wished, it would come true. So one lands on him so he makes a wish to have the power to slap a boda boda man into the future.”

We talk about the advantage of gatekept publications, especially when the editor is Chinelo Onwualu.

Innocent: “I loved the editing process. I love it always. I have never had back corrections that I don’t agree with. They always help improve it.

“African writers are sitting on a mine. If you look back into our mythologies and legends, it is so rich it’s obscene. I think back to the peoples in the countryside. It’s so rich that you can see ten good stories from one tribe.”

When I got back in touch with Innocent Immaculate for an update, this is what she wrote:

“I'm afraid I haven't done much this year. I'll put the blame squarely on med school's shoulders. It's hectic! I'm in the middle of the hardest year of medical school, so I'm looking forward to getting done with that and making more room for my writing.

“The Sundown Anthology was finally published in August. It's available on Amazon here.”

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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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