The old man with the third hand sat on the beach and watched the waves wash over the sand.
I’d seen him before. Everyone had. Some people assumed he was crazy. Others thought he was just lonely, sitting out there by himself day after day, staring at where the ocean seemed to merge with the sky. Not very many people found the third hand growing out of his back terribly interesting. This was, after all, the town that had produced the infamous Inside-Out Girl.
All the same, there was something about the old man with the third hand, something about the way he sat in the same old rocking chair, rocking back and forth almost in sync with the waves that made the townspeople stay away from him. Nobody ever went down to the stretch of beach on which the old man sat and stared at the sea.
But I did.
Kofi Nyameye is a pen name. This young writer is actually called Nyameye Dwomo-Anokye. You might find some of his earlier online work under that name. I start out by asking him how to pronounce it—something like “Nya-may-yay Joo-moh A-notch-chay”).
Nyameye: “In the Twi language of Ghana, it means God is Good. ‘Nyame’ is for God and ‘eye’ is good.
“There’s an interesting story behind my name if you want to hear it. It doesn’t look it right now, but when I was born, my head was really big. Really big. My mother was giving birth to me and my head wouldn’t come out. lt just got stuck for over twelve hours.
“The doctors thought my mother would die, and I would die with her. My family thought I’d die. My father began to pray and promised the Lord that if He delivered my mother and me, my father would name me after Him. So two hours later I came out, and my father said, ‘We will name him God is Good and that’s my name.'
“Can I ask you a question? Why are you doing this?”
So I explain the history of how I came to be curating the 100 African series. Basically, I felt a blunt push from about 2009. I got a grant from the British Council to set up a creative writing course at Benue State University. I taught it with Chuma, the guy you just met. The guy can really teach people to write poetry. He’s also a great novelist. And he’s one of these fellow travellers to speculative fiction. There’s always something different about his stuff. At Benue, I found this book of Famine in Heaven, spaceships, feminism. I thought, there’s got to be more of this, so I found www.afrocyberpunk by Jonathan Dotse. It became an interest and hobby. It’s about the only thing I do now. It’s something brand new brewing. It wasn’t there in 2009. People said Africans don’t write science fiction, we have too many real problems. It’s a Western thing. I don’t think so. When you’ve lost the past, you immediately start looking for a future. When someone else has described your past you say, Thank you, we’ll describe our own past, our own culture. Maybe half of Africa’s languages will disappear by 2090, someone was telling me. Taking all that culture with them. But let’s preserve what we can now.
GR: “Now you’re interviewing me.”
Nyameye: “Yes I am. I was very nervous about this meeting. Among the more quote, unquote African writers I am a bit of an anomaly. Many people have tried to change what I write. They try to tell me to write more traditionally African stories.
“I read a couple of people you interviewed, and they grew up reading these Western stories. The Famous Five. The Hardy Boys. They read them and we saw them on TV. Then they grew up and realized that they were actually interested in more traditional African stories. And they switched. And we call them African writers—whey hey.
“But I feel like I never did. Which is a very uncomfortable situation to be in. I never switched to super-African focussed writing. It’s always been a bone of contention among my friends” (Laughs).
I say that an African writer should be able to write about anything they chose to write about. If you are African, the book is African.
Nyameye: “Thank you. Nobody has ever said it to me before. Ever. So am I a science fiction writer? I think of myself more as a speculative fiction writer. Yes, science fiction falls into speculative, so yes. But I also write a lot about demons and monsters. The novel I just finished on Sunday... plug” (Laughs for a while).
GR: “What’s it called?”
Nyameye: “It’s called The Desolation of Charlie Gray. It’s about a boy who meets a demon that gives him the power to read minds. But every time he does, he goes just a little bit more crazy and that’s the focus. You can use this power for a lot of good, but it costs a little bit of yourself every time you do.”
We talk a bit about Lesley N. Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” in which similarly healing people costs the sanity of the healer.
Nyameye: “A story I wrote, ‘The Men who Dance with Stars’—I just got a image of two men in a spaceship out of nowhere and I thought, ‘Hmmm, what are they doing?’ And I thought, ‘What if they were there to steal someone’s sun?’ And it just made so much sense to me. Because for me as a writer the world that exists is so much less interesting than what could possibly be.
Later I helped Nyameye, now writing as Kofi Nyameye, place that story with Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine as “The Lights Go Out, One by One.” It starts like this:
They told us emerging from cryosleep was like surfacing from the depths of a clear lake on a perfect summer’s day: a peaceful ascent from deep unconsciousness, delivering us once again to the land of the living. Almost like being born again.
They were wrong. Emerging from cryosleep is like waking up from a bad dream. You fight your way toward awakeness as your brain realizes you’re breathing liquid and panics, but at the same time a part of you wants to stay down, stay asleep, find out just how deep the dream goes.
That, at least, is how it is for me.
The cryosleep pod fits around my body like a coffin. The minutes I spend in darkness waiting for the liquid perfluorocarbons to drain out of my lungs and leave my body able to breathe air again are some of the longest minutes of my life. Within this time, my disorientation fades. I remember who I am, where I am, why I’m here.
Who I am: an employee of the United World Government, Deep Space Division. This I have been since I was born. I do not know how, or what it means, to be anything else.
Where I am: Aboard the UWG Solstice V, somewhere in the Perseus arm of the Milky Way, thousands of light-years from Earth.
Why I’m here: To save the human race.
And here emerging from cryosleep is again like waking up from a bad dream, for once I remember these things I want nothing more than to close my eyes and go back to sleep.
Because if I’m awake, then it means all the other teams have failed.
We talk about this story about stealing another system’s sun and possible parallels with colonialism, of how it stole resources. Was that on his mind when he wrote the story?
Nyameye: “Not consciously. Something has happened to me once or twice. I write a story, and the people I show it to wind up telling me what I am writing about. In 2013 I wrote a story about a man who kills his wife and every year tries to atone with a new woman but winds up killing her as well.
“I sent it out to friends and everyone’s like ‘Whooooo, great.’ One guy was like ‘You’ve written about yourself.’ Which is a very uncomfortable thing to hear when you’ve talking about a serial killer. But it made a lot of sense when he explained it to me. It’s very possible that that on some level that was on my mind.
“I’ve read brilliant books about people and communities, economics and governments, and that’s just fine; but I’m more interested in ‘What if?’
“The world we see and live in is a lot less interesting than the world of What If. And if I can make you see the world of What If for just ten minutes as a possibility, if you read my story and you walk away asking what if that happened, then, you know...”
GR: “The story’s worked.”
Nyameye: “What if we woke up one day and a race of aliens stole our sun? What if a river fell in love? If I make you think that for one minute then it’s a good story, and it was worth writing. So to answer your question, I see myself as a science fiction writer because science fiction exists in the world of speculation, the world of What If.
“In 2012 I was very big in social media on Twitter, very active, started my blog to put stories on, and Wole (Talabi) read one of my stories. There was a writing competition in his blog that The Naked Convos was doing.
“I wrote one story, not really a speculative story, about domestic abuse. I also wrote a one-thousand-word story about an asteroid that hits the Earth and makes everyone a zombie. Wole used his editorial power to get it into the competition. It came third. Wole became interested in me and started reaching out for stories.
“The Naked Convos was a huge organization at the time. He was known as the Alchemist and the Alchemist’s Corner published stories. He was one of the first people to be where I wanted to be who told me I was good.
“For the past three years, I’ve pretty much been living in a cave somewhere. It was very personal. I was rebuilding my life so to speak. I was one person in 2013 and then something happened in my personal life. It threw me into a loop.
“It helped that where I live is really far from anywhere where most people know me. I just went there and stayed there for two to three years in which time I upgraded my life. Rebuilt one from scratch. Became a different person, more mature.
“When I was active on social media I used to write for attention. I had a gift but I was using it to get noticed. What I would do was, I would write a story, gain some buzz off it—Whooo yeah great—and I’d just ride on the top of that until it went down again. Two or three months later, I would get that hit again. I was writing for attention, for approval.
“I quit school to write. In 2011 I was in my third year of computer engineering at the University of Ghana. And I was miserable. I was learning things I didn’t care about to impress lecturers I didn’t like. But my parents thought it was a good potential job opportunity.
“I was depressed; I was sad; I was like ‘Ggaaaah.’ It’s something that some people still think was very stupid. I got up and I left school. I quit. Initially, I quit to change courses and read literature. But I was accepted for economics, which was weird. But my parents were like—you know parents—my parents thought I’d become the next Minister of Finance. So I went back, did two years of that, and around the time I lost that person I realized ‘you know what, I’m not happy here either.’
“I told my parents I was quitting to become a writer. They thought I was deluded to say the least. (Laughs) Friends told me I was stupid. People thought I was throwing my life away.
“But around the same time, I wrote an article for this American comedy site, Cracked.com. I’d been reading them since 2011. They have this policy where anyone can pitch an idea to them. I pitched an idea about plot holes I’d noticed in famous movies. And it got accepted. I knew a lot of people who wanted to write for Cracked but very few people got anything published. So I thought you know what, I could actually do this. In my mind, I was going to spend maybe a year or two years writing freelance for websites and companies.
“I wrote a few times for Cracked and got paid. My last article for them was January 2015. I had to make it work. It didn’t work out like I thought it would though. After doing two more articles for them I realized this is nice, this is comfortable, but I could get stuck here. I didn’t leave school to write for these people alone. So I stopped writing for Cracked and started writing a novel. Which has taken me two and a half years.
“I spent eight months on the first draft. Got to the endgame and realized what I was writing towards no longer worked. The ending. I spent a month trying to push it towards what I wanted.
“The most number of words I’d written in a single day ever in my life, was like three thousand words. It took me from nine a.m. to four p.m. I had a headache. I’d never written that number of words in a day. I threw that scene out.
“In February 2015, I wrote a novella for a friend because she asked. The funny thing is she never saw it. When I finished it I grew attached to it and I just kept it. That was 26,000 words. I started it in February and finished it in March and then in April 2017, I began my novel. But exactly one week into it, I went Crrrk, got blocked.
“I realized everything I was writing was crap. I stayed blocked for four months. I went through another period of my evolution, which is when I stepped back, forgot everything I thought I knew, and learned how to write again. I learned to write from scratch. Everything I’ve mentioned up to this point was something I wrote for somebody. I wrote stories on my blog for an audience, I wrote stories for the Alchemist. I wrote the novella for the girl who asked for it. All I knew was how to write for people.”
GR: “That makes you very different from a lot of African writers who don’t seem to write for audiences, but for prizes or agents or particular markets.”
Nyameye: “When I finished this new novel, I realized that I am telling the story of the unhappiness and loneliness I felt when I stepped away from the world. In this case, I was writing for an audience of me. I was writing a story that I needed to write. I knew it would take a very long time for anyone who saw it to give me feedback and validation. I needed to learn how to write from writing’s sake. I needed to know how it ended.”
GR: “Charlie Gray doesn’t sound like an African name.”
Nyameye: “The novel is set in the west.”
GR: “Have you ever been there?”
Nyameye: "No, never. However. However. You may notice I have an accent which is not very African. My brother and I grew up in—I don’t want to say Western environment, but it was very Western. Soup is the word that comes to mind.
"When we were learning to speak, our cousins who lived in Europe came to stay with us. And we didn’t go out very much. We’re just not that kind of people. So we stayed home with them. They were the only people we knew, so we learned to speak like them. This was formative years, I was like three years old. My parents would be off to work. We’d go to school, come back, and they would be the people we’d speak to. So that’s why I speak like this.”
GR: “What was your home language?”
Nyameye: “Twi. Both my parents are from the Asante tribe. In Ghana, you go through school with English. My mother worked at an NGO in social health. Poverty alleviation in rural areas. My father sold electronics. He had a shop. He was fortunate enough to be part of the electronics boom of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. But now my dad is retired, my mother is retiring. I’m twenty-five; my father is sixty-three. I’m the last boy. I have four siblings two brothers, two sisters.
“My father had books in the house. He had books. I read Ken Follett when I was seven, The Third Twin. That’s the first time I knew what rape was. It was also the first time I realized a book could go beyond ‘Here’s the hero. Here’s the bad guy.’ The first time I came across an ethical dilemma. It’s about cloning the same person five times and then sending them to different parents.
“Swallows and Amazons was a really old book but I read it when I was eleven. That put the adventure bug in me. That was when I started writing little kids going on adventures. The Hardy Boys. I started writing mysteries. The Hardy Boys were everywhere. Enid Blyton. They were everywhere.”
GR: “The biggest influence on African science fiction is Enid Blyton.”
Nyameye: “I believe that. I actually believe that.
“Ice Station by Matthew Reilly—he’s not very popular, but Ice Station showed me that a book could be as blockbuster as a movie. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings showed me real adventure. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper showed me what magic was, true magic.
“But the biggest influence on me that any writer has had was when I discovered Stephen King when I was twenty years old. I had come across a Stephen King novel before, when I was nine. It was the second book in The Dark Tower sequence, The Drawing of the Three. I didn’t understand it. I thought it was odd. And so in my mind I said, ‘You know what, this guy Stephen King, I don’t like it’. So I moved on to J.K. Rowling, whom I loved.
“But when I got older I loved The Shining, The Stand, and It. I tend to write very dark stories. I have a fascination with tragedy and death. Growing up, I thought, ‘Stories end well. The good guys win, the bad guys are defeated.’ Then there was Stephen King who by his own admission writes fucked up stories. But they were good. You can write anything and anything can be good. He gave me the confidence to write what I want to write, what I naturally need to work. No other writer has come close to the influence that Stephen King has had on me. Though a very close second is Neil Gaiman. He just writes so beautifully. So now I write dark things—somebody has to.
“There’s a culture in Africa that a career in the arts is a bad idea. We’re all pushed to be doctors, engineers, lawyers. Oh, they love lawyers. And doctors, they’re number one. Our parents don’t look at us and say, ‘Wow, you can draw. Do that. Wow, you can write.' They say, ‘Do something sensible and do this as a side hobby.’”
GR: “It’s the same everywhere. A little bit more here maybe as the structure seems to be that families are more able to demand things.”
Nyameye: “I admit it. I want to be successful. I want to be someone. But I hope to more than just Look money wow hoop—how to put this—to be able to come back and show that art is a viable career choice. If you commit your life to art you are not throwing it down the toilet.
“I’d love to have scholarships for artists. In Ghana, you hear of scholarships for engineers and doctors. But nobody’s doing scholarships for musicians. No one’s sponsoring someone to learn how to draw. They say it’s a waste of time. And I hope in some small way I can start to change that. Or if it’s begun then I can help it.
“That’s a big part of why I write. I think things can change. I know very very very good writers who haven’t written anything in years because school got stressful and then they finished school and had to work and work got stressful. I know I’m fortunate because I had the luxury of quitting school and not having the luxury of not having my parents kick me out of the house because for many people that’s a very real possibility. I’ve quit twice and didn’t have my parents kick me out, but I’m an outlier in that regard. They do say, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ So I hope to give something back.”