Mazi Nwonwu is co-founder, along with Chinelo Onwualu, of Omenana, the webzine that since 2014 has been at the heart of African SFF. This interview tells that story from his point of view—but there’s a lot else to cover.
Mazi was also one of the contributors to Lagos_2060, one of the earliest African-SFF-based workshops and publishing projects.
He was a contributor to the groundbreaking anthology AfroSF. His day jobs consist of PR, media and arts journalism, and he’s a frequently published SFF author in his own right. He’s an imposing but reassuring and friendly presence, who speaks very rapidly.
His name isn’t really Mazi.
Mazi: “An interesting history behind that. A few years ago Emmanuel Iduma published his first book under Parrésia and I was part of an event where we went to a radio station to talk about this book. I called him Mazi Iduma and he didn’t understand what that meant. I was like, ‘How can you be an Igbo guy and not know that Mazi means Mr in Igbo? If you are an Igbo man it should be added to your name.’ I said that and then did it to my own name, and it stuck. Now I’m known by everybody as Mazi Nwonwu, everybody calls me that. So I had to adopt that as my pen name, especially for speculative-fiction writing. For my journalism work it is still Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu.”
Mazi started out reading Agatha Christie and then Mills and Boon, but in Junior Secondary School he encountered Dune.
Mazi: “I was so taken by it, so I went to the section of the library where you had science fiction and so I started reading a lot of science fiction. I kept reading and reading and reading and after that I started writing my own not-too-well-written science fiction.
“Before that from primary school, I was a very big comics fan. Marvel and DC, then Impact later on. I kept them. Didn’t sell them. I still have them at home in a folder that nobody touches.”
After Dune, he became a fan of Dare by Philip José Farmer.
Mazi: “Dare is set on a distant planet. It is actually a class conflict between two sub-races of humans. The first humans were brought to the planet after there was a big atomic explosion that changed them genetically. The hair on their backs and their pubic hair grow very long so they don’t wear any clothes. Then another human sub-race is brought later on by the same aliens that brought the first one.”
GR: “He was quite crazy, Philip José Farmer.”
Mazi: “Yeah, he was. It was a love story. I could relate to it because that was when I was still reading Mills and Boons. So it was love but it was science fiction. They fall in love, the families say no. They decide to run away. It is set on a planet where there is no metal and you had to use plastic. And it’s still one of my best books till date.
“There was TheBlessing Papers. The guy is Irish but I can’t remember his name. He’s Irish. [William Barnwell].
“It’s actually set in Ireland but futuristic, post-apocalyptic. They clone the blood from the Shroud of Turin from the Vatican, and discover that Jesus was not a man but he was like a shell, like somebody created him, would you say an android? They went back to pick all the heroes of man, [like] Abraham Lincoln, cloned them and discovered the same. Somebody must have been messing with the world sending these shells, and so there was a big falling of faith.
“It is still one of my favourite books ever. I don’t know why it is not more popular. It had three parts but I read only just one. For me that is the basis, the standard of my science fiction.”
Mazi became a fantasy fan when he read a series of stories about dark elves that live underground. He then became a reader of The Lord of the Rings. We joke about how Tolkien was an African.
Mazi: “He grew up around languages, and there is so much about languages in the book. I read so much about him. How it took him years to write. Everybody is just copying from him, taking from his work.
“Why fantasy worked for me was because I left my mom at like five years old to live with my dad in the North. And my mom told me a lot of folk stories, and so in the world of the comic book and science fiction and fantasy I could find similar threads. Things that made me feel the same wonder I felt when I heard her stories about the Underworld.
“I kept reading science fiction books and kept looking for them, though it is quite hard to find them here. With Dune, I had to go and find the whole series. We have these booksellers, they heap secondhand books in a pile and sell it for one hundred or fifty naira for one, and so I don’t care what the title says. I just pick it up and look at it by the side where they have the names and once it says SF, it goes into my bag. If it says fantasy it goes into my bag.
“There wasn’t much sci-fi or fantasy in Nigeria, nobody was writing it. I felt this shouldn’t be so; we should have something similar. I wasn’t confident enough to write my own, though I had done some comic book sketches before then that I was drawing. I tried but I knew I wasn’t that confident.
“Until one day on Facebook I saw an announcement from Ayodele Arigbabu—I didn’t know him then—calling for writers who wanted to write science fiction. Then I had done some science fiction—badly written ones—that I have on one site Naijastories [where Mazi publishes both fiction and non-fiction], but when I saw that call from Ayo I applied and went for the [Lagos_2060] workshop.
“The idea was that we would have a workshop about science fiction, and briefings from architects, and that we’d write stories set in Lagos fifty years from then.
“Some of the writers from the workshop are here (at the Ake Festival). Adebola Rayo was there. Afolabi [Ashiru Muheez] was there, Temitayo Olufinula was there. Okey Baluchi ... a dentist, he was there. Terh Agbedeh was there; Terh is here downstairs [at the Festival].
“I think the tsunami [in Thailand] just happened then, or it was just a few years before, so I had that in mind, okay, Lagos is very close to the sea or borders the sea, what if we have a tsunami in Lagos? It was the very first time I tried to do something longer than 2000 words. I discovered I just couldn’t stop writing. I went on and on. There was a lot of ideas in my head.”
“I look back at it now and I’m like, ‘Ah, it could have been much better.” But that was my first full science fiction story that got published.
“I’d done some stories before. Little-little ones. One was about a planet called Rain, which was about 80% water. An African-settled planet. There was an illness ravaging the universe, and somebody discovers the cure, and the cure comes from Rain. Unfortunately the cure comes from the brains of the native life forms. These life forms are very ... almost domestic.
“I just put it online, I didn’t even edit it. I didn’t have that confidence as a writer. I had the stories that I wanted to tell in my head, but I was too uncomfortable with my writing, so I felt that I wanted to improve.
“Before that my very first speculative fiction story published was on African Writer, it’s called ‘Totem.’
“‘Totem’ is set in an ethos I created called the Land of the Seven Hills. It’s a land inhabited by people with totems. The story is about a young man who is scared of snakes and unfortunately for him a python is his totem.”
I remind Mazi that he also was a contributor to AfroSF, the collection that beat Lagos 2060 to publication finally broke the news that there was a groundswell of SFF writing from Africa.
Mazi: “Yes, I wrote a masquerade story. That was when I changed my name to Chiagozie. I used to be Fred. I just took my middle name and made it my first.
“I sort of discovered myself. I am an African, I am an Igbo man. What do I know about my culture? I should pay more attention to my culture.
“I grew up in the North, so I speak Hausa. At that point I spoke better Hausa than Igbo. So I that point I was struggling to learn Igbo as much as I could.
“I had become a member of the Masquerade society. And I was thinking about how we could use this literature as a way of depiction, so that even if you mention the name to someone a hundred years from now, they will have an idea what a Masquerade does. If I’m going to do it, I’m not going to do it in an Achebe kind of manner. [Chinua Achebe was author of Things Fall Apart and is sometimes seen as a proponent of classically realistic fiction in English.] I’ll need to find a new way to do it. OK, since I do science fiction let me find a way to bring that into science fiction.
“Masquerade is the word from English used to describe a traditional ceremony in which people are possessed by a particular ancestor when they put on a mask representing them. Anybody that dons that mask becomes that spirit. Masquerades is actually the Western way of describing them. The Igbo name for them is Mmanwu.
“So I did a story about the Mmanwu, but set in a near-future Nigeria. Young men come back from the United States and in that initiation ritual one of them has an ocular implant in his eyes so he can record. But they are not supposed to bring any technology. They discover that one of the Mmanwu is not a masquerade.
“If you look at these masks and presentations, they look very very strange. They don’t look like anything we know, except the ones that are from animals. But at times they are so strange they are like something out of a nightmare. This Mmanwu they record is some kind of entity from the past.
“The story has been talked about as horror, but it was not my intention, I wasn’t even thinking about horror when I was writing it.”
Ivor Hartmann, the editor of AfroSF created a group ethos around the anthology.
Mazi: “Ah, yes that’s true. That’s where I first met Chinelo [Onwualu], through that email group, but that was more like seeing a name and reading a story in a book.
“After the Lagos_2060 workshop I continued writing. The problem I had, that I think still continues until today, is that I’d do these stories that I think are good enough to compare, in terms of language and style and depth, and I’ll send it to the few portals where they could be published here in Nigeria and they turn them down. They say we don’t do speculative fiction. So I kept getting that over and over and over and over.
“The first break was when I wrote a story and sent it to Saraba. They didn’t even do much work or editing about it. They were just like, ‘it’s okay, it’s well done', and they published it. And it was the most popular story they had in that edition of Saraba. That was when the interest started building.”
That story, published in 2013 was ‘Deletion.’
Mazi: “In my stories I try to make the science not the main thrust, but to concentrate on the human relations. That’s what I consciously try to do now. Always about man interacting with man. It’s set in the far future about a girl who is about to die. She’s got a virus for which there is no cure. The virus got the name Deletion, because once you get it you are deleted from the government’s database.
“I also have a story in Brittle Paper. It’s part of a series of stories I’m doing about the future.
“When you have androids who interact with man, what will happen? It’s about a man who has a meeting with his family because he got an android pregnant; the android has a fourteen-year-old son. So the family is trying to solve the problem. It’s called ‘Family Meeting.’
“That’s what I will be doing in my writing—human relationships in the future. If the science takes over then people don’t read.”
But in 2013, Mazi was still finding a barrier to SFF being published.
Mazi: “But I would still send out stuff and people would still say they can’t take it, not because the story is not good, but because it is speculative fiction.
“So I felt OK, if I have a chance, I’m going to start a magazine that will help other writers publish their own speculative fiction, because I didn’t get to publish a lot of my own work, and unfortunately I didn’t know so much then about Apex, or other American sites. I didn’t know I could send my story to them because I didn’t have that background. I didn’t have a mentor that knows this stuff.
“I kept writing the stuff, most of them are still in folders. I have not sent them anywhere.
“Some years after the workshop, I was opportuned to work with Ayo Arigbabu. So I was Deputy Managing Editor for his publishing imprint, DADA Books. Somehow-somehow I was there for some months and that was where I started thinking that, ‘okay, I need to set up something,’ because Ayo was the only one in the industry that had interest in speculative fiction. He was the only one that talked about it, the only one who was willing to publish it.
“Before working for Ayo, I went to the Farafina workshop. There I met Binyavanga Wainaina [founder of the Kwani Trust, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, LGBTI activist and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.]
“For the first few days at the workshop it was Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie, author of Half a Yellow Sun among many other works] that taught and she is a literary fiction writer.
“On the third day, when Binyavanga came and asked, ‘What do you do?’, I said I write science fiction and fantasy and he was like, ‘Wow I’ve been waiting for someone to say that in the workshop.’
“Then we had a very big conversation within the workshop about speculative fiction in Nigeria and Africa, by then AfroSF was about to come out and I had a story in it.
“After meeting Binyavanga, I complained to him, ‘Look, I write these stories but no one publishes’. By then I wasn’t writing spec fic anymore, I was writing literary fiction.
“He then said I should send him one of these stories and I did, then he asked why I was not writing them anymore and I said, ‘People don’t publish them!’
“He said, ‘why don’t you create a portal?', and I said that I had thought about that, maybe a Facebook page, and he said that I should do anything and let him know, and then I went back and thought hard about it.
“The Farafina workshop is not so much about what they can teach you as who you are going to meet and the relationship you are going to have with the writers outside the workshop.
“Two people I met at the workshop were Yewande Omotoso and Chika Odua. I used to send my stories to Chika because she grew up in the US and I always wanted to have ... I needed to know what would somebody with a Western ideology think about these kind of stories. She would say, ‘This probably wouldn’t work, this will work.’
“Yewande is a damn good writer and she became like my writing partner. I would send my stories to her and she would send hers to me. And she would give me feedback. I think our partnership was a bit one-sided. I would send my stories to her and she would have these incredible ideas about what I could do with the stories, with the characters. But with her I couldn't think of anything that needed to change.”
Yewande Omotoso, a guest at Ake in 2016, is the author of the acclaimed novel Bom Boy. That novel won the 2012 South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author. It was also runner up for the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2013 (the winner was NoViolet Bulawayo for We Need New Names.) Her second novel, The Woman Next Door was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and has been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.
“At Farafina, we had decided to do an anthology on sex and sexuality. I sent in a science fiction story set in the future. Chinelo Onwualu was one of the editors and when she read the science fiction story she sent me a message that she loved the story and that she loves science fiction.
“One day when I’d started working for the British Council, they sent me to Abuja for a programme. When Chinelo heard that I was coming to Abuja she decided to come to see me.
“So, Chika came with Chinelo and Gimba Kakanda, Richard Ali. The link between me, Gimba Kakanda, Richard Ali, Emma Iduma, Dami Ajayi, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, etc. was that we had this Blackberry group that we formed a while back called ‘the Nerds’; it was quite big with lots of people in it.
“So I now told Chinelo that I was thinking of setting up a website for speculative fiction. And she said, ‘When? I want to do that!’
“Before then I had also spoken to Tade Thompson on Facebook, telling him that I wanted to do something like this too. Tade kept encouraging me. ‘When are you going to do it?’ He was a huge encouragement to me.
“I was scared to do it alone, but when I met Chinelo I was like, ‘Chinelo, I’m ready, can we do this?’
“So one day we were talking on phone, talking about names and the like and I was like, ‘Hmmm, the closest thing we have in Igboland to fantasy is our notion of culture, our culture goes so deep.’
“We have what they call Odinani which means belief. (Long pause thinking of the translation) It’s not culture. (Mazi then asks Chinelo who is listening to the interview). But Omenana means culture because it is a word people know more.
“Over the next few weeks in my room, I started to build the website and we started looking for people to send us stories, bugging people to contribute to our first edition. That was late November 2014.
“There was this guy I met when I was working with Ayo, he worked with us too. His name is David Motutu. He’s an artist, so he was the one that did the art for Ayo’s collection of short stories. I went to his house and said, ‘David, we have this stuff we are setting up and we need to have art for the stories and we will pay.’
“Then he asked what I wanted and I explained everything I wanted for each story. He sent it in late, the last artwork wasn’t even coloured, but we ran it for the first edition of Omenana.
“The first Omenana was a generic WordPress site that didn’t allow us to do what we wanted to do. So we’ve bought a new one. The initial one wouldn’t allow us to do things we wanted to do like take in money from the Donate button.
“I have a friend who does graphic designs. I got him to design the magazine. We put all the stories together, put all the art together, and he designed the very first edition. The cover was designed by me because he didn’t have time to finish. I went to Photoshop and added Omenana to one of the illustrations, the illustration for the Rafeeat Aliyu story.
“We went online. We didn’t expect ... we didn’t do it because we wanted to blow up. We just wanted to have a place where people could send in their stories and not have this fear that we will tear them down or tell them that we don’t do these kinds of stories or that it has to be literary fiction.
“So if somebody says it’s gay horror, we will say, ‘Send it, we can take it.’ If somebody says it’s magic realism, we say, ‘That’s OK, send it.’ Science fiction, that’s OK, send it. It just has to be good. Once it’s good, fine.”
In all, as of May 2018, there are eleven issues of Omenana, and without it there wouldn’t have been quite such an explosion of SFF by Africans. It would have stayed in blogs or scattered in a few friendly literary platforms like Brittle Paper. There would have been no ASFS [African Speculative Fiction Society] because there would be no way to find all those writers to set it up, and thus no Nommo Awards.
We break to eat. Later, in Lagos at a huge art opening, Mazi and I meet again to talk about Omenana’s first eight issues, issue by issue—a separate article in this chapter. The next chapter, focused on the city of Abuja, will interview Chinelo Onwualu.
Since this interview Mazi sent me an email update:
“A lot has happened. Omenana is still here. We got a grant from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to fund the magazine for one year. Tendai Huchu gave us his Nommo Awards prize money.
“We are getting ready for our 12th edition and hoping to make the magazine better by the day.
“Also, I currently work for the BBC’s newly established Igbo service and have started writing speculative fiction again.
“I have a story coming up in the new AfroSF anthology (AfroSFv3) edited by Ivor Hartmann.”