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Otosirieze Obi-Young

Otosirieze Obi-Young is a hardworking academic and even harder-working Deputy Editor of one of Africa’s most influential publications, Brittle Paper, an SFF- and queer-friendly blog that publishes news and essays about the full range of African Literature. It’s published some great short stories by speculative fiction writers such as Amatesiro Dore, Innocent Immaculate Acan, and Eugene Odogwu.

Brittle Paper was founded by Ainehi Edoro, but after she completed her PhD at Duke University and began to teach at Marquette, she hired Otosirieze in November 2016 to take on some of the work.

Brittle Paper manages to publish something—a review, an essay, a news report—almost every day. From my point of view it isn’t perhaps publishing as many short stories as it was a few years ago. That might be one reason (also Omenana only producing two issues) that 2017 was a rather lean year for SFF published on the African continent.

In person Otosirieze is very tall, erudite, amused and amusing—and solidly professional. This is one of the least personal or biographical interviews in this series. He is here to tell me and you about Brittle Paper.

Otosirieze: “Ainehi told me, after I joined her, that she did consider putting the blog on hiatus. I told her, ‘You can’t shut down Brittle Paper. You don’t want to start a riot online.’

Brittle Paper is not for profit. People tend to think Brittle Paper has money, considering the reach and everything, but we don’t. Fortunately, a huge number of writers and literary people that we communicate with are responsive and supportive. I started as submissions editor. I would read the submissions and make decisions. And I would also write features about things that interested me—new magazines coming up, end-of-the-year and monthly digests, important work going on elsewhere. Currently I’m deputy editor, which means there are way more emails to send and reply to.

“I don’t think there’s a platform anywhere that does what Brittle Paper does—trying to bridge literature and pop culture. People think it’s a magazine but it started as a personal blog. Around 2012, Ainehi decided to make it specifically about African literature. She wanted to capture African literary culture, everything that African writers did from books to festivals to social media. Which meant she could do a piece on fashion, what Alain Mabanckou or Chimamanda Adichie had worn, what hairstyle Imbolo Mbue had. Or social media: what interesting thing Teju Cole or Nnedi Okorafor had tweeted, any beautiful photos Taiye Selasi had posted. We even have a video of Petina Gappah singing Bob Marley and another of Tsitsi Dangarembga dancing. And we delight in highlighting book covers, the sort of artistic covers that Cassava Republic and Victor Ehikhamenor do. The blog’s meta is AN AFRICAN LITERARY EXPERIENCE. She wanted it to be this place where you would be immersed as much in African literary creatives as in their work. Getting interested in writers as human beings can get you interested in their work on a whole new level.

“Ainehi was one of the first people on the African literary scene to be open to all forms of writing—even writing about trivial things. She believes literature shouldn’t be boxed and there shouldn’t be all these rigid boundaries.

“When you look at African literary evolution, there isn’t such a strong demarcation between science fiction and fantasy, romance, and literary fiction. Nnedi Okorafor is not perceived as a science fiction writer in a way that makes her different. We just take her as another superstar writer. In that sense, there’s not much demarcation between how most people see her and how they see someone like Adichie who’s uncompromisingly realist. Except when the conversation is about awards or becomes specific.

“Ainehi doesn’t promote herself. It baffles me and other people, because she does so much to promote others. Some people are now known in literary circles because of the coverage she’s given to them. And she has vision, she identifies trends before the rest of the scene picks up on them. She began an ‘African Literary Person of the Year’ recognition in 2015, and it went to Nnedi Okorafor. Two years later, even Hollywood now wants a share of Nnedi’s storytelling vision. The 2016 award went to Petina Gappah, who this year gave us a hugely influential piece about her beginnings as a writer.

“When Ainehi was named one of the hundred most influential Africans last year by New African Magazine, I wanted to do a post on it. (Laughs). But she was reluctant. People don’t know much about her, but she has serious power and influence.”

Oto is very keen to talk about the fiction and poetry that Brittle Paper has published.

Oto: “I don’t think you can describe the satisfaction of seeing writing or writers you published go on to earn big acclaim. Brittle Paper published poems by the last two winners of the Brunel Prize, Gbenga Adesina in 2016 and Romeo Oriogun this year, when they were still rising. 2017 has been magical so far. Writers we’ve published have also won the Etisalat Prize [Jowhor Ile] and the Commonwealth Prize [Akwaeke Emezi], and were shortlisted for the Caine Prize [Arinze Ifeakandu]. Jowhor Ile’s story was a republication, though.

“We recently published a short story by the Kenyan writer Troy Onyango. It’s titled ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’ It was awarded the Fiction Prize at Nyanza Literary Festival in 2016. It is such a beautiful story and people keep asking, ‘Will you submit it for the Caine Prize?’ Ainehi just doesn’t submit to the Caine Prize. Everything she does is to keep herself distant enough to critique but close enough to capture everything.

“We’ve published a short story written entirely in questions by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, ‘The Weight of Silence.’ It was shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award.

“The Brittle Paper Literary Awards were launched in August of this year [2017] to mark our seventh anniversary. The blog was started on August 1, 2010. There haven’t been any African prizes like this one that recognizes writing in all the genres, for short stories, for essays, for single poems, and for creative nonfiction. And a fifth category, the Anniversary Award, for writing published on our blog.

“The other nominees are picked from publications worldwide that are accessible for free online, because we want writing that people would be able to read and see what we are talking about. Forty-eight pieces in total were shortlisted. It was important for us that the African literary community participate in looking at these works because there is important writing going on in places that can easily be overlooked and the chance that the writing itself may not be seen for what it is.”

We talk about how work only in print is effectively inaccessible for many Africans. Briefly, I get him to talk about his own writing, but we soon veer off the subject.

Oto: “When I send out my collection of short stories to agents in the US and UK, they tell you something like ‘This is good you write well, but could you make it more and more like so-and-so person?’ We are all aspiring to the same model of fiction. But UK and US critics will be the first to lament the death of the novel.”

GR: “But it would be their novel they’re lamenting.”

Oto: “That’s another thing, the Western middle-class novel.”

I talk about how so much African mainstream fiction seems to be exactly that, middle-class fiction on the Western model.

Oto: “Some of the newer African novels are different. Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is being praised for taking a decidedly un-Western approach. Yvonne Owuor’s Dust uses its own poetic language. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is, I think, on its fifth award of 2017. Although someone at The New Yorker complained about its prose being ‘undistinguished.’”

GR: “Does that make a difference?”

Oto: “Some people tend to think that if a book is to be placed on such a high pedestal, then at least it should try (laughs) to do something for art’s sake beyond simple storytelling.”

I ask him again to tell me more about his own fiction, and he starts telling me how Brittle Paper curates conversations, collecting and summarizing online exchanges on social media to preserve the important points that are made. The arguments can get heated; for example, the online debate about the Etisalat Prize-winning novel Tram 83.

Oto: “The prize was awarded by feminists. So one of the counter-arguments was: how would feminists award a book that promotes misogyny? Then a few others were asking: Is it possible for a feminist to read a misogynist book and reward it solely for its literary merits? Everyone joined in the argument, and it went on and on, and we had to capture it. We had to be careful and remove comments that were insulting. We look for the bone of the issue.”

Another controversy was when Tope Folarin was nominated for the Caine Prize again, having once won it already. People first complained the story was partly nonfiction (as if most fiction isn’t). Other people then seemed to object that he had lived too long in the United States.

GR: “Did they really want to drive a wedge between Africa and the diaspora?”

Oto (Laughs): “That’s what a few people tried to do. Until some other people came out and said, ‘How can you say that this person is not African? What is he if he is not African?’ But then it has to do with prize politics. Some might think, ‘This prize has to go to someone in my circle. If it doesn’t you won’t hear the last of it.’

“When Chimamanda [Ngozie Adichie] criticised the Caine Prize in 2013, she said it is not the arbiter of the best fiction from Africa. She was voicing what some people believed then and still do now, which is that the Caine Prize stories are often poor compared to what the prize began with in the 2000s. There is a widespread feeling that most of the stories do not compare with stories that were eligible and were submitted but did not get on the shortlist. Most, because this year’s shortlist was a step-up from the last two years.”

Oto then suddenly adds, “I have no interest in that conversation. Only it can barely be avoided.

“Towards August, the middle of the year, Lola Shoneyin organized a book festival in Kaduna—Kadafest—the first such festival in the north of Nigeria.

“The controversy wasn’t targeted at her, but there were people who felt that writers shouldn’t attend the festival. Because in the city of Kaduna a group of Northern youths made a declaration telling Igbo people to leave before October 1. The festival was funded by the same governor during whose administration that had happened. Some people felt that writers shouldn’t go there, as a way of registering their discontent. Some asked, ‘Does it mean that a writer attending a festival funded by political money is complicit in the errors of their nation?’ It created an important conversation, but as with many things social media, it quickly descended into name calling.”

I ask him once again about his own work, and finally get an answer.

Oto: “I’m primarily a writer, a fiction writer. Also an essay writer, but fiction mostly. I have a collection of short stories unpublished yet. The first story in the collection got published in Transition magazine in 2015 and got nominated for a Pushcart Prize. That story was ‘A Tenderer Blessing’ and it was republished online in Brittle Paper.

“The second story, ‘Mulumba,’ appeared in The Threepenny Review and the third story (‘You Sing of Longing’) was published this year [2017] and shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award. The Kraak Award recognizes art focused on sexuality, social justice, and gender.” [Dilman Dila was also nominated for the prize that year. In 2018 Kiprop Kimutai was shortlisted. Interviews with other Kraak nominees, Amatesiro Dore and Efemia Chela, will appear soon in this series.]

“I write mostly about queer experiences, queer Nigerians. It’s problematic because before Brittle Paper opened doors, you would send your works to magazines—it didn’t happen to me, but it happened to friends of mine who sent work and were told, ‘You have to change any reference to same sex or we will not publish this. It has to be about love, but it cannot be about queer love.’ But Ainehi was publishing everything. She wanted to give every voice a chance. The Gerard Kraak Award came in to fill this gap. The beautiful thing about the award is that it is not only for creative writing but also for visual arts, digital art, photography, even academic writing, blog posts. Everything is allowed. So I got shortlisted last year.

“I also got shortlisted for the Miles Morland Scholarship last year, for a prospective novel. What the Miles Morland Foundation people are doing is massive, giving writers as much as 18,000 or 27,000 pounds to simply go and create new work. It’s crucial.”

Since this interview in November 2017, Brittle Paper announced that Otosirieze had found a major Western agent for his short story collection.

Lola Shoneyin was also named Brittle Paper’s 2017 Literary Person of the Year.

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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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