“I trust this room is to your taste.” Taiye shut the door to the dim room behind them. The scent of sandalwood along with the soft sounds of a gentle rain from the music player surrounded them. “You wanted the shea butter massage, ma?”
“Yes, and I hope it is good.” She dropped her bag on the floor. “I am already unimpressed with your services. It is just unfortunate that my usual spa is closed, I wouldn’t even consider coming here …”
Taiye blocked out her words and commenced preparing the shea butter, warming it up so that it melted and adding a few drops of calming lavender essential oil to it.
“I apologise, ma.” She said finally. “I will give you some privacy now, please take off your clothes and lie face up on the table.”
Taiye stepped out; her hands itched from wanting to slap that woman. It must be nice not to have any problems in one’s life apart from when and where to have a massage. They looked about the same age yet life had clearly dealt Taiye the heavier burden. She walked to the extreme end of the corridor and leaned towards an open window dragging in the dust-laden air deeply. Focus, Taiye, she told herself. Five minutes later she was back in the room where her client waited. Shortly after, she started her work first stretching her client’s muscles. As she applied pressure on her client’s stomach, she admired the little ring that adorned her belly button. Taiye worked, kneading at the muscles and imagining how many men must be chasing after this woman, how she must entrance them.
She asked the woman to turn over, that was when things got strange. Taiye rubbed more shea butter on her hands and looked down on the smooth expanse of her client’s back in preparation. Just below the woman’s left shoulder blade was what looked like a painful bump, the kind that Taiye associated with being hit badly. Before Taiye’s eyes, the swelling shifted under skin and disappeared. A sharp pain pierced Taiye’s chest as she stood rooted to the spot, her hands unwilling to continue the massage. The bump appeared again, lengthened so it resembled a snake and slithered across her client’s back.
“Is anything the matter?” Her client’s lulled voice was a testament to her calmed state.
“No,” Taiye breathed. Then she shook her head so her voice came out stronger when she repeated, “No.”
From “4:15 Appointment” in Omenana
Rafeeat Aliyu was part of the main wave of African SFF from the beginning. Her story “Ofe” was in the first volume of the AfroSF series, published in 2013. Her story “4:15 Appointment” was in the first issue of Omenana, back in 2014. When I asked her what story she wanted to kick off her interview, she chose this.
Rafeeat: “I really liked writing it and a lot of people have liked reading it. Chinelo [Onwualu] reached out to me. I really like that she actively reaches out to women who write SF—so she reached out to three of us and she’s like, ‘You need to write something for Omenana, it’s coming out, you need to put something up.’ I was like, ‘Sure, let me try to come up with something.’
“I wasn’t working on any story before she asked, so there was a bit of time, about six months, that I had to sit down and come up with one, and it’s weird, the story came up from a dream. The first part of the story where there’s a woman giving a massage and her hand slips through the skin of the person she’s massaging, I had a dream about that, and had a chance to develop it.”
GR: “That’s the cover illustration.”
Rafeeat: “Yes. That’s the cover. And I think interestingly for that particular story I had the idea of it a year or two before that but I couldn’t write it down. I actually also discussed with Chinelo the idea of orisha living in modern Abuja and not just the orisha that people know. Everyone knows Sango as the thunder deity and all of that, but what I understood of Yoruba religion is that there are spirits in every single sort of natural thing, so rivers can have spirits, stones or trees or things like that. It was something I wanted to develop but I didn’t have a story around it. So once I had written the story, I sent it to her and she was okay with that. We went back and forth in the editing process.”
Rafeeat: “I had actually written spec fic before that—my first publication was for AfroSF, edited by Ivor Hartmann, and that story was my first attempt at sending something to any publication. I always used to write but I never shared. Having that story be accepted and published really sort of pushed me to continue with that, even though I’d been sort of lackluster about it.
“I had seen the call from AfroSF. I don’t remember where I saw the call for submissions. I had a character but I didn’t have the story formed, so once I saw a deadline, it took about a week to just write it all out. This story set in a futuristic world but also involving the spiritual/the supernatural, and I had the character of a woman who is like a private investigator in this world and so I developed that into a short story and sent it for submission, and I was really surprised when it got accepted.
“We went through the editorial process together and there was a lot of back-and-forth about some terms that I had used in the story. Because I tried to stick to just using the Yoruba or Nigerian terms for certain words. So they needed clarification. It was more professional than personal, but it was Ivor that introduced me to the Afro SF group on Facebook. I don’t think he knew that that was my very first attempt at sending, and if I hadn’t gotten a yes from them I probably wouldn’t be writing or sending any SF out today.
“But also, when the book was published I met up with Tade Thompson, Biram Mboob [a writer whose modesty meant he refused to be interviewed for this series], and Nick Wood. And I said that this is something that I’ve written and I don’t think I’m sending anything else to anyone ever, and then Tade is like, ‘No, you can’t, you have to keep on writing, you have to keep on sending things.’ (Laughs)
“So I would send a couple of stories out, just once in a while, but they never got accepted, until Omenana, when Chinelo asked me to write something. So, I guess, in some way they’ve been mentors to me, Tade and Chinelo, in telling me that ‘you need to write.’ Because I have this habit of writing but never sharing.”
GR: “What would you be writing now without them?”
Rafeeat: “I probably wouldn’t be writing fiction and trying to get published. It would still always be me writing stuff and keeping it on my laptop. But I also write for work, nonfiction pieces and things like that. I work for She Leads Africa, doing editorial work.
“I used to do a lot of freelance writing before. Most of my work would be on This Is Africa. I did about twenty articles for them but that would be under my pen name, not as Rafeeat Aliyu.
“I wrote an article on the subculture of rock music in Nigeria for True Africa. So people who listen to rock, who are fans of rock music, who make rock music in Nigeria. The article explores how, even if rock isn’t mainstream, there’s a diversity of rock produced by Nigerians—so I did an insight into the world and interviewed women fans of rock music, as well as a particular musician who makes soft rock punk.”
GR: “Tell me a bit about the content of your work. You could say a bit about the two stories that you like the most. You’ve spoken of the ones in AfroSF and Omenana.”
Rafeeat: “I have another story in Omenana and also published in Omenana X. I also have a story published in Queer Africa 2, an anthology, which is coming up, but that isn’t SF at all. It’s a South African publication.”
GR: “What was motivating you to write SF?”
Rafeeat: “Like my other stories, it’s the dream (Laughs), and I think that might be why I write SF. The dreams I have and putting that together with my stories. I’ve been writing since I was in primary school, and I noticed that even in primary school I never liked writing stories set in this world, so I’d create other worlds, ‘cause I didn’t feel comfortable writing in this one. Even if it wasn’t SF, like it’ll be just some other world but it wouldn’t be Nigeria.
“For AfroSF, I had the character first. In 2012 or 2011, a friend of mine created a website for Nigerian fiction, so I was trying to write a series of short mystery stories set in a science fictional universe for this website, but I never finished it, so that’s where the investigative character came from.
“There’s a scene in the story where there’s a dark room and there’s people in cages or in prison somehow. That’s the scene from a dream that I wrote in and sort of developed so it bloomed into the story.”
GR: “Do you have anything to say about the role of dreams in fiction in general?”
Rafeeat: “I was telling ‘Pemi [Aguda] about this earlier, I’ve always had these vivid dreams since I was young. When I was young they were nightmares, but now I don’t consider them nightmares anymore, they’re just weird. I think it’s a way for me to channel what I’m dreaming about. I don’t know if many other writers draw from dreams the way I do.
“Sometimes I have an idea for a story but I can’t complete it, then I have this dream and I’m like great, it sort of links into this story and so I can bring this in and that would be a way for me to complete it.
“I don’t know if it’s just a way of my subconscious inspiring me or reminding me, sort of like Tendai Huchu, where he’s talking about the book and the hat [the story is about milliners who create inspiration for writers in the form of hats—‘The Worshipful Company of Milliners’ in Interzone] so I guess my own hat comes in the form of dreams, rather than another Eureka moment which I don’t have, usually. It’s hard for me to just have an idea and go with it, usually it has to be linked to a dream somehow to develop.”
GR: “You don’t have any healing powers or anything?”
Rafeeat: (Laughs) “Maybe I do and I need to just wait for them to manifest.”
I ask if she has a novel coming out.
Rafeeat: “Not really. My prime 2016 goals were to write one novel, two novellas, and a number of short stories. For the novel, I’ve been working on it for a while. I think I first started writing it when I was reading into the history of East Africa and Asia, and the Chinese presence in the coastal regions of precolonial Kenya, so I wanted to create a world based on that triangle of East Africa, the Arab world, and the Far East. So I initially wrote it for NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] 2014. I was able to write 50,000 words, but as soon as I finished, I wasn’t comfortable with it. Since then, for four years basically, I’ve been trying to find out how to wrap it up, ‘cause the story is all in my head but I’m looking at what I’ve written down and thinking, ‘This story is boring and I don’t like the way it looks,’ so what I’m doing this year is changing a few things, but it’s still there.”
The novel is set in a world in which ancient powers, called ashiri—which have been outlawed by a new order—still exist, but are misunderstood. People touched by the ashiri have a variety of powers.
Rafeeat: “The main character is trying to learn about the ashiri and these powers that other people had. She’s then drawn into this adventure; she keeps on having these dreams, like me (Laughs). The dreams lead her to a girl with these amazing powers who is being used as a pawn to overthrow the world order and bring back ashiri.”
Rafeeat is also working on a collection of short stories.
“The collection of short stories started from, I think, my very first attempt at writing SF, when I was eighteen or nineteen—that was when I was in university in the UK. I wanted to write a story set in Abuja, but in a future where Abuja has become a desert and one with a different past where Africa wasn’t colonised.
“In most of the stories I write there’s always the thing of the supernatural. This story is set in the future world but there is another supernatural world alongside it that I called the Void for now. There are people in the futuristic Abuja who are trained to keep the balance, or keep the people from the Void coming into this world. So my character becomes one of the people who have to track down these otherworldly creatures and take them back.
“I have a number of stories set in this alternate future Abuja world on my laptop now. The idea is just to self-publish a collection of short stories. So, I haven’t really sent them to any major publisher. Usually when that is about to happen I look at them and think, 'Do I really want to submit this to anyone?' ‘Cause I started this when I was really young, I’m more protective of it. I just figured I’d write it and publish it myself.”
I ask about her time in the UK.
Rafeeat: “Well, I studied in the UK, first at the University of Hertfordshire and then at Durham University. Then I lived in London for a year. I loved it so much when I was in Durham, and interestingly other Nigerians and other Africans there didn’t like it, and I didn’t understand why they didn’t like it at first. I had a Nigerian friend who would go down to London every other weekend because she was bored living in Durham, but I loved the history of the town, just walking to the castle, and to me it was just beautiful and I like the calm.”
Durham is one of the most distinguished universities in the United Kingdom, ranked just under Oxford and Cambridge. It’s in the North of England, not far from Scotland, near the party town of Newcastle. Durham itself is high on a hill, and has one of the oldest and most beautiful cathedrals in the country.
Rafeeat: “I studied International Relations there. That was my master’s. My undergrad was in marketing and French, that was in Hertfordshire, but that place was different because as soon as I got in, I met other Nigerian students and we were sort of hanging around together living in the same house, so I didn’t have that culture shock that I would have had if I had gone straight to Durham instead of Hertfordshire.
“Durham was different because there weren’t as many Nigerians or Africans there, so I had a diverse group of friends. I was a member of the -> Japanese students’ society for some reason. I had made friends with many Japanese students as well as students learning kenjutsu [Japanese sword art] because everyone is like, join us, and I’m like, okay, part of the group. And then later on when I met more Nigerians they asked why I’m not part of the African group, but I didn’t know there was one!”
GR: “You sound like you really are kind of committed to SF? What was the process of finding it like?”
Rafeeat: “Interestingly, for science fiction when I was a kid it had to be TV, I remember I used to really watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager. I was also a huge fan of the Stargate series. I used to watch that a lot when I was younger in primary school. I went to secondary school as a boarder, so I didn’t have as much of an exposure to what was going on, on TV. So I had to read then.
“I remember reading a lot of folktales, Nigerian folktales. I recently came across the books I had when I was in primary school, because I kept them in a Ghana-must-go bag and they were mostly books like Tales of the Tortoise, or from the Tarok of Jos.
“The primary school I went to was owned by a Tarok woman, so she wrote these folktales, and I also found a book of ghost stories. I also came across a little thing I had written about a family of ghosts.
“Then in secondary school, I read what everyone else was reading: Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitters Club. I read a lot of comics as well. I really liked X-Men and Wonder Woman. Those were the two that I really remember, and a lot of Archie too.
“I’d also come across the books that were going around in school like Murakami or Stephen King. Then would be these authors that were just so popular in Nigeria: Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, etc. And also a lot of Mills and Boon. They were so accessible, my aunts had huge collections.
“The only sort-of weird author I read in secondary school was Haruki Murakami. I remember I read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and I really liked it then, even though now I’m not as into Murakami. I also really liked horror. That was the only sort of speculative thing I was reading when I was in secondary school.
“Then in university, which was in England, that was when I really got into science fiction. It was through Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nnedi Okorafor. I remember reading that and thinking ‘Hey!’ You know. It was Kindred, Octavia Butler’s novel, and it struck me that, since secondary school, I’ve been writing everyday stories set in worlds I created, why don’t I push myself further?
“What’s important to me is seeing more novels written by women. I feel a lot of those African science fiction I’ve seen tend to be short stories, so I would like to read more books that are science fiction by diverse African writers, by women, because I have not seen as much as I would like.”
GR: “There are some. Nnedi, Sofia Samatar …”
Rafeeat: “Yeah, yeah. Also not just science fiction, but also fantasy and horror. I just want them to be more. I’m aware of Sofia [Samatar], and I think Ayodele [Olufintuade], hopefully a book of hers will be coming out soon. I would just like to see more novels by women in this space.”
Since this interview Rafeeat travelled to the UK and was part of the August 2017 Nine Worlds convention in London, where she talked about the research that went into her article “Four badass women from North African history you should know” in Nzinga Effect. She’s also written a review of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s novel After the Flare in Strange Horizons.