In 2014, Chinelo Onwualu and I started Omenana, a pan-African speculative fiction magazine, because of the dearth of places to publish stories by writers who actively identify as writers of science fiction and fantasy. It was our answer to the literary magazines here in Nigeria that turn up their noses at stories of speculative fiction because they don’t consider the genre worthy of publication in their mediums.
The first edition of Omenana has pride of place of being the first Nigerian SFF magazine; but the first stories of this nature in Nigeria were written centuries before, when our parents told tales of gods that came from the sky and seeded the earth. These stories of heavenly beings, and extraordinary creatures, and men that perform wondrous deeds are part of our folktales. These folktales are imbued with elements of things beyond the ordinary, the supernatural and the otherworldly—all the elements that make for a great SFF story. To take just one example: In Yoruba mythology, Oduduwa came from the sky as an emissary of Olodumare, the supreme being, and created the earth by using a rooster to scatter earth over the waters.
In our stories our gods live in the sky, underground, in trees, in the wind, and of course, among people. We tell of people like the ogbanje spirit child that is cursed to die young over and over again. We tell of spirit husbands such as the one that Elechi Amadi wrote of in his novel, The Concubine: wed to a lady in the spirit world, who then, in fits of jealousy, takes the life of any mortal that is bold enough to wed her.
Similar stories—of demigods and talking animals and spirits that become human at a whim—are standard elements of the stories many children from my part of the world hear by their mothers' feet at night. The animal kingdom is evoked in stories about the crafty tortoise—or the hare in some cultures—and is used to pass on important life lessons.
We have continued with this tradition of spinning tales of the extraordinary. You only need to scratch a bit to find that it is the default genre for most of those writing from Nigeria. A good example is Nigerian writer Elnathan John’s Caine Prize-nominated “Flying,” which had that element of the extraordinary that we call speculative fiction: it is the story of a boy who flies in his dream, and of the teacher that knows, and shows him, that it’s an echo of the life he lived before. Yes, they don’t readily call it speculative fiction, but all the elements are there.
The reason for this is that what may be considered speculative in the west is considered factual here. Hence, stories of the young woman with the ability to morph into a snake or the boarding school child that finds himself at a “witches' coven” after accepting candy from a friend abound in our literature, written by writers who, like I pointed out above, will probably frown at a move to classify their work as speculative fiction. For we live in a country where many people wouldn’t blink at the story of a bird becoming a woman after an encounter with an electric feeder cable as brilliantly captured by the writer Pemi Aguda here.
Oral storytelling of the type already outlined above was the medium through which our ancestors transferred knowledge from one generation to the next, and through which stories get transferred from one person to the next. Even though the oral form still exists, it has largely been subsumed by the written form, albeit not without transferring some of the incredulity that a story is gifted with when it’s been transferred from one mouth to the other, over a length of time.
Talking about the written form, one can argue that Nigeria’s modern SFF story started the day D. O. Fagunwa decided to lasso Yoruba folk tales and corral them into his seminal work Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀, which was later translated into English by the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka as The Forest of a Thousand Demons. Fangunwa’s stories are centered around the adventures of a hunter, and the strange and wondrous beings he encounters. Hunters are said to have magical powers in these parts for it is believed that they cannot enter the forests to hunt at night, a time when the spirits roam, without some form of protection.
Perhaps there were people, living in the space that is Nigeria today, who had had thought to put our fables down like Fagunwa did (considering that the first printing press was established in Calaber, now in South Eastern Nigeria, in 1846), but he, at least by scale, holds the honour of being the pioneer of Yoruba written literature.
Then there is Amos Tutuola. Unlike Fagunwa, though, Tutola wrote in English, but also leaned on the speculative heavy Yoruba tradition for his seminal The Palm-Wine Drinkard, published in 1946.
While Chinua Achebe—perhaps Nigeria’s best known novelist—had aspects of SFF in his works (folktales about talking animals, and the one of a man that went to the land of the spirits to wrestle with his chi— his personal guardian), Cyprian Ekwensi is the one who wrote a book, The Passport of Malam Ilia, a story of a man who is bent on revenge after his lover was given to another, and goes in search of the ultimate revenge: a very good example of the hero/quest trope that makes for some of the most familiar SFF stories out there. (Indeed, The Passport of Malam Illia is being turned into an animated movie, a treatment that will bring it to a new audience which is, based on discussions online, eagerly awaiting it.) Along similar lines, Chukwuemeka Ike’s “Bottled Leopard” captures the confusion and frustration of a teenage changeling in a world that is swiftly moving on from the days when his like were accepted as a part of the landscape.
And then there is Ben Okri, whose work encapsulates in succulent, even if difficult to access, prose the wonders that can be found in a world suffused with gods and magic.
(N.B.: There are other writers whose stories would seamlessly fit into the SFF mold from what many consider the golden age of Nigerian literature whose work I am not familiar with or didn’t list here.)
Despite SFF being integral to the history of literature in the country, until recently, it was tough getting those who openly state that their work is SFF published or accepted in Nigeria.
But things changed.
In the year 2008 Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature for her SFF book Zahrah the Windseeker. In 2009 she published a gripe about Penguin Prize For African Writing’s refusal to accept SFF entries here, and captured the absurdity of the mainstream African literary cycle’s dismissal of the genre.
Nnedi would go on to become a force in the world of SFF.
And many followed in her wake.
In 2010, Zahrah the Windseeker was available in Nigeria via Farafina Books and was inspiring many, including myself, with the possibility of taking SFF stories written in Nigeria into the mainstream. Nnedi was also a part of the Lagos 2060 project, which we will get to soon, and we linked to her classes via Skype.
Meanwhile, at this time, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 had ruffled a lot of Nigerian feathers because of what is a very unflattering portrayal of Nigerians. The noise it generated in Nigeria even forced the then Nigerian Minister for Information Dora Akunyili to issue the now infamous statement about Nigerians not eating aliens or mating with them.
I wrote then in my blog:
I recently watched the controversial Hollywood sponsored movie ‘District 9’ and came off feeling numb. For a movie set in Africa and directed by an African—presumably—there was very little about Africa on display aside from place names and black faces. As a Nigerian I was peeved at the constant referral to ‘Nigerian gang’, and wondered why the director wanted to make sure that tag stuck to the viewers mind. As a black man, I was also bothered by the fact that that future South Africa appeared to be the dream land the Afrikaners had wanted, the one with black servants, factory workers and white rulers.
Also, this movie very much followed the usual Hollywood cultural script (do little or no research about the Africans characters you portray) as the so-called Nigerian gangs spoke South African languages which Western ears will definitely hear as Nigerian languages. No wonder the movie got the nominations it did (I hear it just got nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula). It seems like Neil Blomkamp is receiving a lot of kudos for this rape of Africa in a movie where, for me, he killed the chance to really tell and African tale, at least a politically correct one.
However, as harsh as my criticism sounds to my ears now, I felt it wasn’t enough back then, and I thought that we really need to write our own story to tell our part of the hunt.
And Avatar was all the rage.
It was in the midst of all these that Nigerian writer and architect Ayodele Arigbabu posted a call for applications to a science fiction writing workshop in Lagos. Ayodele Arigbabu had, at that time, already published his collection of short stories (A Fistful of Tales) under his publishing imprint DADA Books. It featured some futuristic stories, notably the one of a man with a flying car.
About a dozen aspiring writers later attended the workshop, and the anthology Lagos 2060 resulted from it. The anthology was billed as Africa’s first collection of stories that pursued a futuristic theme. As the title suggested, we were told to imagine Lagos in fifty years. Production delays ensured that the Ivor Hartman-edited AfroSF, a pan-African anthology of science fiction short stories claimed the pride of place as Africa’s first continent-wide anthology of science fiction stories.
With the publication and rather good reception of AfroSF and, to an extent, Lagos 2060, there came a new interest in SFF and a move by writers to embrace the genre without the usual hangups that came from the lack of widespread acceptance of the genre as serious literature.
In 2013, the Nigerian-centric writing website Naija Stories organized a competition that aimed to get people writing science fiction as more people expressed interest in the genre. That competition was the first of its kind in Nigeria, and showed the promise that existed and the journey that needed to be undertaken. The winning story is about a Nigerian future where chastity is coveted and where a bracelet counts how many times an unmarried female has been with a man, with a three-strikes-you-are-out mode.
Omenana, the pan-African SFF magazine I founded with Chinelo Onwualu, published its first edition in 2014 and had the privilege of discovering some of the writers that are blazing a trail for the rest of us in the SFF community. Tade Thompson, Wole Talabi, and Rafeeat Aliyu were some of our early contributors of Nigerian descent. Later we had Chikodili Emelumadu, Suyi Davies, and so many others who are shining the torch. For example, Wole Talabi and Chikodili Emelumadu both got nominated for the Caine Prize. Tade Thompson has since published several books (The Murders of Molly Southbourne, Making Wolf, Rosewater, and The Rosewater Insurrection). Suyi Davies has published a book (David Mogo, God Hunter) and now lives outside of Nigeria, following the part that most great writers from these parts take as they chase the dreams of making a name in the writing game. Rafeeat Aliyu creates these beautiful stories in a world where the gods of our ancients live among us. And in 2014 Nigerians in Space by Deji Olukotun was published. While the story is effectively a crime thriller, one of its main themes is space travel (the effort to bring back Nigerians from abroad to kick-start a space programme).
There are many more writers of note from the country doing great things and some of them have been published by Omenana magazine. Sadly, while we were happy to see a growing interest in the genre and growing number of submissions per edition, this isn’t being matched by the quality and diversity of stories. Where we would have wished for more science fiction stories, we got more fantasy, urban legend, and magical realism stories. This perhaps ties to an influence of the stories that are around us.
Let’s not forget comic books
At Ake Festival in 2018, I told a panel a story of a comic book I had had since my primary school days in the late 80s. This hand-drawn comic book for a character called Volt Boy was among several a classmate gave me back then. It exemplified the quest for a comic book sector that is now established in Nigeria.
Roye Okupe of Youneek Studios, Jide Martin of Comic Republic, Sewedo Nupowaku of Revolution Media, Somto Ajuluchukwu of Vortex Comics, and Ayodele Alegba of Spoof Animations are some of the people at the forefront of a very vibrant comic book sector in Lagos.
While Omenana can be said to be the lonely SFF-focused magazine in Nigeria, the comic book sector is teeming with characters and titles, and a comic con is now a feature of the Lagos literary year. The hope is to get the growing number of SFF writers in the country collaborating with the comic book industry to better tell the stories that abound here.
Since starting Omenana magazine, we’ve had the singular honour of publishing many of the writers who are unquestionably the future of the genre.
Sadly, while we would have loved for the magazine to be more consistent, it is not and that can’t be helped, because it’s not something we do full-time.
As for the future, Omenana magazine will be here, serving as a space for writers of the speculative to send in their work and get published. The writers are here, the stories abound, it’s the telling that only needs to be done.