The Nommo Awards are given by Africans to Africans, for speculative fiction. The shortlist for the 2019 Nommos, the third edition for the Awards, has just been announced.
There is no other award for African fiction like the Nommo. It’s not judged by a panel of experts. It depends, like the Nebula Awards, on the nominations and votes of a large number of readers who are also writers, editors, and artists—the members of the African Speculative Fiction Society.
T.L. Huchu, co-winner of the very first Nommo Award for best short story, has been shortlisted again for his short story “Njuzu”. As a member of the ASFS, he says:
There's so much dope shit going on in African SFF today I really struggled with my Nommo nominations. So many bold voices and fresh ideas—what a time to be a reader!
Nerine Dorman, short listed for her novella The Firebird says:
Because of the Nommos readers can find African voices telling their stories from a different angle.
If there is anyone the Nommo Awards were intended most to encourage, it would be young writers living on the continent itself, in countries without many of the privileges most of us in the West take for granted.
Imraan Coovadia, shortlisted for the Ilube Nommo Award for best novel for A Spy in Time says:
The thing I love about the Nommos is that it's defined on the continent. It's a way you can feel the continent as a community of writers, rather than as an appendix to some other place (except the future and parallel universes, of course).
For that reason, I (Geoff Ryman) had a Messenger conversation with two of the young shortlisted authors: Ekpeki Oghenechovwe in Nigeria and Derek Lubangakene in Uganda.
I try to get the ball rolling by asking why they are SFF writers.
Derek Lubangakene: Wow, I've never thought of it that way. I guess I just gravitated towards SFF. I've never really tried to deconstruct why. I grew up reading comic books, as you might know: Spider-Man, Batman etc. So I guess I just leaned towards the genre. There are obviously serious reasons why, but I haven't thought of it that way.
Ekpeki Oghenechovwe: Hmmmm. I think because I was born into it. I grew up like an only child. I had siblings but they schooled far away. My mom was doing another degree while I was growing up and my dad was working. I happened to have access to novels, which were my main companions. I grew up a loner and a reader. And fantasy novels were the books that resonated the most with me. They were the ones that I sunk deeper into. Other kinds of fiction were reflections of the regular world, which I wasn't too conversant with or fond of. So fantasy, these amazing places, and people and creatures, I just fell naturally into it. I read enough and naturally, writing took over.
Derek, in your 100 Africans interview you also mentioned retelling traditional stories or stuff you heard around the bonfire.
DL: That's inherent in all kinds of writing I think. I think I also mentioned that some stories require a speculative element to come alive while others don't. A lot of those bonfire stories have speculative elements in them, you know, ghost tales, cautionary tales etc.
EO: We had campfire tales as well. From my grandmother, who raised me for a good while after my mom went to law school. Same, entertainment and instructional tales as Derek mentioned. “The Witching Hour” [his Nommo-nominated story] is from the popular myth of paralyses during sleep. Witches from the other side are “pressing” you and sucking your life force out. Everyone talks about being pressed every now and then in the village locale. It's like, “Hey I was pressed last night.” There's also this other myth that putting the discharge from a dog's eyes lets you see witches and spirits since dogs can. That didn't make it past the editing though. But yeah, most of it is tradition and local lore.
Witches, according to the Urhobo tribal tales, initiate you with food given to you as a child, or items or objects. Most Nigerian parents still warn their kids not to eat food from outside, even from relatives. Which was where initiation usually came from.
Also, them shape-shifting, being trapped in half-human, half-animal shapes on daybreak. A strong belief that even makes it to local newspapers every now and then when people say they caught a mishappen shape of someone who had been a witch.
Derek, your story “Origami Angels” draws on comics, in a kind of superpower story.
DL: Yeah, Geoff, comics are big part of the story, but not exactly for their subject matter as for their sense of wonder. Comics are very immediate and universal. And I guess a little more accessible than prose.
Asaf (a lead character) despises superheroes because that's too close to home for him. I guess the battle for Asaf is self-doubt, which a lot of superheroes contend with. He tries to transcend this by creating something truly beautiful hence the Origami Angels of the title (an origami that can fly).
EO: I was going to ask how Derek got fantasy and sci-fi books and what reading was like on his end. If it was as complicated as on mine? How people viewed and received being a fantasy reader and then a writer.
DL: Yeah, actually getting books is quite the challenge—I guess across the whole continent. More and more SFF books are becoming available, especially by fellow Africans. I generally read widely, I grew up around a lot of books, most of them not necessarily SFF. Makes you cherish a good SFF book when you get your hands on it.
EO: Nowadays people download books free from the internet. Back when I started reading there was no internet. In the 1990s, there was the local library. But after a short while we had exhausted the few SFF books there. Mainly classics like C. S. Lewis, folklore, and some children's fantasy stories.
How we got the real, more general stuff was buying second hand books from Yaba (a Lagos district) and CMS store owners who imported used books. These books were never recent or in correct order. So you only got books that had been out for a long while. Old fantasy series. Most times you read them in a skewed order. Wheel of Time for example, I could read book eight, then book two, then six.
But we loved it all the same. I mean. It made us appreciate it more. It was about the richness of the literature
DL: Yeah, exactly. Me too, I read The Lord of the Rings, three then one then two, same as His Dark Materials.
Wole Talabi said that he gave up reading fantasy for that reason. Science fiction novels were more likely to be complete in one volume.
DL: I can relate to Wole Talabi. To date I've only ever finished chronologically the Dune series, His Dark Materials, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones and all these much later in life.
I now read online a lot. It's great some of the pro markets are free to read online. Clarkesworld. Strange Horizons. Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
EO: Most people get access to devices like when they get admission to the University. So. I was a bit stunted on reading, and hence writing short fiction. It was mostly those novels we had. Now we read all the SFF mags. Fiyah Literary Magazine. Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. Apex.
DL: Sad that Apex is on hiatus.
EO: Permanent hiatus I think.
DL: Omenana, of course!
EO: Derek, did anyone call you possessed or a diabolical or satanic for reading fantasy? Cos that happened here. And like I asked earlier, how was writing and reading SFF received there? Really curious if it was just here. Nigeria is a bit more intense about religion than other places after all.
DL: Haha. Not really. I was a bit of a geek so I got away with it. And because there aren't many people to geek around with I kind of just blended in. I didn't give people ammunition in that regard.
EO: Ahhh. I wasn't so fortunate. Here reading fantasy meant you were unrealistic. There was strong stigma.
DL: Uganda is a bit more liberal as far as religion goes. But like I said, some weird ideas were best kept to one's self.
EO: You were dealing with stuff that couldn't happen, was unrealistic. No one took you seriously. And when they did you wished they didn't. Cos there were the ones who would tell you it was satanic. Magic. Harry Potter was evil and J. K. Rowling was the Devil's bride. I'm serious. I still remember when I got caught reading Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman. I got harassed and victimised till I had to switch schools.
DL: No one takes themselves seriously here. Besides in the background of every culture there are strong ties to witch stories, witchcraft, ancestor worship, stories of cannibalism and the like. It'd be hypocritical to point fingers.
EO: Besides the fact that writing generally wasn't considered lucrative, SFF generally more so made you very unserious. Either that or the same issues with reading. You were trying to become the Devil's new acolyte or just not plain ready to deal with reality.
Till date my mom hasn't read anything I've written. I mean, she tried one of my co-written novels at a point but didn't get past the prologue. My parents didn’t get it until there was a very big success: Nnedi.
DL: Yeah, Nnedi is BIG.
EO: Now there's someone people can point at and say see, it's serious business. It's like MGK said, how do you know you can do it unless someone that looks like you makes it?
DL: My dad is aloof about the writing. He lectures at university. My mum is supportive. Actually my family is supportive of writing, I guess I'm lucky that way. It kind of makes sense to them now the way I am, you know, being a loner all though childhood and all that. So the writing is kind of validation.
EO: I'm not tempted to kidnap you, hide you away somewhere, assume your shape, after of course siphoning all you know from your mind then taking over your life.
DL: The Nommo nod has been exciting for me. I've been writing for a long time and it's great for friends, family to rally behind you. I can't stress enough how every day someone asks where the link is to vote for my story. It's great to have that. As we all know, writing is crazy lonely. It's special when people want to get involved. You know, sending you links to writing calls and the like.
EO: It's also given writers on the continent something. As far as I know, though I don't really understand why, the Nebula and Hugo and the World Fantasy Award aren’t for us. I don't think any home-based African writer has ever ever had even a nomination. Even from when there was a long list, made it to the long list.
DL: The Nommos are our Nebula and Hugo Awards all rolled in one.
EO: It's creating all this buzz, institutionalizing African SFF and helping us with that little thing of not being taken seriously. Cos now like the literary fiction writer I can be seen as serious, pro, advancing. I can get to be like the Caine-Prize person, or the Writivism person. Or the Brunei-Prize person.
And now because of Black Panther, everybody is writing fantasy and sci-fi. Even the literary fiction people. Like hey, can you stay in your lane?
DL: Speaking of writing stories for us by us, how do you feel about African SFF writers writing 'western' fantasy about, for example, faeries or vampires?
EO: Well. It's a sad side effect of the way we grew up to read and learn to write. I think it's very unoriginal. And what you produce will be deeply flawed.
I remember as a kid I wanted to write an alien invasion and it was supposed to be in America. But I didn't know street names, weather conditions, and all that. Even character names. I could research it. But it still wouldn't be it. So I gave it up.
But then again, it's what we grew up reading. It's all we knew. There was no Black Panther or Nnedi then. They didn't exist.
DL: It’s inauthentic. I've received two such stories but the fact that I know it's an African who's writing about something originally Celtic, I can't suspend belief.
We in Africa have such amazing mythological creatures that I'm dying to fill books and books with.
What about non-Africans writing stuff in a fantasy Africa?
EO: Writing about a world you learnt about in Wikipedia—it's bound to be poor writing. Let the people that know it write it. I can't write about Asia either. I wouldn't know a word in Japanese but for Naruto. And that doesn't give me the right or know-how to embark on telling their stories.
Like I said, for those of us writing Western (style stories), we had no idea we could tell our own stories. We also didn’t have the medium or the means. You know, I've been writing and reading for maybe two decades. But I never really did seriously till I heard about the first mags and journals and feasible ways of publishing. There's no point writing if you can't be read.
So I feel like we were really slowed down. So I am in my late twenties and just starting something. When I read Stephen King's On Writing and I hear he's been getting personal rejections and getting published at sixteen, it kinda feels like everyone had a head start.
But we’re here now.
But Helen Oyeyemi published really young. And Chibundu Onuzo, The Spider King’s Daughter.
DL: There are exceptions.
EO: She (Helen Oyeyemi) was living in the UK, sent her work to Bloomsbury, one of the biggest publishers in the world at the time.
What other barriers do you think African writers face?
DL: It hasn't happened to me yet, but I've heard other writers get told to change significant things about their stories just to be suitable for western markets.
EO: You in the West have the biggest publishers and support and all that. People here don't have any of that. It’s a no-brainer. You have better education, better living conditions. We mostly have to choose between success and survival. Art isn't part of survival. So you can think of arts and the rest. Here we have to be making terrible choices and sacrifices to write.
Spending a world of energy to fight off the world and spending just ten percent of your energy in the actual writing.
Oghenechowve, you could do law to earn money?
EO: I really wouldn't want to. I was pushed into it because it's “lucrative, realistic.” I don't think I will do it as well as I can write. Which I have been doing for a really short time. But in the end I will have to make a choice between survival and the other. I hope to someday do an MFA in creative writing and maybe teach writing while writing. That's my dream.
DL: I don't think writers anywhere have it easy. We're all stuck in day jobs hoping to get big enough to write full time.
Derek, you said once that you tried to quit uni to write?
DL: Yeah, but that was more of a creative decision than lifestyle. I had this idea for a novel that had hugged me the whole three years at uni. Never finished it unfortunately. Writing it wasn't the problem. I think I was attempting a novel I hadn't yet gotten the skills to pull off. A bit of hubris on my part I'll admit.
No hubris no writing. Nobody else is going to tell you do it.
DL: True that. It isn't remedy enough for crippling self-doubt, though.
OK here's a big question for you both. Where do you see African fantasy and SF writing headed?
EO: Well, I think it's heading for the place where the rainbow touches down. There's supposed to be gold there and stuff. And I think it'll get there pretty soon. With all the light being shone on African SFF lately. Nnedi, Black Panther, Tade Thompson, Tomi Adeyemi, Suyi Davies are all coming up, and a host of writers. I always say there are some world-class writers in the ASFS (African Speculative Fiction Society).
DL: Yeah, the horizon is broad for African SFF, maybe too broad I fear. Like you intimated, the light is on AfroSFF and us writers are defining and redefining its boundaries every day.
EO: Well there's the new movement by Nnedi, the Africanfuturism thing instead of afrofuturism. Maybe that's a start in bringing it home from the diaspora.
Can I ask Derek something? What's your most daring story? Published or unpublished? and what made you write it?
DL: My most daring story is a short story I'm still writing. I've only written the first ONE THOUSAND words and shelved it ... It's about what in my Luo culture we call the Akote. There's no English equivalent, but these are normal people with the one exception: that they have the uncanny ability/curse to dream other people's deaths.
They are extremely rare, but families of past Akote are shunned and never allowed to spend the night anywhere they visit. Their children are not allowed into boarding schools either.
Why it's daring is because like three months ago my uncle died of mysterious circumstances and Akote are suspected. When my mum narrated the story I know I had to write it
Richard Oduor Oduku is Luo. He writes his stuff in DuLuo first and then translates it to get the flavour.
EO: This takes me back to what Geoff was asking about Westerners writing African stories. That's not something you are going to get from Wikipedia. That's a real, true, strong tale.
So Derek, we are both saying go for it.
DL: Yeah, I will. I just might write it in Luo first.
EO: My story, “Diary of the Dark Child,” is born off true experiences as well. I did a version which got an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest second quarter last year.
It's about a boy who was born on a night where all the planetary bodies converged and the satanic ritual of the black mass was performed. It imprinted the dark soul of the Devil in him, granting him the power of corruption. A form of reality-warping that has to do with the deterioration of everything he sees. The deterioration is sped up at extreme levels. It's kind of a response to all the whole “fantasy books are satanic” I was told growing up.
So I decided to do an actual satanic story complete with demons and sex rituals and all that. And it feels real because a lot of bad emotions went into building it. It's kind of my story and I am the dark child.
You see my dad died around that period. In a bad way. He was kidnapped, and tortured to death. And his body was dropped on a field for my family to pick up. It's one of those things that happened a lot in the south of Nigeria.
DL: Sorry man. That must've been hard.
EO: That and my health issue. It was maddening. Maybe that story was the only way I was able to preserve my sanity. I had to pour all the energy into it. I was born with chronic sinusitis. And the infection from that led to perforated ear drums and hearing loss. Over the years I had other respiratory issues that compounded it. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, and surgeries that didn't go well.
It's yet unpublished. A lot of editors shy away from it. I think it's the sex rituals. I plan to do a novella set in that world after doing all the needed drafts of my current novella.
DL: Before we sign off, you asked about my novel. I'm done with my dystopian YA, and will start editing The Descending (the high fantasy Tolkeinesque novel) shortly. Actually my Apex story “A Fool’s Baneful Galantry” is based on the world in The Descending.
EO: Thanks for hosting us. Was great chatting with you guys.
DL: Same here bro.
Is there anything either of you are burning to say that we haven't got to yet?
DL: It's been a thrill.
EO: Nothing except, Derek, I read your short story in the shortlist. And I like it. It's funny how we are both in the shortlist together. All the best bro.
DL: Thanks so much. Appreciate it.
And I hope you guys are both voting.
EO: Yes, I'm reading, will vote soon.
The full shortlists for the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Novel by an African, and the Nommo Awards for novella, short story, and comics are listed at the ASFS website.