[Innocent Chizaram Ilo—a speculative fiction writer from Nigeria—recently won the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Africa Region, for their story “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood.” This interview was conducted via Google Doc, in June 2020.]
Gautam Bhatia: First up, so many congratulations on winning the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Africa Region, for your short story, “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood.” What a splendid achievement! As someone who has published two stories with us, we are basking in reflected glory.
In interviews, you’ve talked about the long, hard road that you had to take with this story, and the themes that you explore—motherhood, wifehood, patriarchy. One question that leaped out at me was how difficult it was for you to write a story about something that is embedded so deeply in the lived experience of women. I felt it was a bridge to your speculative fiction—SF at its best, of course, is so much about being able to hold together—and do justice to—a multiplicity of perspectives. You put it really well when you say you dream of “inhabiting strange places and bodies.” I was wondering if you could speak a little more on what the “inhabiting” of strange places and bodies means to you?
Innocent Ilo: Thank you so much Gautam. I think one of the abilities writing fiction offers all of us is to live the lives of strangers briefly. It's a beautiful thing, really. Writing "When A Woman Renounces Motherhood" is a bit different because the characters I created in that story are based on women that I know in real life. So, in as much as I was "inhabiting" bodies that do not belong to me, I was also writing and recreating stories of women in my life. Of course it is difficult writing stories about the other because you are always unsure if you'll get it right. This is why I am deeply indebted to Keletso Mopai for beta-reading this story.
GB: Late last year, you wrote an essay about queer representation in futuristic African fiction. You cited a number of examples from contemporary African SFF, and I think something that stood out for me was how a majority of those examples (but by no means all) adopted a bleak outlook towards queer futures—no doubt, driven by the presently existing conditions in the spaces that you inhabit.
Queer characters have been central to your own work—in your stories such as “Limbo” and most recently, “Rat and Finch are Friends” (which, I will freely admit, made me cry). And while you do not minimise the difficulties that they face, your stories are always laced with the flavour of hope, and the possibility of a future (still unrealised), with the understanding that it is not going to come easily. It made me think of Ursula Le Guin telling us that the task of SFF is to imagine alternatives to how we live. Is that something that informs—or drives—your work as well?
II: I am a very hopeful person. Hope will most definitely seep into my writing (consciously or unconsciously). I read an essay somewhere about how writing queer joy is a radical act. I love that. I love that people can look beyond the not-so-good present and imagine the futures they want and deserve. This is what drives my work, especially when I am telling queer stories. I love writing stories like “Limbo” and “Rat And Finch Are Friends” because stories like that, in the words of Alice Walker, regain a kind of paradise for me.
Imagining alternatives is important. I think this is what drew me to writing speculative fiction. Speculative fiction has more flexibility and range than realism to not just to ask what-ifs but to paint a picture so lucid and so real of a probability or a future or a reimagined present.
GB: To come to a theme that, I think, connects the first two questions—shape-shifting! Your stories are full of it, whether it is “Red Crows”, “Of Warps and Wefts” or “Rat and Finch are Friends”. I came away from both those stories with a sense of the fluidity of all things, the lack of fixity. So I wanted to ask you about the role that shape-shifting plays in your thought and your work.
II: I have always wanted to shape-shift as a child and the movies I watched fooled me into believing that I would shape-shift one day. (I am still waiting!). When I started writing, I immediately knew that my characters would shape-shift a lot. Shape-shifting for me goes beyond the literal. For people like myself and my characters, we all want to escape and shape-shifting is a step closer to that goal.
GB: Sticking with the same theme: in There Was a Country, Chinua Achebe has a section on the Igbo conception of art and culture, where he says that “no condition is permanent”, that “there is no attempt to draw a line between what is permissible and what is not, what is possible and what is not possible.” I see a lot of that in your work, in stories such as “Our Skin Will Now Bear the Testimonies.” I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the cultural influences that you bring to bear upon your SFF writing.
II: Living in Nigeria means living in a dictatorship masked as a democracy. Violence and brutality is a handy tool for the government to deploy at their convenience. It has gotten worse since Achebe's memoir. “Our Skin Will Now Bear The Testimonies” draws so much influence from my present life of resistance in the face of tyranny. Now that I think about it, all my stories exhibit varied degrees of resistance. It's always my characters who do not want to conform versus a world that is hellbent on the opposite.
Also if you look at “Red Crows” and “River Boy”, they rely so much on the Ogbanje mythology (a very beautiful aspect of Igbo culture). “Rat And Finch Are Friends" explores Amusus.
Drawing from my culture not only allows me to represent it and make other people curious but also helps me to interrogate my culture as well.
GB: Last month, you wrote an essay on what is officially known as the Nigeria-Biafra War—and which, you pointed out, ought more accurately to be called the Biafran Genocide—which your father lived through as a young child. You quoted Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, where he says that truth can be erased simply by starting your story with the word “secondly”, and ignoring what came before.
Barghouti is such a necessary writer, and when I read your work, I’m reminded of something else he wrote in I Saw Ramallah: that “I only started to believe in myself as a poet when I discovered how faded all abstracts and absolutes were.” So much of your work reminds readers of the necessity of undermining those “abstracts” and “absolutes” that shape our lives; do you see SF as a genre that—perhaps more than others—allows for that kind of questioning, that kind of challenge to existing veracities?
II: I have already pointed out here how speculative fiction has more range and flexibility to take on a broader discourse such as “absolutes” and “abstracts”. Realism is too limiting for us to fully understand understand the aforementioned concepts. Of course, this claim will be heavily contested but we will be economical with the truth if we deny how works of speculative fiction have flawlessly predicted the future and helped us to navigate the present.
GB: One generic question, I’m afraid! We at Strange Horizons have been publishing Geoff Ryman’s “100 African Writers of SFF” series for the last three years, and it’s been so exciting to read all the interviews, learn about magazines such as Omenana and forums such as the Ake Festival—it seems that SFF writing in African countries is on the march. Are you optimistic about the future of the genre? What hopes do you have for it, say, in the next five years?
II: Yes. A thousand yes. I am optimistic about the future of this genre. There is a wave of brilliant African writers writing bold and daring spec fiction; Rafeeat Aliyu, Innocent Immaculate Acan, Osahon Ize Iyamu, Pemi Aguda, Dare Segun Falowo, Keletso Mopai, Ada Nnadi (the list is endless!). In five years, we'll still be here, writing fresher narratives, deconstructing what is and what is not speculative fiction, blurring and discarding genre lines, reading each other, and whispering I see you to the newer writers.