In the sixth installment of Writing While Disabled, Kristy Anne Cox interviews Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
KAC: Okay, readers! I am sitting down with the talented Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, who goes by Chovwe!
KAC: We’re talking via Zoom right now, so you’re reading an edited Zoom transcript.
Chovwe lives in Lagos, Nigeria, and uses he/him pronouns. He’s an author and editor, and has won the Nebula Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Otherwise Award, the Nommo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He’s been a finalist for many awards, including the Hugo, the Locus, the BSFA, and the Sturgeon Award. His short fiction includes “O2 Arena,” “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon,” and “Destiny Delayed”—published in the May/June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.
You’re also the co-editor of the Dominion anthology, is that right?
ODE: Yeah, I am. I also edited the Africa Risen anthology and Bridging Worlds: an original, pan-African, pandemic non-fiction anthology.
KAC: You have been on fire lately! You’ve got so much intriguing stuff coming out. Would you mind telling us about yourself and your work?
ODE: Well, I’m an award-winning writer, editor, and publisher. I live in Nigeria. Recently, I was up for the Hugo Award in the Fiction and Editing categories—I’ll be the first POC to have enjoyed that honor. I was also the first African writer to be nominated for the Hugo Award in the Novelette category.
Then, as an editor in the short form category, I was the first Black person, alongside Sheree Renée Thomas, to receive a nomination. I was also the first African-born, Black writer to be nominated for the Hugo Award and to win the Nebula Award.
KAC: It’s been a busy year for you! Congratulations, by the way!
ODE: Yeah, that’s me.
KAC: Recognition of you and recognition of SFF writing communities in Africa are long overdue.
KAC: So, how do you fit into the Disabled community?
ODE: I only started to refer to myself as Disabled after publishing my novelette “O2 Arena,” so I’m approaching the Disabled community in baby steps. Though, I’ve been Disabled all my life. Regarding speculative fiction, my current story, which was nominated for the Hugo Award, the Nebula, and the BSFA, is the first where I’ve identified as Disabled.
KAC: Yeah. I mean, that’s common for Disabled people like us, right? Some of us use the word Neurodiverse instead. You may not even understand you are Disabled until you get your diagnosis—and depending on which disability you have, you may or may not have access to a Disabled community.
Chovwe, do you mind if I ask you what disabilities you have? I do that so our Disabled and Neurodiverse readers can relate their experiences to yours.
ODE: Sure. Since birth, I have had chronic sinusitis—it’s a respiratory illness. I have perforated ear drums from the sinusitis infection, which means I’m hearing impaired. It’s all connected, like a network of disabilities springing from one.
That’s respiratory and hearing. Then, because of my chronic sinusitis, I am more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, so I had pneumonia and tuberculosis somewhere along the line. It sort of leaves your lungs a little scarred, you know? I have weaker lungs, and an entire network of respiratory problems.
From my tuberculosis, I got damage to my spine, so I have chronic back pain, too. Chronic sinusitis, hearing loss, chronic back pain, and general breathing difficulties—that’s about it for now.
KAC: I mean, that’s enough, right? Well, I welcome you into my Disabled communities.
ODE: Thank you.
KAC: Does being Disabled intersect with your identities in specific ways?
ODE: Yeah. First, being Black—being African—makes Disability a little fainter, you know?
ODE: Yes. It lessens the color and the concentration of your disability. I’m not talking about the effects, but about the definition. The amount of attention that it gets.
KAC: You mean, everyone wants to ask you about being Black, but not everyone wants to ask you about being Disabled?
ODE: Yes. It pushes Disability into the background. It’s the effect of racial marginalization, I suppose. People don’t think it’s a serious topic, and it’s odd, because it affects your physical life and your physical health.
My disability is the marginalization that has impacted me on the most immediate level. I wake up in the morning struggling to breathe, and race issues seem far away at that point. Breathing is so integral to your survival; you need to do it every moment. It’s just that much more immediate, but it’s relegated behind those other issues.
KAC: I hear you on that. Writing is different when we’re trying to survive one more breath.
ODE: Or when there’s a burning pain in your back, and it feels like it’s split. I think that’s more immediate than everything else, but it often gets pushed to the background.
KAC: Yeah. People want to hear about your other identities. That resonates with me.
ODE: Many people don’t see Disabled identities as significant yet, because they don’t affect them.
KAC: Or they don’t think they affect them because they aren’t thinking about themselves in terms of Disability.
ODE: Yeah. I myself have been writing about race for much longer than about Disability.
Being African on the continent is a multi level marginalization. After centuries of slavery and colonialism and suffering from wars and economic woes, people are just trying to survive. There’s no security, no consistent power. There are a lot of serious deficiencies, so Disability is relegated to the background, because over here we’re still dealing with these ‘serious issues.’
You said you were going to ask me about conventions, but before last year, I’d never been to one physically. You know, conventions revolve around the West—US, UK, Canada—so I could only attend them virtually.
Before the virtual component, people in this clime were excluded from conventions, so if you ask me how my Disability intersects with conventions, I can’t tell you, because my problems are so much bigger.
KAC: That’s an access issue, too.
KAC: What is “geek culture” like where you are? If you’re not going to conventions, are you hanging out in other ways?
ODE: Well, yeah, there’s a large community. There’s the African Speculative Fiction Society that current members created a while back—many Africans within the diaspora and on the continent. Now and then, we meet in certain locations, like the Ake Festival. It’s a small thing, but we’re growing it. I mean, it’s not the WorldCon or SFWA in terms of resources and scope of operation, but it’s our thing.
KAC: Yeah. Can I ask you how your disabilities affect your work and the way you get your writing done?
ODE: I’m that much slower, that much less productive. A lot of times you can’t function like you should. You would like to, but you can’t create.
I’ll never be the guy that creates his schedule and sticks to it. I might write only one story in a month, but I’ll make sure that it has five times the strength and the effect.
For most of my life, I’ve survived putting out one short story a year, believe it or not. I have accepted that I won’t be churning out a doorstopper or tens of thousands of words. I’ve published one novella, one novelette, and a couple of short stories, but I make up for it by giving my work all the fire it needs to burn brightly.
KAC: Yeah. Many Disabled authors struggle with feeling like they’re not writing enough. Do you have any words for them? For people who aren’t prolific and feel guilty about that?
ODE: Yeah, I’m going to say that nobody is the same. You can’t judge yourself with someone else’s yardstick. You ask: “Is it enough?”—but enough for whom? I’m not trying to write to be enough for anyone else. Whatever I do is enough for me.
Believe me, if I do 1,000 words a month or 2,000 words a year, I won’t feel bad about it. And if I do, I will talk myself out of it.
KAC: How do you talk yourself out of it? What’s the secret, Chovwe?
ODE: Being easy on yourself. I’ve been Disabled all my life, like I said, so I’ve had a lot of practice with falling behind, being slow, and catching up. Maybe it’s because of the peculiar nature of my disability. I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t learn to be easy on myself, to stop self-flagellating, to not allow people’s judgment to get to me.
You must allow yourself to exist at your own pace, or you’ll burn out.
ODE: I have a thread on Twitter where I talk about the effects of hearing loss. It sounds like a small thing, but it can impact your life.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Chronic sinusitis is a cold: you can say I’ve had a cold all my life. Again, it seems like such a small thing, but every time you cough—and I’m not talking about the pandemic—do you know what people around you do?
KAC: They turn away. They are worried about germs.
ODE: They pull away.
It’s tiny, it’s subconscious—people don’t notice. Usually, you have a cough less than once a month, or once in several months. That cough lasts a week or two weeks, you treat it, and it’s maybe three or four months before you get another one, for another week. It doesn’t happen frequently enough for you to notice, but someone that has it one week, one month, one year, ten years—never-ending, day in and day out—they’re super conscious.
Now think about it. If you have a cough for a week and you’re coughing, let’s say, five times an hour, in twelve hours, you’re coughing sixty times. In one week, you’re coughing hundreds of times. How often do you think about it? How often do you see people flinch?
KAC: You can’t even count it.
ODE: People of all kinds: friends, family, everyone who loves you—pulling away from you a million times. Think about the psychological effect it has on you: you see yourself as dirty, unclean, or unworthy. Unwanted.
ODE: Rejected. It’s such a small thing, but it affects you. It’s a small thing …
KAC: … but it’s also such a big thing.
ODE: Yes, it destroys you.
KAC: People who don’t experience Disability as a primary factor in their life don’t understand.
ODE: There’s no minor Disability. There are a dozen things like this. They destroy you every moment and break you down over time, like wind beating at rocks for eons—and we’re a lot more fragile than rocks. That’s how chronic illnesses work.
KAC: What about your hearing? I rely on watching people’s mouths move to understand what they’re saying because I hear very well, but I have trouble processing the sounds in my brain. Wearing masks has been difficult for me because I can’t see people’s mouths, and it makes it harder to understand what they’re saying.
Do you rely on some lip reading?
ODE: I just never adopted lip reading. I’m glad we’re doing the interview like this, because we have to process so much information. Typing this would be a challenge.
When you don’t hear something in a class setting, you can’t stop the teacher for a question, because everybody else will stop with you—and that’s very inconvenient. So you keep going. You try to fill in what you missed, piece things together, and figure out what they have said. Did they say “like,” or did they say “buy,” or did they say “time”? Or did they say …
KAC: … and then you miss something else!
ODE: Because the class is going on. That’s how it leaves you behind. You’re stuck processing the past while the future is happening, so you end up with poor grades because there are pieces you lost.
You’re stuck trying to sort out and process what you missed, but while you’re processing, you’re out of the loop—you’re not with everybody else, and you miss even more. Even in a personal convo where you can ask the person, “What did you say?,” you risk exasperating them.
ODE: They’ll be polite, mostly, anyway. Sometimes they’re going to get annoyed.
So you stop listening in class because you can’t follow, and because even if you tried to follow, you wouldn’t be able to take part anyway. You stay out of it.
KAC: Yeah. We’re scared to ask for accommodations. We don’t ask because we don’t want to inconvenience other people.
KAC: What accommodations would you like to ask for?
ODE: Well, you know how at night our voices are lower? There’s this whole social idea that nighttime is quiet, there’s not supposed to be noise. It’s a time for sleeping and winding down, so everybody speaks in hushed tones without realizing it. But if you have hearing loss, things get more difficult. Whatever problems you have are magnified ten times.
So I wish people would kill the idea of nighttime being hush-hush, a time when everybody has to whisper. Yeah, that’s something I’d like to ask.
KAC: Yes, speak up!
You said you had gone to a virtual convention, correct?
KAC: How was the hearing access?
ODE: It was okay because I was using earphones plugged into my ears.
KAC: Readers, Chovwe is wearing headphones right now: they’re earbuds that you put into your ears.
KAC: And those work pretty well because you can change the volume.
ODE: Yes. I’m always at the highest volume and I use them a lot, especially when interacting with people online because they make following conversations easier. But it’s another thing that isolates you from the world—a solution that exacerbates the problem.
KAC: Yeah. Can I ask you how your disabilities have been featured in your work?
ODE: Okay. My writing is connected to Disability because Disability alienates you. It keeps you away from people: you feel contaminated and separate because you can’t follow, or you’re slow, so you stay away. Disability pushes you towards the ones that you can keep up with, the ones that accept you, that don’t pull away.
And who are those people?
They are the characters in books. Book characters can always hear you, you know? I am the writer I am today because I read enough to learn to write, and this was connected to the isolation that my Disability created.
Of course, it resonates in my work. Even when I’m not writing about Disabled characters, all my stories are dark and dystopian. There’s always a fracture, a problem. Even when I’m not writing about broken people, I’m writing about a broken world.
I might not always be writing about Disability, but it’s still present. For example, in “O2 Arena,” there’s only one Disabled main character, but the story is set in a world with low oxygen. Nobody can breathe unaided: people need masks, they need to get oxygen cylinders, and they need filters.
Guess who else can’t breathe? I can’t breathe—and now the entire world can’t breathe.
So for me, it’s not just about writing Disabled characters. It’s about creating worlds where everybody has a level playing field.
One problem with Disability is that people are isolated. In the world of my the novella, though, there’s a nuclear fallout, and because of that, there’s a lot of radiation. The environment is contaminated, and people have to survive together. It’s a world where everybody has the same problem.
KAC: In that world, everyone needs accommodation. Everyone is Disabled.
KAC: I like that. The world disables them. That’s what our experiences are like.
ODE: Yeah. In “O2 Arena,” companies created a system that helps everybody breathe, because it’s everybody’s issue. It’s very different from what we have in the real world.
KAC: In the social theory of Disability, we are not broken—it’s the world that isn’t adapting to our bodies. A fork, that’s an adaptation: people who eat with a fork are using a tool to eat. People who can’t hold a fork need a different tool, right?
KAC: But our society will say the problem is you. Your story challenges that idea: it never blames the people who need an oxygen mask. I love how this framing forces your readers to be Disabled, to sit with that discomfort. And there’s no shame in needing a device to help you. Was that intentional?
ODE: I wouldn’t say it was intentional. Actually, I didn’t realize that until I had this conversation with you.
KAC: That’s one reason I was so excited to get to talk to you. Disability is a note playing in the background of the story—and maybe your abled readers won’t see it. But I see it.
I use a machine to breathe at night because I have central sleep apnea, which is related to brain and neurological damage. During power outages, I have to go to a hospital for electricity. There’s a precarity to that. It would be difficult if my area had a power outage—science fiction can show what it’s like.
ODE: Yeah. You said that Disability doesn’t mean we’re broken, that it’s just a different way of doing things.
It’s because we’re the other. We’re not accommodated. But if everybody were blind, blindness wouldn’t be a disability. We’d make room for everybody to live.
KAC: We would accommodate it.
ODE: The major problem is our lack of accommodation, not the actual Disability. I thought that was poignant.
KAC: So, your writing process. Tell me the secrets!
ODE: As I told you, I’m not prolific. I’ll tell you this about my current work in progress: there’s an industry standard where stories must be 80–90,000 words at least to be viable.
KAC: For a novel?
ODE: Yeah, and I’m going to tell you now: IDGAF about that. Lots of requirements are for a 70, 80k body of work, but for mine, even if it’s 50,000 words—when it’s done, it’s done. I’m not waking up every morning to write because someone said so. I’m writing when I can write.
People have invited me to writers’ groups where they have a regimen. I’m not doing that. I can’t write at someone else’s pace, because I’m unique. If I try to join those groups, I’m going to drag someone down. If I wake up one morning and do not feel like joining, they’re going to wait for me, and then it’s going to put a lag on them. I will not be “disciplined.” I’ll do it how I can, and I’ll be okay with that.
KAC: So you’re saying that your secret is to know your own needs. Your method is unique to you.
ODE: Yes, and it’s allowing myself to accommodate all my problems, weaknesses, and insecurities. I’m not alive to write, I’m alive to be alive. If I can write along with being alive, cool. If I can’t, cool.
KAC: Yeah. That’s profound. I’m not alive to write, I’m alive to be alive.
KAC: I feel like Disabled authors get their identity entangled in being a writer. If you’re not writing, who are you? You feel depressed. You feel like you have nothing left.
What would you say to those writers?
ODE: You’re enough for yourself. You should have your standards that define what’s right for you. It shouldn’t depend on any norms or rules. Me, I want to be a writer, and that means writing. It does not entail a specific quality or quantity, size, or style.
In 2018, I only published one story. One. That was ”The Witching Hour.” It’s 2,700 words—less than 3,000—and you know what? That made me a writer.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write, but that you should do what you can, that’s all. 2,700 words were a lot for me, and I didn’t feel bad.
That story won the Nommo Award, the most prestigious Pan-African speculative fiction award. I was the first Black African on the continent to win it.
KAC: That was your first sale?
ODE: Yes, in 2018.
KAC: Are you still writing on your phone?
ODE: Yes, I use my phone, and I’m not keeping to any time. Even if I do little, I try to make it count.
You know, Disabled people have their methods. For example, I breathe with my mouth because that’s the only way I’ll get enough oxygen—my nostrils will not give me enough. I chew differently. I talk differently. As a Disabled person, you adapt ways of doing things, and you can bring that into your profession. I have my way of writing, though I don’t always have the energy to write.
If we’re talking about promotion, though, that’s something I’m great at.
KAC: You are!
ODE: I’ve tried to make up for lower output with increased visibility: putting myself out there, talking about the stuff I do, being in interviews. I am a member of many of the speculative fiction communities—BSFA, BFA, HWA, Codex, SFWA, you name it. I’ve put myself in these spaces so that my work can be seen, but I also get criticism for being too social.
The continent is outside the Western market sphere. I’m limited in visibility both as an African and as a Disabled person, so the stories are where I make it count. And I want people to see them.
KAC: Could some of that be intercultural? Like, are you getting more criticism from international people or from your peers in your country?
ODE: Both, but more from the international crowd. I think it’s part of the larger Western culture. People don’t realize that they have a socio-economic advantage, that things are built to work for them. If you’re in America or Canada, you can’t teach people in Nigeria how to promote their work.
KAC: That’s right.
ODE: I have to be obnoxious. Sometimes, I talk about my work a hundred times a day.
KAC: I don’t think it’s obnoxious. To me, that feels confident. I’m looking at you talking about your work, and I’m thinking, “I want to be that confident. I want to be that assertive.” Am I misreading it?
ODE: No, you’re being generous—because it’s not confidence, it’s desperation.
KAC: Like, “Look at me, I’m here.” Is that what you mean?
ODE: Actually it’s more like, “Look at me, I’m drowning.”
Let me talk a bit about my history. I told you about hearing loss, being left behind in classrooms, and poor academics. I got into school late, and I came out late with one of the worst possible grades. It took me about a decade to get my first degree. I wasn’t able to get a job that could sustain me.
So writing is how I survive. If I don’t sell stories, I don’t eat. My medical bills depend on what I get from literature and my work, so a lot is riding on it ... my life.
KAC: Yeah. The stakes are higher for you.
ODE: Writing professionally, yeah. It’s life—I need as much of it as possible.
KAC: You’re not being egotistical. You’re fighting to survive.
ODE: Yeah. Disabled people can’t do art at the intensity they need to, so make up for it. Our ways of working, of living, sometimes just don’t fit into people’s expectations. It’s almost like our life isn’t acceptable to them, our being alive.
KAC: Yeah. I’ve talked to Disabled people who write to stay alive because they need it as therapy. They want readers to connect with their Disabled characters, because this might make them less phobic towards people who are like them in real life.
You’re talking about writing to eat, though—that’s not a conversation we have very often here in America.
KAC: If editors or publishers are reading this, please pay your authors. There’s a tendency to say, “Well, you’re gonna get published, so we shouldn’t have to pay you because it’s such a privilege to see yourself in print.” They take advantage of people.
Have you run into that at all?
ODE: Yeah, from time to time.
KAC: Do you subscribe to any of the magazines that you’ve submitted to?
ODE: Well, I read what I can read for free, most of the time. I’ve been reading for up to half a dozen magazines and podcasts, plus I’ve done some guest editing stints. Strange Horizons, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Podcastle, and more.
KAC: You do slush piles for them, right?
ODE: I used to—so I got to read their issues for free.
Money is a marginalizing issue. My marginalization is twofold: I’m African and Disabled, and when you mix in economics, it’s a whole different ball game.
KAC: How does that impact your work?
ODE: Well, every experience is unique. I think that’s the beauty of writing. It contains our unique essence or flavors, and not a lot of Disabled writers come from my same spaces. Like I told you, I’m the first African editor and Black writer on the continent to be nominated for the Hugo. Few Disabled editors have even had this chance.
KAC: Especially not Disabled authors and editors who are also Black. Thank you for speaking to that.
I’m gonna go back to the writing process. Do you outline first? Are you a discovery writer? Do you do both?
ODE: I do both, though I tilt more towards outlining. My outline is more of a skeleton, so I have to bring in the organs.
KAC: What’s in that skeleton? What do you know before you start?
ODE: I know the beginning, the middle, and the end. I have a sense of the dialogue, the characters, and their personalities. For example, I know who the main character is before I start. They’re funny, but I don’t know what flavor of funny they are. Do they tell obnoxious jokes? Do they use puns?
People don’t realize that outlining requires a lot of energy, which I don’t have. I have a friend who criticizes my outlines: he believes it would be easier for me to tell my stories if I had more detailed structures, but I just cannot. I don’t have it in me.
KAC: You’re conserving that energy for the draft.
ODE: I just cannot do detailed outlines. That’s writing half the book.
KAC: Yes, it’s like writing it twice.
When you say it’s just a skeleton, do you mean like one sentence for each chapter? How minimalistic is your outline?
KAC: Like, one paragraph per chapter?
ODE: I don’t do chapters. I can have a paragraph summarizing the complete story.
KAC: So, scenes?
ODE: Yes, scenes. I can say, “In this chapter, this person falls in love with this person.” I haven’t figured out where they go, or if they have sex, but I know they fall in love. They fight, but I don’t know what they fight over, yet.
KAC: And then how much do you end up having to edit? How many drafts do you write?
ODE: Maybe two, three.
KAC: Two or three. And what happens in each of those drafts? Do you do a structural draft and then polish it?
ODE: I get the idea down first. Then I do restructuring: I shift scenes around, shelve some stuff. Then I do grammar, language, and everything else.
KAC: What’s the most demanding part of writing?
ODE: The writing itself.
KAC: The physical act.
ODE: Yeah, putting down the words.
KAC: So the drafting is painful.
ODE: Yeah, coming to the page every day, because I’m somewhere where we’ve had power issues forever. We’ve never had consistent power since I was born, so charging my devices is difficult.
KAC: You said you don’t write every day, but the writing advice you hear is: “Write every day.” That doesn’t work for you.
ODE: I’m just not going to.
KAC: And you’re not apologetic about it at all—I love that! I feel like our readers need to hear what you’re saying, so thank you for sharing that.
You’re writing on your phone with one finger, in bed, under the covers?
ODE: Two fingers going off at it. I’m fast at typing.
KAC: And you’re using one of those phone keyboards?
ODE: Yeah, I’m using the virtual keyboard.
KAC: When you have an interruption, is it hard to return to writing? Do you have to do something to build your momentum back up?
ODE: Yeah, I encourage myself with snacks: chocolate, drinks, and other treats.
KAC: What’s your favorite writing snack?
ODE: Snickers and an energy drink.
KAC: Because writers are athletes! And our brains need calories, right?
So, I wanted to ask you about accommodations and tools. Do you ever use a dictation software? Do you do voice dictation?
ODE: No. I haven’t tried it, but I should look into it.
KAC: What about writing longhand?
ODE: I used to do that when I started, but it’s not convenient anymore, because it’s double the work. I still have to transcribe everything into text. It’s also unfortunate, though, because electronic devices need power—which isn’t always available. It’s like you just can’t win.
I like to work in short bursts: concentrated work in concentrated time. I’ve realized that even though I don’t write often, I can write a lot in a short while.
I don’t have a lot of stamina. I don’t know when I’ll come back, so I make it count when I can. That’s part of my process.
KAC: Writing in bursts, that’s something I also do. Between pain, right?
KAC: Like, if there’s a moment, it’s the golden moment.
ODE: Yes. You make it count.
KAC: I want to ask you about “own voices writing” and the pushback we get. Do you ever hear from your readers, editors, or other writers that you’re doing Disability wrong? And you’re like, “I’m writing my own experiences,” but they don’t believe it?
ODE: Well, I have gotten that my work can be intense. They’re more like, “It’s too much.”
KAC: And what do they mean? Are they saying it’s too loud, too painful?
ODE: Yeah, it’s uncomfortable to consume. Sometimes it’s well-meaning, like, “Your work made me cry,” “So sad” … you know.
KAC: So tragic.
ODE: Yeah, and I never quite mention that a lot of it is from my own lived experience. I borrow a lot from my reality.
KAC: You’re writing about your own life experiences.
ODE: Yeah, it’s funny when someone tells me how bad or torturous or broken a story modeled after my reality is. I’m like, “Wow! Was I doing that badly? I didn’t think it was that terrible!”
KAC: Or they tell you your work is depressing, right? Do you get that, too?
ODE: A lot.
KAC: I hear, “Nobody wants to be in the mind of this depressed person.” I’m like, “Well, they are depressed for a reason. They’re going through a lot.” I’m sorry my reality is too painful for you!
ODE: You know, this relates to an essay of mine that’s going to be out soon, I think. It’s about dystopias. The title is: “Too Dystopian For Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective.”
KAC: Where can our readers find that?
ODE: It’s in the September issue of Uncanny Magazine.
KAC: I’d like to hear about it.
ODE: It’s about how, during this COVID time, there has been a push for less dark or dystopian stories, because the readers are already living in a dystopian reality.
Bad things have always been happening, though. We’ve always lived in dystopias, people are just realizing it now.
One of the most significant experiences I had with “O2 Arena” was a cancer survivor telling me that the story spoke to them. They could connect with it—it was their reality.
I had a friend who passed away from cancer, and I looked after her before she passed. She knew I was a writer—I had won the Nommo Award while we were together—so she asked me to write about her. When another cancer survivor told me they could connect with that novella, I found it humbling.
KAC: You want to make a difference with your writing, even if only to one reader somewhere.
ODE: Yeah. The quantity doesn’t matter.
KAC: What a beautiful way to remember your friend and to bring her experiences to others! So she can help other people too.
ODE: Yeah. The story I’m working on for my novel will not be 80,000 words. It will be what it will be. People might not like the flavor: it’s dark, and it doesn’t conform. It’s not saying what everybody might want to hear, but it’s saying what it needs to say.
KAC: It’s the story that you need to write.
ODE: It will be out there. That is enough for me.
KAC: I love that.
May I ask you about a Disability trope I saw in “O2 Arena”?
KAC: So there’s this moment in “O2 Arena,” near the beginning. You write about how this character is seen by other people as brave. That got me thinking about the tropes around Disability, like the idea that “We’re so inspirational, we’re so brave.” Were you trying to unpack the ‘brave’ trope?
ODE: Actually, I don’t know if it’s because I’m tired or busy, but I never try to be inspirational. I just want to represent marginalization in the way I experience it.
ODE: One thing about being Disabled on the continent is that you don’t survive—and that’s reality. I’ve lost many people. I know many people that have passed.
KAC: Very often in Disability-related conversations, I’m thinking, “Who is alive and able to be here, talking about Disability?” I think about all the voices we’ve lost.
ODE: My aim is to show this truth, however sad it may be, and sometimes, there’s a disconnect between telling an entertaining story and telling a true story.
I understand the need to write hopeful, inspirational stories—but I don’t have the energy for that. I want to tell my story, however bad or sad or …
KAC: Whatever it is.
KAC: What about the happy ending? I feel like in fantasy and science fiction, they always want to cure us. Does that make you mad?
ODE: I mean, many Western tropes don’t make me mad. They amuse me. But I’ve stopped conforming to those standards. I went into editing and publishing for that reason: I want to tell my own stories and help others do the same.
KAC: What is it like being an editor?
ODE: It’s both exhilarating and backbreaking, especially with Black and African speculative fiction.
These stories are the Other. They’re unexpected. Getting stories by Africans—by marginalized groups—published requires more work than usual.
KAC: Do you think it’s because Disabled or African writers aren’t even making it out of the slush pile? Or because editors see that their stories are good, but don’t understand them?
ODE: It’s both. Many stories die on the slush because people don’t recognize the quality.
In magazines, diversity goes beyond the editors. The slush readers also hold a lot of power: many stories in the pile never get considered. A diverse establishment has to be diverse from the artists to the slush readers.
KAC: Inclusive leadership all the way, right?
KAC: What about things getting lost in intercultural exchanges? Do you ever run up against that?
ODE: A lot. Most of the time, a character’s voice is rooted in the author’s own culture, mannerisms, and patterns. So in reviews and in rejections you keep hearing about poor dialogue, because the way people talk in different regions is unique, and sometimes, that uniqueness is not accommodated. What passes for humor in Nigeria will not pass for humor in the US.
KAC: They wouldn’t laugh at the jokes?
ODE: As you said, language and cultural barriers. It also happens with the language and the voice. For example, someone in the West might say: “as tall as a baobab tree.” Another writer might say “an Iroko tree.” Or a tree that the Western reader, editor, slush reader has never heard of.
KAC: Then you have to decide, “Do I describe it for my Western readers and the editor/publisher who may not get this? Or am I writing for people who already know what this tree looks like?”
KAC: Okay, I’m going to ask you about putting together an anthology and getting it out into the world. Can you walk me through the process, step by step?
ODE: Okay. Do you mean the anthology I co-edited or my own?
KAC: Well, you co-edited the Dominion anthology, right? How did that happen?
ODE: Well, Zelda Knight reached out to me. She asked if I would like to edit or contribute to the anthology, and I chose to do both. That was my first foray into editing.
KAC: You didn’t have to write the pitch letter for the publisher?
ODE: There was no pitch. It was published by her press, Aurelia Leo. We crowdfunded it.
KAC: Was that an enjoyable experience?
ODE: Yeah. We crowdfunded it on Kickstarter, up to 300% of the sum we needed. We were trying to raise about $3,000. We got about $10,000.
KAC: And you had to coordinate everything? Like paying the editors, paying the authors, and making the cover art?
ODE: Yeah, we did everything by ourselves. It was a humongous, almost senseless amount of work.
KAC: How many people were helping you do that? Was it just the two of you?
ODE: It was just us. We had no staff and no helpers—nobody. It was in the middle of the pandemic, and my co-editor had a house fire just before, so her mom had third-degree burns.
I had severe anxiety during the pandemic because I was immunocompromised and had respiratory issues. COVID would have been extra dangerous for me—a death sentence, unvaccinated as I was. Vaccines got here late, and we’re in a bizarre struggle because of vaccine hoarding policies.
KAC: I’m so glad that you’re still here.
ODE: Yeah. I was thinking: “Whenever I go out, I could get something that kills me.” I had to work in those conditions.
KAC: Are you pleased with how it came out?
ODE: Yeah, I am.
KAC: The cover art is beautiful.
ODE: It is. Thanks.
KAC: So, who are the authors that you published? Had they already published before? Was this their first sale?
ODE: For some, yeah. We had all kinds of people on it—experienced authors and first-time authors.
KAC: What advice would you give editors who want to include Disabled people from international communities?
ODE: I think editors should reach out to these people, if they aren’t submitting their work themselves. We shouldn’t only be soliciting big-name authors.
And if you’re going to get a Disabled writer, be ready to accommodate them. Allow them as much time as they need to write and edit the story. You must work with them at their pace.
KAC: When you asked for a story from someone, and they gave you one that you couldn’t use, did that make you anxious? Was it hard, having to say no?
KAC: How did that go?
ODE: I mean, it was awkward, but I think I’ve built a good enough relationship with my folks, so they have some faith in my vision.
KAC: Are you good at saying no?
ODE: Nobody’s good at saying no, but you have to do it. And you have to be kind to these authors, to show that you are still with them.
KAC: What else can we be doing to create space for multiply marginalized Disabled people like us in science fiction?
ODE: More Disabled people could be involved in the initiatives that give them space to speak. For example, you’re doing this interview series now. Nobody else but you could do it this well, because you understand all the issues involved. You know how to be accommodating. And I promoted and published my anthology in a way that compensated for access problems.
The world should make more room for Disabled people. For example, Zelda invited me to our project, and that set the stage for my editing journey.
KAC: I love seeing Disabled people carving out space for other Disabled people, because we understand how accommodations work, and we can cut each other some slack.
Readers, I’m doing some of these interviews as an email thread, and some of them as a shared Google doc. Some are live Zoom calls, like I’m doing here with Chovwe. That changes the interviews, but I want to accommodate the people I’m interviewing, and myself. I have trouble typing on a keyboard, so I have a friend who helps me transcribe these interviews later—an abled volunteer.
I bring this up because we always think, “Oh, a writer is a genius locked in a room, and they come up with a novel.” Instead, accommodations are a community effort.
Did you make changes or accommodations for your authors?
ODE: Yes. I tried to give them a lot of leeway during the editing process. I trust the writers: I allow them to take their stories in the direction they want, and to use their preferred methods in producing them.
KAC: Last question, everyone! Chovwe, what advice do you have for other Disabled authors or editors who are reading this? Maybe to someone thinking, “I want to be just like Chovwe.” What advice do you have for them?
ODE: My advice is, don’t be like me, be like you.
KAC: I like it. Thank you, Chovwe!
ODE: You’re welcome.
KAC: Well, readers, this was the fabulous Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki!
Nebula, World Fantasy Award winner, multiple Hugo, Locus Award finalist, and CanCon 22 and ICFA 23 Guest of Honour. You can find more of Chovwe’s work at http://odekpeki.com/2022/09/11/2022-awards-eligibility-post-list/
Disabled writers and other creative types, how do you get your work done while Disabled? Feel free to join the conversation at #WritingWhileDisabled and #StrangeHorizons! We’d love to hear about your favorite creative process accommodations.
Editor: Emma Celi
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department