The NATIVE Exclusive: Nnedi Okorafor on Africanfuturism and the challenges of pioneering

We also discuss what it takes to write Juju Fantasy

Words: Edwin Okolo, Toye Sokunbi and Tomiwa Isiaka.

Nnedi Okorafor is as revered as she is controversial, especially for a writer whose canon is almost entirely fantasy and science fiction. But her talent and her relevance to the world of Africanfuturism, science fiction and representation cannot be denied. The most decorated African Sci-fi/fantasy writer working today, Nnedi has taken on the institutions that govern the genre and won, highlighting the racist origins of these genres and offering a more inclusive alternative. However, she has also been chastised by indigent Africans who feel she has hatcheted their cultures as fodder for her fantastical novels.

We tracked her down at the last Ake Book and Arts Festival where she was a headlining guest author to discuss her writing process, her thoughts on the future of afro-fiction and her inspirations.

NATIVE: How was the day at the Ake festival at Radisson? What were the highlights?

NNEDI: I was only able to be there for one day. To me, that whole day was the highlight… I mean I love coming to this festival, it’s incredible. The minds and topics, all of that

NATIVE: I know you were at Ake last year as well. Would you say that was more interesting? Since you were there to experience all of it?

NNEDI: I wouldn’t compare. Each time I’ve been here, it has been its own thing. Its grown each time. But what seems to remain consistent is that its a meeting of really great minds and incredible discussions and topics and I always feel like I’ve come away with more. I always feel like I’ve come away knowing a lot more and feeling energised afterwards.

NATIVE: African mythology informs much of your writing, who is your favourite mythological God and why?

NNEDI: It’s more than African mythology. Its African culture, people, futures. But in terms of mythology, my favourite is a little-known piece of Igbo mythology, Udide The Spider Artist, that’s probably my favourite. He, she, it comes up a lot in my work.

NATIVE: Can you tell me why Udide is your favourite?

NNEDI: Well I think the spider is my spirit animal, though I’m terrified of spiders (Laughs). I can’t stand them at all but at the same time, they do a lot of weaving and building and their artists. They create beautiful webs; they build webs and if you look closely, you can see the mathematics in the web, and… I love spiders. They’re sneaky and they’re horrible at the same time. But the spider webs are used to create all things… to create stories… diverse stories. It’s also a projection of me, so yeah, it’s perfect.

NATIVE: How do you reconcile how the perfunctory translations of African culture in English has misrepresented some of these gods in (even African) literature, in your work?

NNEDI: I think that a lot of times, African Gods are portrayed through a Western lens. And I’d like to see less of that. I’d like to see African Gods portrayed in the way they were imagined and not as a human thing. Also, African Gods are portrayed in a lot of situations as evil, something to stay away from. Non-Christian, Non-Muslim. But I’d like to see them portrayed in all their diversity; positive, negative and neutral. I’d like to see more of that.

NATIVE: What folk share inspired your debut novel, ‘Zahara the Windseeker’

NNEDI: Several. ‘Zahara the Windseeker’ was my first novel, it was influenced by Igbo culture, Hausa, Yoruba culture and Efik. A bit of everything I was exposed to at the time. Since then, I know more about other minority groups as well. But I was taking everything and blending it into a fantastic futuristic world. So there were several cultures there. Even the name Zahara was taken from the Hausa culture.

NATIVE: You said you’ve learned about more cultures since would you say this has influenced your work?

NNEDI: Certainly. There are so many different ethnic groups. At least for me being a Nigerian American, you only hear about three main languages. The reason I know about Efik is my father was born in Calabar, so his first language was Efik, second was English and third was Igbo. My mother grew up in the North, She was born in Jos. Her first language was Hausa, second was English and third was Igbo. So, in that way, somewhat of an early age I knew that things were different. But it took several years for me to learn about other ethnic groups that aren’t the main ones. And the grand of Nigeria’s diversity. There’s so much culture here, so many languages and then dialects within dialects, which makes it very difficult to learn languages, especially as a Nigerian American… but i love that too. I think that’s helped shape the way that I view the country

NATIVE: Has this influenced your creative process?

NNEDI: Certainly, it has. Just this idea of there being so many and there not being a centre. And that is something I play with; there not being a default. I play with that a lot in my work and I think a lot of it has to do with being connected to this part of the world.

NATIVE: What would you say the most important thing for fantasy writers to know in world building and character development?

NNEDI: I think it’s the same thing any writer should note about character development: The character should be real. Even if you’re writing about a rabbit living in rabbit land and with rabbit cultures, those rabbits should have character. They should have flaws, they should be believable, even if you’re writing fantasy. Always veer towards believability.

NATIVE: Your work Marvel’s Venomverse anthology, can you tell me what inspired Ngozi?

NNEDI: A lot of aspects of her were based on me: she loves bugs, I love bugs; she’s in a wheelchair, I have been paralyzed before so it’s drawing off of that. And then when she gets the chance to change her body; when the alien covers her body and she gets a chance to shapeshift, the first things she shapeshifts into is a grasshopper, the grasshopper is my favourite bug; and she has wings– she can fly, flight is one of my favourite superpowers. So there’s that. She also has strong will… a lot of her character was taken from me.

Her name was taken from my sister, my sister’s name is Ngozi. Also, Ngozi means blessing, which is a perfect theme for the story. Also, the Chibok Girls tie in. It came in when we were starting to think about what she should look like. I started thinking about Ngozi being in the wrong place at the wrong time and her life-changing. So I was like I’d like her to look like them. The ending of her story is a lot more positive than many of the girls. I just felt like that was a way to empower them in the small way that I could give.

NATIVE: Why did you choose to set it in Lagos?

NNEDI: That was the first thing I wanted to do! (Laughs). As soon as Marvel asked me to write this short for this anthology. Even before I knew who it was about, I knew I wanted it to be Lagos. I was like ‘I’m going to find a way to make sure it’s not set in the United States like… everything’. Part of it was because I’ve seen Lagos portrayed in Marvel movies, I believe twice—Black Panther was one, X-men was another—and they were not positive portrayals. Black Panther didn’t even look like Lagos, the accents were not even Nigerian.

In all, Lagos has not looked positive. Its all this window dressing; the outsiders just came in and destroyed everything and had their adventure, and the Nigerians were just looking on the sideline like ‘ohhhh’.. So I wanted to add a character who is from the area, who has an adventure there that is positive. Just Lagos, in its three-dimensionality. So I knew from the moment that i wanted Lagos. It’s not that I just want to write for Marvel, that’s not a big deal to me. But if I get a chance to enhance or add, that is where my inspiration is. And this is a moment I saw that I could get Nigeria in there in a positive and informed way. So I knew from the beginning that I wanted Lagos.

NATIVE: How would you define your identity as an African Nigerian with a wide range of inspirations?

NNEDI: I would define it as just me… I do ‘AfricanFuturism’, not Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism (one word). That falls under science fiction. I’ve written what I call Juju fantasy (laughs). I think it’s a little different because a lot of the things considered fantasy aren’t fantasy. There are things people believe in that would be in there with the stuff I have made up

NATIVE: I read an interview where you said “you wouldn’t believe how much I don’t have to make up”

NNEDI: Yeah, especially in the Akata series. Many of it is what people have told me, and some things that I’ve seen. What I write is very imaginative. I wouldn’t call it ‘realism’, but I would call it realistic. I like to look at our world, I like to look towards the future. I’ve written very few things that are set in the past, I’ve written things about the present and near future and far future. I don’t like to dwell on what’s behind, even though the past always influences the present and future, I wouldn’t say that I can categorise myself very easily….

NATIVE: Part of the on-going conversation in cultural diversity globally is for big platforms to allow new voices and new stories to be shared from around the world. Who would you describe a new voice?

NNEDI: I can’t really name a person, but I can name movements. Nigerian Americans are certainly doing things. We tend to bridge between our Nigerian-ness and our American-ness There are lots of indigenous writers who are doing things right now. I wouldn’t say there is just one. To name just one would kind of be to reduce what’s happening. There are several writers who are doing things and many different things too. I think now more than ever, we have many African writers, many diasporic writers who are writing not just literary fiction, we’re doing fantasy, we’re doing science fiction, crime fiction. We’re doing just a bit of a lot of different things and I think we’re going to see more writers writing different types of things, too.

NATIVE: What stories do you think these people should be telling?

NNEDI: Their stories. I think these writers should be telling their own stories and not be afraid of that old adage of ‘no one is going to care’, or ‘this story is too specific’, that’s what publishers in the past would tell writers; like ‘This story is good, but it’s too specific’. ‘Specific’ meaning its too set… like ‘Rafiki’, ‘Rafiki’ would be considered too specific because of its set in a part of the world that is not the default. Its set in some part of Africa and its very close; the language is local, the food is local, the styles of dress. Everything you see is very local and the story happens within that. Those are the stories we need more of but I think writers are afraid to tell these stories because they want to be universal. But I think that’s what we need: more writers writing what they want to, not what they’re told to or what they think would sell. I think we need to control more of our narrative.

NATIVE: Public figures are expected to stand for something or say something or be something. Do you think this is a personal responsibility a transferred social reality or considerable consequence of the digital age?

NNEDI: I think its always been that way. I think even before social media, but social media amplifies everything. You say something completely insignificant and it gets blown out of proportion. I think that part of it is social media, like anything, can be spun into whatever, but I think public figures have always been asked to give their opinions on stuff and people listen.

NATIVE: Do the lines between Nnedi the public figure and private Nnedi blur and should they?

NNEDI: I think that’s the thing for almost anyone. For me it’s the same. The only difference between public Nnedi and private Nnedi is that I don’t say as much publicly. Even though people think I say a lot, I only say about 25% of what I’m thinking and I keep most of it in my inner circles. But whatever you see publicly, you see privately. What you see privately you may not necessarily see publicly. That’s it. I’m very honest, I don’t change what I am… I don’t have the time or the patience (laughs) for that and I’m not good at that. I’m very who I am.

NATIVE: What should we be expecting from the project with HBO?

NNEDI: That’s in progress, we’re still working on the pilot. But it’s going to take a while because for something like this because it’s so unique, there’s a lot more that needs to happen. If it were something that is…like, your typical drama, like a type of drama that is in itself new but has been done before, that would move faster. But this is something that’s never been done before, so that means you’ve got all these things that need to be explained, ironed out, done, created… it’s hard to pioneer, it’s really hard because there’s no template to follow. We’re creating everything as we go, so it’s going to take a lot longer. But that’s actively going, we’re actively working on that.

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