Interview: A Conversation with Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s work spans genres, moods, and worlds. Okorafor has received many accolades: in 2011 her novel Who Fears Death won the World Fantasy Award, and in 2016, her novella Binti won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Binti’s sequel, Binti: Home, has just been published by Tor.com. While this is the first time we have had the chance to consider Nnedi Okorafor formally here at the Weird Fiction Review, her words and ideas has been no stranger to our thoughts and discussions over the last few years. We were able to ask Okorafor a few questions about her recent work, Amos Tutuola, NecronomiCon 2017, and her work writing and teaching in contemporary America.[i]

Weird Fiction Review / Schenstead-Harris: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. It is a thrilling chance for us at Weird Fiction Review to have access to your thoughts, and we appreciate your generosity in these busy times.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read Binti, Binti: Home, and Lagoon back to back, and I was struck by the way in which you narrate relationships between humans and different kinds of life. Can I ask right from the start about the jellyfish from the United Arab Emirates? That is a beautiful dedication. Is there a story there?

Photo by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor: There’s always a story. Everything I write is connected in some way to my own life. Binti has many beginnings. I was writing this novella series before I knew I was writing it. One of those beginnings was in the UAE. My trip there with my daughter was the first of many…adventures. I had three book festival/events in a row on three continents within 12 days. I come from a very tight knit Nigerian American family. All of my immediate family is in the Chicago area. When I told them I was taking my then ten-year-old daughter with my on a 12 day trip that jumped from Brasilia, Brazil, to Atlanta, Georgia (North America) to Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, everyone freaked out. In the end, I had to sneak to the airport with her and call them just before the plane took off (yes, I felt horribly guilty).

This trip turned out to be one of the greatest adventures, ever (so far). But by the time I arrived in the UAE with Anya, I was changed. When you jump from a place like Brazil where people are very free with their bodies to the Middle East, where everyone is covered up, and in between you spend time with a huge group of Octavia Butler scholars and fans at a historical African American college (Spelman College) doing a reading in a room full of Hoodoo, you can’t help but be affected. From a Portuguese speaking country, to an English speaking one, to a Arabic speaking one. This was my state of mind when I was walking around the Khalid Lagoon with Anya beneath the 100-degree Middle Eastern sun.

All around me was the futuristic, but still deeply ancient city of Sharjah. I stepped up to the water and looked down. And there, pumping away like it had very important things to do, was the very first live jellyfish I’d ever seen in the wild (I’d seen a man-o-war in Trinidad, but it was dead). It was blue, strong, alien and in my state of mind at the time, utterly beautiful.

In that moment, I knew I’d write about it.

WFR: Binti’s hair, or her tentacle-like okuoko almost becomes a character in its own right. It’s striking that this kind of physical transformation is both by choice but also not by choice; it reflects the physical difference with which Binti already marks herself through her otjize. There are so many layers of cultural and biological meaning wrapped up in Binti’s hair alone. Can you talk a little about this part of the story?

NO: The theme of choice and the power of culture pops up in my stories often. Before Binti, the biggest example of this is in Who Fears Death when Onyesonwu must face the decision of whether or not to go through a ceremony that required cutting off her clitoris. To many readers, the fact that she even has to think about whether or not to do this is shocking. It’s not shocking to me at all, coming from the culture that I come from where the individual is often secondary to the community. I may have been born and raised in the United States, but there are significant parts of me that are VERY Igbo (Nigerian) and I am often in conflict with these parts. This is the plight of many Nigerian Americans. And this is the root of my deep understanding about and experience of African cultures.

The same goes for Binti. Binti is a Himba girl of the future and though many things about her ethnic group change, some things stay the same. Some of those things include a strict adherence to community and culture, and the practice of applying otjize. Culture is very deep, it can’t just be shed just as you can’t shed what is part of your DNA. But culture is also alive and can incorporate things, it blend, shifts…and there are always consequences to change.

WFR: The University is a powerful society in Binti but also in our world. What does it mean for you to be an academic as well as a writer? Have your experiences in academia informed Binti?

NO: I have a bachelor’s, two master’s and a PhD. I’ve been a full-time professor since 2008 and have just gone from “associate” to “full-professor” status. Before this, I was a graduate student instructor. The university has been a part of my life for over half my life, now. Being the type of writer whose life constantly blends with her stories, the university is bound to be a significant part of my work.

What I love about academia is you get to be around super-smart, inquisitive, argumentative, observant, obsessed people. Students in universities have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of learning. Professors have dedicated their lives to research and teaching. It’s inspiring to be in this type of environment. At a university, sometimes you can just glance into a room you are passing by and see or hear something mind-blowing. The libraries are full of mysteries. People from all over the world come to universities to learn. And universities attract brilliant minds and are often places where resistance to the problems of the world are spawned.

I’m able to channel a lot of this into Oomza University layered with my own ideas of what it is to be non-human and human. Oomza University is not just a metaphor for a university. It’s truly me trying to imagine a university of People (by “People” I mean sentient individuals from all over the galaxy).

WFR: Binti constantly has to face questions about cultural transformation, rather like Onyesonwu in Who Fears Death. Both characters experience the difficulties of young women placed in what sometimes seem like impossible situations where familial values conflict with the knowledge of other kinds of cultural knowledge; you narrate such cultural aporias with a great deal of subtlety. Are there difficult topics that you’d like to address in a similar manner but which just haven’t taken narrative shape yet?

NO: I’ve grown bold in facing things that I fear…in literature, at least. So I can’t think of any topic that I am avoiding.  However, there are some things I’m currently writing about where I can feel my discomfort and yet I still barrel forth. Some of those are in Binti 3.

WFR: In the past, I’ve taught Who Fears Death along with K. Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents to conclude a course in postcolonial and diasporic contemporary African literature. I also know people who have taught Akata Witch. Which of your novels would you like to see taught most — and what would you pair it with?

NO: Honestly, I think all my novels are “university ready”. Each of them are thematically complex in ways where professors can easily connect them to the past, present and the future. The Binti novellas work well in classes because they are one story sectioned off naturally in a way that is easy for professors to assign, plus they are relatively inexpensive. Akata Witch is a fun read but also a great way to discuss African spirituality, colonialism and the push pull between Africans and African Americans. The Book of Phoenix is a great way to discuss the African Diaspora, identity, the very form of literature, colonialism, Henrietta Lacks, so much! The same with Who Fears Death. Kabu Kabu is a collection of short stories that would be great for a creative writing class because the stories are all so diverse and use so many different storytelling techniques.

If I had to choose one, I’d chose Lagoon and pair it with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Both are First Contact/ Alien Invasion narratives. And both are directly connected to our world. Plus, Lagoon has so many real world references a professor could show the class (for example, the Youtube video on “witch slapping” and articles about how the Nigerian president really was missing in 2009) that students will be intrigued and disturbed…which is much better than bored.

WFR: Can we talk about your relationship with Amos Tutuola’s work? Still on the subject of Who Fears Death: in that novel, you invoke Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard as part of the “Great Book” that characters know speaks of earlier times, and in The Book of Phoenix there’s a brief mention of palm wine tapping too among the fleshing out of the origin story provided by the Great Book. You’ve also spoken in praise of Don’t Pay Bad for Bad. Here at WFR, we emphasize the compelling strangeness of Tutuola’s work — we love its thrilling weirdness. Personally, I’ve always been struck by how Tutuola’s narrative structures unfold with this gorgeous simplicity, as if their emotional intricacy was plotted against a direct appeal to their reader. How would you characterize Tutuola’s legacy to writers today? And, turning to readers, if people have already encountered Palm Wine Drinkard, which books would you advise that they read next?

NO: I really enjoyed The Palm Wine Drinkard, though I don’t like the way it’s written. I don’t see it as a style, I see it as Tutualo’s English not being strong (it wasn’t his first language) and him needing an editor.  I wonder about the intent behind not cleaning up and unravelling the prose, especially at the time.  I’m just going to be up front with that, and I know that many will disagree with me. Whole essays have been written on this issue. But this is my own opinion on the matter.

Tutuola was one of the first Nigerian fantasy writers. D.O. Fagunwa was another, he wrote Forest of a Thousand Daemons, which was translated by Wole Soyinka. Both men were translating Yoruba folktales into prose, they were fleshing out thin yet potent stories and I loved that about them and I wanted to pay homage to that in my own work. After The Palm Wine Drinkard, I’d recommend Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer. I really enjoyed that one.

WFR: You’re a guest of honour at this year’s NecronomiCon, a celebration of weird fiction. What does that position mean to you? Do you think that the definition of whose work “counts” in weird fiction is changing?

NO: When I got the invitation, I’ll admit, I paused. I paused for a long long time. I asked people in my inner circle about it and I had mixed reactions. Some said, “Hell no. They’re just going to set upon you when you arrive. Decline!” Other said, “Sounds intriguing, why not?!” I personally say it as sort of an olive branch after all that has happened around the issue of Lovecraft. The invitation was really heart felt and I remember it giving me the warm fuzzies, so that played a big, role, too. I’m always ready to make peace and connect with those with whom I’ve had some sort of disagreement or misunderstanding. That’s the Binti in me.

Do I think the definition of weird fiction is changing? I leave such things up to others. I don’t really spend time contemplating what things are called. I prefer to spend time creating things.

WFR: It’s difficult to talk about something called “Necronomicon” without thinking about Lovecraft. In 2011, after winning the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, you wrote that you’d like to “to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it.” Have your feelings about Lovecraft changed in the intervening time?

NO: Not at all.

WFR: You are also a keynote speaker at the 2017 conference of the Marxist Reading Group this March! I would love to hear more about that from you!

NO: Like Necronomicon, this is another group of people who have a certain ideology that I can learn from and absorb and experience. I’m really interested in hearing what this group has to say about the state of American politics and society today. It’s an honour to be invited to be their keynote.

WFR: On the subject of weird literature, I love that your work does not necessarily take up the lineaments of the British-American tradition of “the weird” fostered by Lovecraft. Instead, you arrive at the weird’s startling juxtaposition of knowledges through a path charted between conventional perspectives on reality and features of belief or mysticism drawn from African cultures. You have also made it clear that you treat questions of epistemology with great respect. I’m thinking now about Binti’s role in translating types of knowledge and culture between the University, the Meduse, her family, and the Enyi Zinariya, but also about the emphasis on Saeed and the complexity of Arabic elements in the Great Book in The Book of Phoenix. It’s clear too that in contemporary global relationships, the work of cultural translation and transmission is a terribly pressing and difficult responsibility. What are your thoughts about “the weird”? Do you find that its possibly plural traditions make it a good container for this kind of work? 

NO: I don’t think about what I write and the way I write as “containers”, nor do I think about what others will see it as. I just write it. I know that I am deeply interested in post-humanism and how our pasts connect with our futures and present. I’m interested in African and Arab cultures and how they both battle and blend and I’m coming at this not as a researcher, but as a participant. I’m interested in technology and spirituality and how they blend and what happens when they blend. I think that my interests and the results of them in my stories lead to very “weird” fiction. Just as science fiction isn’t necessarily rooted in past Western traditions, the same goes with “the weird” not necessarily having a Lovecraftian foundation.

WFR: If we can close by talking about current affairs for a minute: among your writing honours, in 2008 you received the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and you’ve talked in interviews before about how important Soyinka’s example is to you. Recently, Soyinka tore up his green card and left the United States in protest at Donald Trump’s election. As I write these words, an executive order has gone into effect that bans refugees and some visa-holders from entering the US. It is a very confusing and difficult time in the US for everyone — perhaps those are understatements. What are your feelings about the present political environment in America? Does it influence your work as a writer and teacher?

NO: These are issues that I’m passionate about and that affect my family directly in many ways. On top of this, I’m a very empathic person. To me, Trump and those he surrounds himself with are a destructive, uncaring, malicious force hellbent on serving themselves. I’ve always been distrustful of politicians, but these individuals have taken it to a new level. They remind me of the seven multi-billionaire blood-drinking men at the center of things in The Book of Phoenix.

I’m teaching science fiction and creative writing this semester, both subjects that can be very emotional and politically charged. I welcome and look forward to all perspectives in discussions.

WFR: Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, Nnedi! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

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[i] Interview questions have been slightly edited but not substantially changed.