Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer of science fiction and fantasy for both children and adults. She is best known for her Binti Series and her novels Who Fears Death, Zahrah the Windseeker, Akata Witch, Akata Warrior, Lagoon and Remote Control. She has also written for comics and film. She is the winner of Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus and Lodestar Awards and her debut novel Zahrah the Windseeker won the prestigious Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. She has also written an Africanfuturist comic series Laguardia (winner of the Hugo and Eisner Award); comics for Marvel, including Black Panther: Long Live the King and Wakanda Forever (featuring the Dora Milaje) and the Shuri series; and her short memoir Broken Places and Outer Spaces.
Iheoma Uzomba: What would the word authenticity mean for you as a writer? In an interview on Tin House, you talked about how willing you are to go to any length to gather the necessary experience for your art, including visiting the Sahara Desert and touching a Beluga whale – I must say, I envy such assiduity to one’s art. So by what measures then would you address the question of being an authentic voice or an authentic writer? Would writing from a place of experience make one authentic enough? What would you say generally about it?
Nnedi Okorafor: ‘Authentic’ isn’t the word that I worry so much about, it’s more ‘honest writer’ or ‘honest storyteller’. It is more about being open and true to the story that one is telling. Hence, authenticity to me means concretely defining what you are trying to be. Often times though, things cannot be defined. For instance, to understand what it means to be an authentic African writer, one must first understand what ‘African’ means and indeed, that alone has a lot of layers and interpretations in which one cannot settle on a single thing. This way, you cannot define it; you just know it. Thus, the question of authenticity can be given up whereas that of honesty is of much importance as one seeks to ask: am I being honest in this story that I am telling? Am I being honest in this experience? Sometimes, being honest and bringing forth that honesty is difficult as it is not only about telling the truth but also about looking within oneself.
Iheoma Uzomba: Still on the question of experience, would you say that your experience as a Nigerian-American writer with a transcontinental perspective largely influences the thought processes behind your works?
Nnedi Okorafor: Yes, I would definitely say so.
Iheoma Uzomba: Coming from the perspective of identity now, as the hybrid, who has at once experienced both worlds and is then a partaker of both, how do you maintain a symbiotic relationship between both identities – the Nigerian and the American? Are there clashes?
Nnedi Okorafor: I don’t think you can maintain your identity because it’s what you are. You belong to both cultures and of course, there would be clashes between them. The clashes are part of being Nigerian-American and if one is honest and willing to face the conflicts, one must be ready to accept who one is. America loves it when people assimilate; it loves it when people leave their cultural heritage and backgrounds behind because heritage implies the past even though I don’t see it as the past; for me, it is very present and very much future. I have three siblings and we are all the same on this. It’s something about the way our parents raised us – we have always faced who we are. We don’t shrink back or stay quiet when these identity conflicts arise, we confront them and then we walk through them. It all comes down to the question of honesty. I have tried to speak Igbo and I can tell you why I don’t fluently speak it but I am not insecure about it. I am happy to discuss it.
Iheoma Uzomba: How do you navigate between keeping true to authentic depictions of indigenous history and culture and being subtly accused of displacement in the American Dream?
Nnedi Okorafor: Sometimes the accusation isn’t subtle at all. There’s the passive-aggressive type and then there’s the very aggressive type. However, because I’ve grown up having these conversations at every stage of my life, I have no insecurities about them at all. There’s nothing anyone says that would make me feel small. Most times, the conversations do not carry anything new. So whenever I choose to engage in the discussion, I do so mainly to teach others, to let them see also from this standpoint of being hybrid.
Iheoma Uzomba: Africanfuturism, a term which you have coined to describe what your writings explore as well as to prove the diversity of thought in African literature and the dangers of rapidly subsuming works beneath broad categories, seems to so often be confused with the other term Afrofuturism. I understand that you have said a lot about this and in spite of your clamouring, the misrepresentation has continued. Do you mind briefly shedding light on these terms?
Nnedi Okorafor: First off, I really never liked the idea of slapping labels on narratives. I rather enjoy talking about the narrative and what exactly it is doing. Labels are confining. When something is labelled, everyone expects that thing to be the label. It just makes it familiar so that all the things that don’t fit the label are ignored and I find this very frustrating because a lot of the things I am writing are sort of firsts. This is why I had to address the issue. While I do not like labels, I have come to understand the power of naming things. When you name something, people would therefore understand it or imagine it. In my blog post, I defined myself as an Africanfuturist and Africanjujuist where Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West. It is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent (black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa. On the other hand, Afrofuturism, in a simple reductive way, is African-American speculative fiction.
Iheoma Uzomba: What are your hopes that African futurism would accomplish in years to come? Do you think that it is a niche African writers can explore so well?
Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, my hopes are that more African writers write it in a way that is not derivative but pulls from their own personal, specific experiences. I would love to see great diversity. I am Nigerian-American and so the Africanfuturism that I write is going to be from a certain point of view. I want to see African writers writing the stuff without fear, without feeling like they need to make it a successful Hollywood narrative because one can tell when African creatives are not using their own tools but rather the tools of Hollywood to tell a story. Well, this is not bad in itself but I would love to see the specifics in African writers and I think it is first a case of having a love for who you are and where you are from. That’s the kind of Africanfuturism that I want to see.
Iheoma Uzomba: What are the chances of success for the African writer of speculative fiction? I mean, there are surely systemic odds that stand to confront the writer, especially when dealing in a space largely dominated by the West. So what would it be for African writers venturing into this genre? Tokenism or true inclusivity?
Nnedi Okorafor: I don’t believe in those odds. All I can say is: learn to write well and learn to tell stories. Stories are told all over the world; it is one of the most human practices and that’s why AI can’t tell stories. If I did believe in those odds, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I just didn’t care. I loved telling stories and nothing stopped me. People should master the craft of writing. There’s the talent part (sorry, you can’t learn that) and then there’s the craft part, you can master and hone that. I have two Master’s degrees and a PhD. I have a PhD in literature, Masters in Literature and Masters in Journalism so I have done a lot of studying of stories and the various types of story-telling. I was obsessed with it. I did not think about becoming a writer, I just loved stories and was fascinated by them and then I learned a lot of techniques on how to tell a story. Also, I have always been a heavy reader; I love books. I was a late reader. The letters did not make sense to me on time. My kindergarten teachers thought I was dyslexic but I still remember the moment when it all clicked: I was six years old and suddenly the words went from gibberish to making sense that day in the library. In reading, I learnt the craft of storytelling by osmosis. A lot of African writers are usually caught up in learning the craft and I do think that the enjoying of it is where the learning happens. Being able to submit one’s writings through email has made things a lot easy and I believe that the next up on the scene are international storytellers. The future is international – Africans, your time is coming, it is right on the cusp. Hence, this whole giving excuses don’t help at all and I don’t want to hear it. All I hear is whining about why it’s so hard and I’m like: Sit down and write a story!
Iheoma Uzomba: the part where you said reading began to make sense to you at a point in the library reminds me of this scene from your book Akata Witch wherein Sunny suddenly begins to understand Nsibidi in the library and everything also begins to make sense to her.
Nnedi Okorafor: Good catch! Yes. That’s exactly where that was from. A lot of her reading Nsibidi is the way reading happened to me in that magical pattern, cartwheeling and moving around.
Iheoma Uzomba: That’s absolutely beautiful.
Nnedi Okorafor: Thank you.
Iheoma Uzomba: One may say that you have successfully deconstructed that mental image we all have of the word ‘technology’. While it is often looked upon as a Western thing, you have brought to limelight the sort of technology that one may term African, proposing a future where technology and spirituality meld into one and become inseparable. One would simply be intrigued by the futuristic aesthetics found in your works where, for instance, your Binti Series features the main character who uses mathematical equations to harness certain mystical qualities. It leaves one wondering how your creative process takes place – how do you organize say your plot and characters?
Nnedi Okorafor: I started writing Science Fiction from trips to Nigeria. For most people, that’s surprising. Most people start writing it from reading previous Sci-fi narratives. You know, they saw Star Wars or whatever. But for me, it was trips to Nigeria and seeing pieces of tech showing up in interesting ways and that’s what led me to start thinking about what the place was going to look like in the future. In my philosophy, the greatest technology is nature. Humanity cannot create anything more sophisticated and advanced than nature. Hence I don’t understand why when we create technology, it’s always from the standpoint of controlling nature. It doesn’t seem very practical to me. If human beings took the amazing stuff that nature has already been doing and we worked with nature, as opposed to working against nature, imagine how faster and farther we could go. With Binti, she has the basic ability to tree and harness mathematics. There is this idea of everything being mathematics such that when one goes into nature, one sees mathematics. When one looks at the beehives, they build their honeycombs in hexagons. Hence, life itself is mathematics and this is something that nature has created. Binti is then able to take the idea, blending the energy of the earth and mathematics. The term ‘treeing’ is a tennis term used when you are playing out of your mind; when you can do no wrong. It’s a state in which everything you do at that time is perfect. Hence, I brought together this concept of mental treeing, mathematics and the energy of the earth to form Binti’s energies.
Iheoma Uzomba: With a company like Disney working on its first African-based animated feature film, Iwaju, which is to be set in Lagos with flying tricycles and a magic lizard, do you see a renaissance sort of, or an age of arrival for African speculative storytelling?
Nnedi Okorafor: I think that’s part of the wave that I see coming but I still worry about its being focused on a Western ideology. Western ideologies view the future in a very specific way, a very urban way. I hope that as these things come forth, it doesn’t come with this thing that Hollywood tends to do – ‘Oh, we’ll give you guys one shot and if this doesn’t work out then we’ll never give you guys a shot again’. And then if that thing is successful, then everything that comes after it has to be like that one thing. The film reminds me a lot about Wakanda where we had a future with very specific things – I say specific because I don’t ascribe to that view of the future. That was successful and now we have this film coming out which is going to look like Wakanda. So it’s just this line forward when it should really be a web branching out in lots of different things. The need for there to be diversity of voices that come out of Africanfuturism is going to be a challenge. It would take time, it would take many attempts but it cannot just be one thing. If it’s just one thing, then that is not a success; that is a controlled vehicle.
Iheoma Uzomba: What do you think about literary adaptations? Especially with your Who Fears Death and Binti series both being adapted into TV shows. Would you say the TV adaptations do justice to the novels themselves?
Nnedi Okorafor: It’s a long way to go honestly and it sort of relates to what I just said – a controlled vehicle is no fun. I love literary adaptations and I was really hoping for Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. It was in development with HBO. I don’t know what happened but it’s not happening again and that was disappointing. Because I am an irrational optimist, I am excited about literary adaptations and I just feel like when you have these films and TV series that are adapted from novels, they are going to be inevitably better than something that’s not adapted from a novel. The stories are already deeper so even if they mess it up, it’s still going to be better. I’m also a perfectionist so there are things that I really worry about. I have had a lot of experience in this area and I can no longer say that I am new to adaptations. I have had the pain and the successes and what I can say is that we have a long way to go and a controlled vehicle is no fun.
Iheoma Uzomba: Thank you so much Prof Nnedi Okorafor. This has been much fun. So what are your last words for young writers especially in the Department of English and Literary Studies where there are budding writers looking up to other established writers?
Nnedi Okorafor: The first thing is to write. To write and write and write. There is something about writing where few people are initially good at it so you have to do it over and over and over again. Zahrah the Windseeker was like the sixth novel that I wrote and the ones that came before that were finished and edited again. I edit a lot. I edited Who Fears Death over fifty times and that’s why the book is practically memorized in my head. Editing means you sit down and go through every word of the whole novel from beginning to the end, over and over again. What I say to young writers is: do the work! Be ready to do the work and enjoy the work. If you’re writing something that bores you, then you need to start over because if you don’t want to read it, trust me, no one would want to read that. Don’t be afraid of writing something bad because sometimes you have to write something bad to get to the good stuff. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with form. Read widely and freely, because the sensation of reading and enjoying it is there. Don’t use AI to write. Do the work. Please do the work because we need good stories out there and also, don’t be afraid of telling your story. Don’t look at social media and all the trends. If you go by what’s popular, you are going to write garbage. Write what you love; it should come from within. Stop being timid, get over yourself and write the thing. Ignore the voice at the back of your head telling you to give up and just keep going.
Iheoma Uzomba: Thank you so much for these words.
Nnedi Okorafor: My pleasure.
Iheoma J. Uzomba is the Editor of The Muse Journal No. 50. She is a winner of the Lagos-London Poetry Prize and a longlistee of the Poetically-Written Prose Contest. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming on Rattle Magazine, Palette Poetry, Chestnut Review, The Shore Poetry, The Rising Phoenix Review, Isele Magazine, Arts Lounge and elsewhere.