When my comrade-in-arms Jha Goh attended Wiscon this year, she asked me if I wanted anything. I only asked for two books, one of them being Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH. This isn’t a steampunk book, but I had read a bit about the setting: one with magic in a world where technology had crumbled and a vicious empire seeks to wipe out other tribes through genocide. Rebuilt societies + imperialist themes + magic = a book worth checking out. A couple of weeks later, I eagerly opened the package in the mail and read the following inscription: “I hope this novel takes you there and back again.”
“There” is post-apocalyptic Africa, in a land known as the Seven Rivers Kingdom, a land plagued by war and genocide. My guide is the strong and determined Onyesonwu, a young woman whose name translates to the title of this book. Her story, told in simple but engaging language, is her journey. Though she is hated because she is an Ewu–born from the rape of her Okeke mother by someone from the conquering Nuru tribe– Onyesonwu’s life changes drastically when she develops the ability to change into animals and even raise the dead. Now, Onyesonwu must grapple against prejudice aimed at her because of her birth and her gender in order to master her magical abilities. But time is running short, because the Nuru armies are approaching her homeland–and a powerful magician is out to kill her.
Alongside magic powers and spirits, WHO FEARS DEATH deals with very tough, very real issues: weaponized rape, child soldiers, female genital mutilation. These topics are not sensationalized, but integrated into the harsh reality of the world of the Seven Rivers Kingdom. Nnedi also doesn’t shy away from portraying the messed-up perceptions characters have concerning these subjects too, like the poor treatment of Okeke rape survivors, who are shunned because they are “ruined.” Nnedi handles each subject upfront; the more violent scenes were not gratuitous and didn’t make me feel uncomfortable reading it, though I’ll give this book a trigger warning.
Yet Onyesonwu’s tale is much more than the harshness of her world. It’s also very much a story about women finding strength in themselves and in their friendships. It’s about sex used in all its forms: as part of violent oppression, intrinsic desire, and personal liberation. It’s about the mysterious spirit world where demons called masquerades walk the land and dragons fly in the air and tribes can manipulate sand storms (reminding me of the sand benders from Avatar: The Last Airbender). It’s also very much a coming-of-age story as Onyesonwu seeks to affirm her personal and magical identity. And the core strength of the book lies in its ability to take readers to places that are at turns dark, mythical, brutal and wondrous.
After finishing this book, I talked with Nnedi about her career and the challenges she’s faced when writing WHO FEARS DEATH.
Hello Nnedi, and welcome to Beyond Victoriana! Let’s get started with a bit about your latest book compared with your previous works. WHO FEARS DEATH is your first novel written for adult audiences; previously you had done children & YA books. What prompted the transition?
It wasn’t a transition at all. I started out writing adult fiction. Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker and Who Fears Death are the novels I have had PUBLISHED.
I think I’ve written 14 novels. Four YA and ten adult. The first novel my first agent fell in love with and shopped around was called Bush Radio. This novel almost sold to five different major publishers but in the end, they decided they couldn’t categorize it, so they passed on it.
After Bush Radio, I wrote Ginen, an adult fantasy novel where I discovered the world Zahrah of Zahrah the Windseeker would eventually occupy. Then I wrote the Legend of Arro-yo, an adult fantasy novel set in Nigeria about an adult windseeker. From this novel, I mined two short stories that went on to win awards and one that was a finalist. This novel had the same problem as Bush Radio–publishers didn’t know how to categorize it, thus they decided it wasn’t sellable.
Then I wrote Zahrah the Windseeker, which went on to be my first published novel. When I wrote it, the main character just happened to be 13 years old. Also, over the years, I’ve had several short stories published, a handful of which won awards or received recognitions of some sort. All my published short stories have been adult.
I write stories. Sometimes they are categorized as adult; sometimes they are categorized as young adult. They all come from the same source.
The trove of works you have is impressive, and I understand how difficult it can be to put out stories because of “sellable” standards. The publisher describes WHO FEARS DEATH as “magical realism” as opposed to “science fiction.” Do you agree that’s an apt label? Did you usually think in terms of genre?
This book is not really “catagorizable”. It has elements of science fiction but it isn’t science fiction. It has elements of fantasy but it isn’t really fantasy. I think the location of the creative wells I was drawing from is what makes Who Fears Death more magical realism than fantasy.
I remember a quote from a book called Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. This quote gets at what I am trying to say: “Magical realism arises out of particular societies — postcolonial, unevenly developed places where old and new, modern and ancient, the scientific and the magical views of the world co-exist” (216). My editor Betsy Wollheim once described Who Fears Death as “Magical Futurism”. I like that category most.
Do I usually think in terms of genre? Not a bit. Too constrictive.
WHO FEARS DEATH is so interesting because it covers Africa–a place that most SF hasn’t touched yet. Not only that, but the book also broaches on tough territory. What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
The most difficult part was writing those difficult scenes. I knew they had to be true to what they were and that involved mentally being within them. I had to dive deep. Full body emersion. I can honestly say that I did not emerge unscathed. I’m still haunted by what I had to first imagine (and I have a very powerful imagination) and then write. But I figured that: 1. Sometimes one must experience pain to achieve something valuable. 2. I would simply think of those who actually went through those things. Properly showing these atrocities was the least I could do. 3. They were integral to the story. I had to write them.
Wow, your writing process sounds very emotionally intense. In terms of research, how did you prepare yourself in writing these scenes?
I didn’t really prepare. I wasn’t prepared. I really couldn’t prepare. I just sat down to write, the story brought me to these scenes and I barreled forth because I was in the zone…and then I suffered from nightmares because of it, heh.
In writing, I’ve often read about the dynamic between using verisimilitude (portraying things as real as possible) versus using facts (the cold, hard, encyclopedia ones). Sci-fi & fantasy, especially, play the line between verisimilitude and fact, which makes me wonder how that affects writing choices when it comes to representation of cultures that readers may not be familiar with. What do you think of the dynamic between verisimilitude and fact when writing science fiction & fantasy?
These aren’t things I consciously think about when writing. I just write. However, when I write, I must BELIEVE in what I’m writing. I have to believe in the magic. I have to feel the emotions. It always has to be real. When it comes to historical accuracy, it depends on where the story wants to go. There is a truth (sometimes many truths) but the truth isn’t always the truth and the truth can be told in different ways, at different times, in different directions, it can wear different costumes, have different moods.
You’ve said in past interviews that your mother country Nigeria has been a great muse in your work. What other people, places, books, etc do you draw your inspiration from?
There are other parts of Africa that draw my attention, too. However, Outside of Africa, I’m drawn to specific types of places. Forests, jungles, deserts, strange cities, oceans, dead places, alive places, alien places. These can be found all over the world, of course, and often their uniqueness is due to the human beings living in these places. All kinds of books inspire me, books that I love, books that I hate, books that offend me, books that bore me, books that make the world around me disappear, books that make the world around me become more than the world. When it comes to people, the number is also infinity. I draw from so much when I write.
Reception for WHO FEARS DEATH has faced controversy, particularly because the book addresses serious issues like female genital mutilation (a.k.a. “female circumcision”) in an African society. Speaking from my observations, (that means, totally correct me and clarify if I’m misinterpreting anything) many of the criticisms against how African practices are portrayed seem to stem from the fact that there is so little sci-fi about Africa available to English-reading audiences. And thus, when people react to WHO FEARS DEATH, what they are really reacting to is the fact that they are worried that WHO FEARS DEATH will contribute to misunderstandings about Africa that are already present in Western culture. What are your thoughts about this?
The individuals who took issue with Who Fears Death addressing these sensitive issues were speaking out of complete ignorance. They had not read the novel. How can you peg someone as being culturally destructive or disloyal when you have not even picked up the book to see what the story is up to? Sure there is very little African science fiction but how can you attack one of the only people doing it without even reading what that person is writing? The library of “African Science Fiction” can be counted on one hand. How lazy can folks be?
Yes, Africa is poorly represented in the West. But I am certainly not the one to attack. I am combating that very problem in all I do! If these individuals had bothered to read the book (even a few pages!), this would have been quite clear.
WHO FEARS DEATH is set in a post-apocalyptic future. Similar problems occur in this future that are also present today: genocide, weaponized rape, tribal conflicts. Thus, do you think that the development of social violence and injustice is inevitable, even in a rebuilt society?
If we change nothing about the way we go about our business, yes. The past will keep repeating itself. “It is written”…for now.
Would you be interested in revisiting the world of WHO FEARS DEATH in future works?
Ask me this in a year. Right now, I’m still deeply affected by this story and can’t see myself returning to that world. There are several stories within it that should be told. I know of two already. But I need some space from it.
What’s the one nutshell piece of advice you would give to aspiring young writers of color?
Writers write. Listen to criticism but don’t be afraid of it. Explore those places close to you that have not been explored, there are many untold stories that need telling. Tell the story not the idea; mere ideas are boring. I can go on and on.
And, lastly, what other current projects do you want to give a shout-out about?
I’m currently perfecting my forthcoming YA novel titled Akata Witch, due out in April, 2011. This novel is full of utterly insane juju and plays with ideas of culture. I had a lot of fun writing this one. See more about it on my website at http://nnedi.com/sunny.html. I’ve got my first YA short story titled “Wahala” coming out in a YA anthology called Life on Mars: Tales from New Frontiers (April 2011). I’m also working on a Disney Fairies chapter book tentatively called Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog. This is Iridessa. I’m working with illustrator Ross Campbell on a comic called The Legend of Arro-yo and with illustrator John Jennings on a graphic novel version of Zahrah the Windseeker. Lastly, I’m working on another adult novel that…well, that’s a secret for now. ;-)
Looking forward to reading more from you! Thanks again, Nnedi, for stopping by.