For the longest time, whenever anyone mentioned “Science Fiction Author” and “African-American” in the same sentence, the only author that came to mind was the late, great Octavia Butler. However, times are a-changing.
Author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents, and currently resides in the suburbs of Chicago. She is the author of numerous novels, shorts stories and essays. Booklist calls her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, “A welcome addition to a genre sorely in need of more heroes and heroines of color.” VOYA adds additional praise, saying, “Okorafor-Mbachu creates an outstanding science fiction/fantasy novel complete with exotic creatures, a magical forest, and children with superhuman abilities. The author describes the country of Ooni, its creatures, and people as if she has seen them all firsthand.” Zahrah the Windseeker was shortlisted for a number of awards, including the 2005 Parallax Award and 2005 Kindred Award .
Likewise, critics and fans heaped praise upon her second novel, The Shadow Speaker. The novel, set in Niger, Africa in 2070, has been listed as a Winter 2007/2008 Booksense Pick, and has been a named a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, the 39th Annual NAACP Image Awards, and the 2008 Essence Magazine Literary Award. Okorafor-Mbachu has also received praise from overseas–her children’s book, Long Juju Man, was recently awarded the MacMillan Writer’s Prize for Africa.
For the 13th day of 28 Days Later, the Brown Bookshelf is happy to present Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu!
Varian: Congratulations on your recent selection as a finalist for the 2008 Essence Magazine Literary Award for Children’s Books, the Andre Norton Award, and NAACP Image Award. If you could use only three words to describe your nominated title, The Shadow Speaker, what would you use?
Nnedi: Thanks you! It’s a great honor. Three words? Ambitious, vibrant and Green (with a capital “G”).
Varian: On your website, you state that Nigeria is your muse. Is there anything specific about the country—sights, smells, images, history, etc—that helped to spark the initial idea for The Shadow Speaker?
Nnedi: The Shadow Speaker came from so many different places. The novel is actually my doctoral dissertation (I earned my PhD in English in May) and I’ve been working on it for several years. But I think the first spark came from a trip to Nigeria several years ago. Usually, during the plane ride, we’d fly over the Sahara during the night. The Sahara sky looks amazing at night. So so alive. Shooting Stars left and right, billions of bright twinkling stars. I’d always stay awake on the plane to witness this.
Nonetheless, this one trip, we traveled over the Nigérien (as in Niger) part of the Sahara during the day. The uniform ridges of sand dunes, dry cracked earth, and NOTHING else. For miles and miles. It was beautiful and terrifying. It looked like another planet. This stayed with me. I began to obsess about it. I’ve got this thing about places untouched by man. My first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, was about a teenager who goes into a forbidden jungle. The Shadow Speaker ended up being about a teenager who ventures into the Sahara desert.
I also draw a lot from people I’ve met and the cultures I have encountered. For example, in The Shadow Speaker, you’ll meet a powerful chief who embodies all of the most sexist, problematic qualities of traditional Nigerian male leadership. I took certain…individuals I’ve met, combined them together and blew them up to create this particular character. And because this character is larger than life, he’s one of my favorites.
The foods, the spirituality, historical and mythical elements, culture, it’s all woven into the story. Sometimes it’s so seamless, that readers may not notice that something is based on an actual historical element. For example, the country of Niger really is one of the world’s top producers of uranium. And there’s an elaborate outfit that the chief is wearing that is actually based on a real West African king’s royal outfit.
Lastly, there are the creatures. I love animals. I love plants. I love the natural world. Wherever I go, I notice it. I can be in downtown Chicago and it’ll be the pigeons that catch my eye or a glimpse of a bat streaking by. Whenever I visit Nigeria, you can bet that I will witness wonders. Spiders flat as paper or huge as a king crab. Indestructible wasps. A monkey sitting on the side of the road like an old woman. Rainbow colored grasshoppers. Immortal cockroaches. Disappearing wall geckos. I can go on and on. These things always hiding in the nooks and crannies of my novels.
Varian: Your writing career transcends standard industry categories, resulting in a seamless blending of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and folklore. Is there any specific type or genre of story that you enjoy writing the most?
Nnedi: I am a blend of so many things, many of which don’t make sense when put against each other. I’m Nigerian, Igbo, American, a feminist, a humanist, a womanist, an environmentalist, an athlete, a book worm, a writer, a PhD holder, an awful awful speller, an academic, an agnostic, a huge fan of Stephan King, almost six feet tall, the shortest of my sisters and brother. I take from so many things and I’m used to existing simultaneously in different groups and never fully in any group.
I didn’t set out to write The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker specially as YA novels. I didn’t set out to write them as fantasy with elements of science fiction. I just wrote them and they happened to have teenage main characters and magical, sometimes science-based, things just happened. I’ve written adult fiction, YA fiction, mainstream realistic fiction, magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, memoir, screenplays, scripts for plays, journalistic essays, book reviews, and scholarly papers.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I let the publishers decide what I write. In my head, I rarely consider genres and categories.
Varian: Speaking of essays…one essay in particular has brought you quite a bit of notoriety–“Stephen King’s Super Duper Magical Negroes.” Did you receive any criticism from anyone in the writing industry or any science fiction fans concerning the essay?
Nnedi: The issues people had with my Magical Negro essay have been minimal at best. At least from what I’ve been told and what I’ve heard. Some people tried to explain away the phenomenon of the Magical Negro as a series of coincidences. These were typically the folks who also claimed that racism doesn’t exist any more. Others claimed that the Magical Negroes that I pointed out actually did have power and agency…again, I felt like yawning. I know what I see, as I think many people do. Magical Negroes are Magical Negroes. The majority of responses were mainly ecstatic agreement and puzzled realization.
Varian: Can you tell us a little about any current works in progress?
Nnedi: I’m always working on something. :-). Over the summer, I finished yet another rewrite of a novel called Who Fears Death. It’s an adult fantasy novel inspired by some of the atrocities in Darfur. It’s very, very heavy and I’m really pleased and excited about it. Right after that I finished a novel called Black Locusts, also an adult fantasy novel. Its set in the oil-rich but troubled part of Nigeria called the Niger Delta. I’m currently working on The Shadow Speaker Part 2. I just started it a month ago and have got a couple hundred very sloppy ugly pages.
Varian: Are there any specific authors or books that inspired you to become an author?
Nnedi: I have several favorite authors. However, authors who inspired me to become an author? That’s a different question. I’d have to cite Stephen King as one of them. Novels like The Talisman, The Dark Tower series, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, they were just so delicious. And they cultivated a joy of story inside me that eventually bloomed when I was in college.
Octavia Butler showed me that the kind of stories I wanted to write were possible. I remember feeling such shock when I read Wild Seed, the first Butler novel I read. Seeing something is so important to imagining and creating something further–if that makes sense.
Lastly, Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin books, was a great influence on me. These were remote books from Finland about these polite, witty, bipedal hippo-like beings. They fed my imagination and I think I’d be a different person if I hadn’t read her books as a kid.
Varian: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Nnedi: Write and read as much as possible. Give yourself plenty of time to nurture your skills before seeking to get published. Travel as much as possible. Sacrifice if you must. Work out. Eat well. Allow yourself to write really bad stuff (the good stuff tends to come afterwards). Don’t procrastinate. And do not give up.