/ 16 September 2016

Nnedi ​Okorafor: Writing oneself into existence

Nnedi Okorafor and the front covers of her book What Sunny Saw in the Flames. Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux
Nnedi Okorafor and the front covers of her book What Sunny Saw in the Flames. Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

“Of course,” agrees novelist Nnedi Okorafor, “anybody can write about anything. Nobody wants to shut anything down. But people [of a given community] should tell their stories first. Because there are things that cannot be captured by outsiders. Some stories are just meant to be told by certain people.”

Okorafor is talking on the phone from Cape Town, where she’s been a guest at this year’s Open Book Festival. On the same weekend, Lionel Shriver’s smug defence of the right of privileged writers to appropriate the experience of others isn’t our specific target.

Mainly because there’s a lot of it about: cisgendered men writing as lesbians, English fantasy writers kidnapping Navajo people, white male Britons adopting female Nigerian voices.

Okorafor is the Nigerian-American winner of a World Fantasy Award for her 2010 novel Who Fears Death and, this year, of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her novella Binti — as well as a host of other awards, nominations and shortlistings.

Her tales have drawn on various African settings: Binti starts among the Himba people. Her work — dubbed “magical realist” as often as fantasy — remixes multiple elements, including Igbo tradition, magic, alien landings and life in a structurally racist, ruthlessly corporate America.

It takes exceptional writing to create any authentic character, Okorafor believes.

She says that skill can cross boundaries: “One of the most interesting women I’ve ever read was Dolores in She’s Come Undone, written by a man, Wally Lamb.”

But in the current wave of literary appropriation, “there’s serious opportunism going on. We have to be aware of the kind of society we operate in. A white male writer creating a postapocalyptic black female protagonist will have a far easier time getting that book out.”

Okorafor grew up a voracious reader, although at school, following in her javelin-throwing mother’s footsteps, she was a star athlete.

All that changed after an operation to correct scoliosis left her paralysed from the waist down.

On the Penguin blog she recounts: “That paralysis led to me becoming a writer … spinning stories to go to places I physically could not”, and “that personal apocalypse, I suspect, was the root of my obsession with the apocalypse”.

Yet what distanced her from science fiction back then was “feeling that I was not part of those stories; I didn’t exist in them”.

She’s still uneasy with all genre labels: “They’re always reductive. I get that they provide a shorthand, but they also exclude all the aspects that don’t fit.”

Yet she can live with “magical realism” for her own work, even as she concedes the term “gets slapped on to certain non-Western writing … just to give it a name”.

(She finds similar problems with “Afrofuturism” — “all it takes is for a rapper to mention the word ‘alien’.”)

Nevertheless, “there are parts I write where it does work better than ‘fantasy.’ Because those parts are not fantasy. They are real to communities; things I believe in because of my Nigerian culture.”

Nigeria came to life most vividly in Okorafor’s 2014 Lagoon, a tale of first contact written because she was so “seriously pissed off” by the portrayal of Nigerians in the South African film District 9.

Her own narrative, however, did not spare the more absurd aspects of modern Lagos life, from bureaucratic pomposity to the prosperity gospel business: “It was written with joy. I was snickering out loud as I wrote.”

Other books came from darker places. Her debut novel, Who Fears Death, was written “when my father passed, in pain”.

The 2015 Book of Phoenix was sparked by a prison visit to one of her students. “Going in there, seeing all those young black men … I was seeing what I already knew made real. It solidified my anger.

“And architecturally, the prison was a tower. Then I emerged, to find my phone full of texts telling me I’d won the World Fantasy award. So the start of the book was this blend of rage and joy, and an image of people of African descent imprisoned in a tower.”

In the United States, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People estimates that African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites and, fittingly, Angela Davis’s essay on the prison-industrial complex employs the metaphor of magic for the feat of “not disappearing problems … but disappearing human beings”.

The Book of Phoenix also explores genetic engineering and Okorafor says another subconscious inspiration might be “my conflictual relationship with science. I’ve seen the godlike side — my father was a cardiologist; he saved lives. But I’ve also seen the human and fallible side. Science fixed me, but it had also paralysed me.” (These days, Okorafor walks with the help of a steel rod in her spine, and often refers to herself as “part-cyborg”.)

Science and mathematics feature strongly in the Book of Phoenix and Binti (whose protagonist is a maths prodigy), so is the label “science fiction” appropriate?

It’s another she finds problematic: “It’s used far too liberally — Toni Morrison as science fiction?” But she concedes that Binti “was my first space opera — actually set in outer space”.

For that reason, the Hugo and Nebula awards were important. “I wasn’t sure I was getting it right. It gives me more confidence when others in that community indicate they think I am.”

Okorafor’s life means she can’t be a rigid, nine-to-five writer: “It’s organised chaos. I commute between two different cities, teach at university full-time, have a 13-year-old daughter.”

But, she says, “I get things done. I’m disciplined — I used to be an athlete — and try to stay ahead of deadlines. There are too many stories I have to tell: sometimes I just want them to stop!”

As a writing teacher, that discipline is part of what she imparts: “Write, don’t just talk about it.

Do it often. Read — a lot. And develop joy in writing. It takes time and you can’t rush it, so the joy is very important.”