From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Conversation with Dr. Nnedi Okorafor author of The Shadow Speaker

There’s a discernible new voice in Young Adult Fiction. That voice is distinctly Nigerian…and American. Dr. Nnedi Okorafor (winner of the Wole Soyinka prize for Literature) thrives in a realm of fiction called African Fantasy.

This genre combines elements of speculative fiction, magical realism and traditional fantasy with a decidedly cultural twist. Not all of these books are set in Africa, but do contain aspects of African folklore. Also, instead of the traditional Celtic setting, stories have a more earthy approach to magic.

Nnedi was born in the United States to Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents and you can see that influence in her work. But, her path to writing was an unusual one. Absent are any anecdotes about knowing she wanted to write since she was a small child, though she was always an avid reader. Favoring the maths and sciences, she envisioned a career in either entomology or veterinary medicine.

All this changed when following her freshman year at college, she made the difficult decision to undergo surgery to correct scoliosis, a condition involving curvature of the spine. Nnedi found herself among the one percent of people paralyzed after the surgery.

Nnedi credits that experience and having to learn to walk again with releasing her creative juices. Undeterred by advice not to pursue her passion, she changed majors. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric (Creative Writing) and earned a PhD in English in 2007. The rest, shall we say is history.

Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker was shortlisted for the Parallax Award and Kindred Award in 2006, a finalist for the 2005 Golden Duck Award and nominated for a Locus Award (Best First Novel) 2005. Her latest novel, The Shadow Speaker, has characters from and takes place in the countries of Niger and Nigeria.

There are several key themes in The Shadow Speaker. First is the complexity of violence vs nonviolence and the idea that a certain times, both must be employed. The Shadow Speaker also tackles the environment, commenting on the state of the earth and the ugly things human beings do to it. The novel is also about girlhood and womanhood, a heroine’s journey. Lastly, one of the greatest themes of the book is Change:

As the green shape grew, the earthquake subsided. Soon everyone had turned south, watching and waiting. Even the crying children and roaring camels had gotten quiet. The green tint soon spread over the sky, quickly approaching them. Ejii grasped her mother’s hand and touched the amulet that hung from her neck with her other hand. She could hear her mother whisper, “Inshallah,” –God willing, her mother whispered. Then the green wave came with a WHOOOOSH! Its wind pushed everyone a few steps north, only the toddlers and the very old fell to the ground. Palm trees bent northward and monkey bread trees lost all their fruits.

The strength of the wave forced Ejii to inhale deeply as it passed. It smelled of a thousand roses blooming at the same time in the same place for the same reason. She sneezed and looked at her mother and they both pressed closer to each other. It wasn’t the end. It was another beginning. But of what?

It’s important to note that the author really wanted to portray an Africa of the future while acknowledging the challenges of the present. “I don’t feel I see a present day or futuristic Africa often enough in science fiction or fantasy that is portrayed from the perspective of one of the natives.”

Nnedi tends to write everyday, and during those periods when there is a story dying to escape from the confines of her imagination, TV time and personal reading time take a back seat. In this manner, she can usually pound out a first draft in a month. Then it takes her about a year from that draft to the finished product.

Inspired by her frequent trips to visit family in Nigeria, the themes of Nigerian myth and folklore are central to Nnedi’s stories. “On these trips, there is always so much drama,” she said. “Those trips are like goldmines.”

Of the writing process, Nnedi points out that rewrites are most difficult. It’s relatively standard for her to edit a final draft at least six times. Asked about how she knows when the story she wanted to tell is finished, Nnedi says, “There’s a certain feeling you get when the piece evokes the proper response from you.”

Among her favorite authors are Octavia Butler, Stephen King and Philip Pullman. Wizard of the Crow, a new release from Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, receives the prize of her favorite novel.

When asked about advice for new writers, Nnedi is steadfast in her belief that formal training is key. “Writing is a creative process, but it is still a craft,” she said. In lieu of advanced degrees, Nnedi says creative writing classes at your local community college are an excellent option. She also believes that writing everyday is the only way to perfect the craft.

If you have yet to delve into the realm of African Fantasy, there’s no time better than the present.

Veronica Henry is a former IT Professional turned freelance and fiction writer based in Las Vegas, NV. She is also co-founder of two websites. One is dedicated to reconnecting the African diaspora and the other is a retail site featuring Afrocentric clothing and accessories.

This interview was originally published at MyAfricanDiaspora.com

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