Nnedi Okorafor was born April 8, 1974 in Cincinnati OH to Igbo parents who emigrated from Nigeria in 1969. She earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of Illinois in 1996 and an MA in journalism from Michigan State University in 1999. She attended the University of Chicago, getting her MA in English in 2002 and completing her PhD in 2007. She attended the Clarion writing workshop in 2001.
Her first SF story, ‘‘The Palm Tree Bandit’’, appeared in 2001, and story ‘‘Windseekers’’ was included in a Writers of the Future anthology that same year. Since then her stories have appeared in various anthologies, and some of her short work was collected in Kabu Kabu (2013). She also writes critical essays and was a newspaper columnist.
Her debut novel was YA Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), and YA The Shadow Speaker (2007) was also her PhD dissertation. Who Fears Death (2010), her first adult novel, won the World Fantasy Award, and was a Tiptree Award honor book and Nebula Award finalist; a prequel volume, The Book of Phoenix is forthcoming. YA Akata Witch (2011) was an Andre Norton Award finalist, and sequel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola is forthcoming. Her latest adult novel is Lagoon (2014). Her play Full Moon was produced in Chicago in 2005.
Okorafor has taught at Chicago State University and Governors State University, and is now an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo. She divides her time between New York and Illinois, where her family (including daughter Anyaugo Okorafor-Mbachu) lives.
Excerpts from the interview:
‘‘Who Fears Death was my first adult novel. My editor Betsy Wollheim calls it ‘magical futurism.’ I’m happy with that. I started writing Who Fears Death after my father passed. I began right after coming home from my father’s wake-keeping. It was very difficult for me. My family’s very close. My dad suffered a lot. He had Parkinson’s and congestive heart failure and diabetes. He was a cardiovascular surgeon, and we’re talking about a disease that makes you shake. The thing that really took him was congestive heart failure. He repaired hearts for a living, and that’s what took him. I was very angry and there was a lot flying around in my head. He was eventually buried in Nigeria but they had his wake here in the states.
‘‘His wake-keeping was very painful. I cried the whole time. Near the end of it, I was in the room with him. Everyone was saying goodbye and I looked at him and thought it didn’t look like him anymore. I felt something coming into me that was very powerful and strong, and it felt like it would destroy the whole room. At some point my mom and sister took me out of there. I went home and I wrote the first scene. Who Fears Death was one of the most difficult novels to write for many reasons. I started it to deal with the loss of my father. For me a lot of writing is therapeutic. I can let things out – all those things happening around me that I can’t deal with. I didn’t know I was writing a novel. I did not know what the story was about – I didn’t know any of it. I sat down and wrote the scene I’d dealt with at my father’s wake-keeping, and then I just kept writing. Soon I started hearing the voice of the character and I knew where she was coming from. That book took me about six years to write. The first draft was over 700 pages. I showed it to my agent and he said, ‘I love it. It’s really long. What you need to do is get this down to one book without changing any of the plotline.’ It had been two books. I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘This is what you’re going to do. Cut every word that doesn’t need to be there. Streamline it as much as possible.’ It took me two years. That’s why in Who Fears Death, the sentences are short and choppy. That was part of the pain – I had to keep revisiting things that were difficult. It was hard. There’s a lot of rage in Who Fears Death.”
‘‘I listen to the stories of the women around me. I listen to my aunts and my cousins. I listen and I watch because there are stories nobody else can tell. I pick those up and when I write about them, I write about them as honestly as I possibly can. I don’t worry about whether it looks good or bad. Family issues, gender issues, all these things became part of Who Fears Death. It went on to win the World Fantasy Award, which was wonderful in ways I don’t talk about often. I was opening up so many issues that I used to keep very quiet, especially about African women. I put them in that story in a really raw, naked way. I didn’t worry about how it was going to be received, about how people would react to the issue of female genital mutilation. I suffered some of the results of that when the book was published. I didn’t know I’d get some of the reactions I got. I had feminists who were angry with me for portraying the ritual sympathetically. Some people said I was pro-female-genital mutilation. I was accused of that several times by feminists.
‘‘I was just coming at it honestly. My attitude towards it is not your typical, ‘This is bad and this is barbaric.’ I was looking at it from the inside. How do you change a practice from the inside? You can’t just tell people they’re bad, because they’re never going to listen to you. How about, let’s analyze this practice, truly. Alice Walker comes at it from the angle of, ‘This is barbaric.’ I understand that. She opened up the conversation. But I’ve always felt there’s a better way to discuss this issue. Feminists were coming at me, and I was like, ‘Aren’t we on the same side here?’
‘‘Then you have the traditional, older African audiences. Some of them were academics who came at me. They were a bit confused by Who Fears Death. For one thing, they accused me of washing our dirty laundry in public. They weren’t defending the practice, but they were saying, ‘We should discuss it amongst ourselves. Don’t bring this out in the open.’ My theory is that it comes from the suspicion a lot of African scholars and Africans as a whole have of me. They’re suspicious because I’m writing from an outside point of view. I was born and raised in the States, and I may have Nigerian parents and I may have strong connections to Nigeria, but they question my allegiance. They don’t trust me.”
‘‘Whenever I see things happening in the news, the first thing I wonder is: how does that person live their daily life? I’m working on a story set in Timbuktu and I can’t find anything about daily life there. Usually one of the best sources of information is Youtube. You can always find some amateur video, terribly shot, but showing you regular people doing regular things. There’s nothing in Timbuktu. All you can find are the news things about Al Quaeda. You never hear the voices of the people who live there and their mundane, normal worries. Those are the stories I like to read. If I’m reading and the main character is a king, I want to close the book. I want to read about ‘common’ people, because they have some of the best stories. That person, right there, where does he go after this happens?’’
‘‘I knew I was not going to hold back when I wrote Lagoon. That’s part of why I did the multiple points of view. I wanted some non-Nigerians in there. I wanted various types of Christians and non-Christians. There weren’t too many Muslims, but there were some. I wanted to run the gamut of these points of view. There’s a lot of truth in Lagoon. What am I going to do, sanitize Lagos? It would be unrecognizable. I don’t mind showing the negatives. In District 9 they can have corrupt Nigerians – there are corrupt Nigerians – but in District 9 there was not one single non-corrupt Nigerian. They were all portrayed as criminals, prostitutes, and cannibals, all of them. I think that putting the Nigerians in District 9 was important. There’s a lot of static between Nigerians and South Africans, so he was hitting on something that’s real. The year before the film came out there were riots between Nigerians and South Africans at a Nigerian market. When I went there, I asked some South Africans what was up, and a lot of them regurgitated the same stereotypes. It’s supposed to be the first science fiction film set in Africa. How come we can’t have a black main character? I gotta say that. South Africa is only 20% white/non-black.”
‘‘The Book of Phoenix comes out in May from DAW. It’s a prequel to Who Fears Death, set 300 years earlier, so maybe 80 years from now. It’s told from the point of view of the main character, Phoenix. She’s a woman who was grown in a place called Tower Seven. She’s an ABO, an Accelerated Biological Organism. She’s two years old and she looks 40. There’s a lot of genetic experimenting being done in this tower. There’s a line in Who Fears Death that mentions it. Phoenix is one of the wards in Tower Seven. After the man she loves, who’s also a ward in Tower Seven, kills himself, she decides to leave the tower. She’s never left before, and even though they’ve been doing whatever they’ve been doing to her, she thinks her life is normal. She decides that she wants to get out. When she finally does, a lot of things happen. She discovers why she’s named Phoenix. It’s a blend of science fiction and fantasy. The illustrator’s name is Eric Battle. He’s done illustrations for D.C. and Marvel. He’s done 10 or 11 spot illustrations for the book. The Book of Phoenix started as a short story, but it kept coming. I wrote it as a novella called African Sunrise, published by Subterranean. For that novella, Eric did three or four illustrations, and my DAW editor saw the illustrations and said, ‘That’s really cool.’ I thought, ‘Why don’t we have more?’ I like the idea of visuals for this type of story. It’s a unique book. It goes from New York, to Ghana, to Nigeria. It goes to many places.”
‘‘I have a children’s book that I just sold to a small British publisher. It’s called Chicken in the Kitchen. It’s going to be illustrated by an Iranian illustrator. Akata Witch Two: Breaking Kola comes out summer of 2016. I’m working on the edits for that. The title could easily be changed. It’s a sequel, and I know there’s a part three. I know where it’s going. I have some other things in the works but these are the main things. I’m sure I’ll write more blog posts in due time. They come up when something pokes me and makes me mad. Maybe tomorrow something will bite me on the nose.’’
Read the complete interview in the May 2015 issue of Locus Magazine. Interview design by Francesca Myman.