I’ve long trumpeted (most recently in “50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 3”) the marvelous efflorescence of young Nigerian writers, and especially Nigerian women writers, both in Nigeria and in diaspora. I’m not much of a reader of novels, but I waste no time getting stuck into any new work by Adichie, Oyeyemi or Okorafor. Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the novels Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature) and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award), and the children’s book, Long Juju Man (winner of the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa). Her latest novel, Who Fears Death (DAW Books), was released in June. Her forthcoming novel, Akata Witch (Penguin Books/Viking Press), is scheduled for release in 2011. Nnedi was also a finalist for the Andre Norton Award (The Shadow Speaker), the Essence Magazine Literary Award (The Shadow Speaker), the Kindred and Parallax Awards (Zahrah) and the Golden Duck Award (Zahrah and The Shadow Speaker). Nnedi is working with Disney to produce a chapter book in the Disney Fairies series, tentatively titled Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog.

Nigerians generally thrive in bubbling calabash of language stew. It’s a country with dozens of major languages, and hundreds of minor ones, where almost everyone speaks one or more indigenous languages as well as Nigerian Pidgin English, and many speak Standard Nigerian English as well. It’s a country with a large diaspora whose children soak in language from all over the world. As a reader I find that a lot of this linguistic energy makes its way into Nigerian writing, and when the writing turns to the fantastical, the result can be magic upon magic. I found this to be the case with Nnedi’s most recent novel, Who Fears Death. The sumptuous mélange of language captivated me, and inspired me to interview the author.

 

You are certainly a trendsetter in African literature. Have you had any indication that your style and genre of writing might be growing among Nigerian readers?

I hear from many Nigerians who have read Zahrah (especially since it’s the only one of my novels published in Nigeria). I even got an email from a young man who was born dada¹. He said that reading Zahrah the Windseeker “changed his life” (He’d always viewed being dada as a negative thing because that’s how his family viewed it).

Some of my essays on African SF and Fantasy also seemed to have sparked some general chatter about amongst Nigerians. Also, there is an anthology called Lagos 2060 that will be published by DADA book in 2011 (I’m supposed to help with the final selection process). It is a collection of science fiction short stories set in Lagos fifty years from now. I like to think that what I’ve been doing helped to inspire this anthology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In another interview, you wrote: “I didn’t feel like people from my own ethnic group being annoyed with me for not writing only about them or with any group saying “Well you got this little detail wrong, etc.” I hope you take my questions about how the realities of Nigeria informed your fantastical vision in the spirit of genuine curiosity, but more importantly, I’m wondering if you’ve had experiences of writing about Igbos and having critics focus wrongly on peccadilloes.

I take no offense at all. There are aspects of [my 2010 novel] Who Fears Death where it was VERY important that I got things right. It’s not “inaccurate” per se. It’s looking through a distorted mirror. And I want people to understand that. I want people to use their imaginations a bit while staying grounded in reality. This may sound contradictory but it is not.

 

Your description for the art of a true sorcerer, “bricoleur” really struck me as a perfect expression for the sort of magical practices common in Southern Nigeria. I’m curious if you remember how that characterization came to you.

I started writing Who Fears Death while I was in the throes of my PhD program. I was reading some literary theory (by Claude Lévi-Strauss) when I came across the term. My twisted mind shifted it to a magical concept. As you said, it just made sense.

 

I was struck by your use of the idea of twins as bringing luck to a town, which of course is the opposite of traditional attitudes in southeastern Nigeria (including among traditional Igbos) where twins were considered a curse.

I wanted to flip that traditional idea of twins being evil in Igbo culture. Plus in Yoruba culture, twins are a blessing. Plus the Yoruba have the highest instances of twins in the world². I was playing with many things when I brought twins into the story.

 

Several times you mention the characters playing a game of Warri, and considering the folks I’ve known from that town, I been imagining it as a bout of the dozens, with each participant trying to best each other with a “yo mama” joke. Clearly you meant to leave the actual game to the reader’s imagination, but I’m curious whether you imagine Warri as a game with props (i.e. as a card game) or otherwise (e.g. like charades or thumb-wrestling).

Warri is an actual game; it’s old and originated in Africa³. See here. It has many names. I purposely used the Caribbean name of it because I like to complicate things. ;-). And yes, to describe the game would have taken too much time. It’s one of many terms in the novel where I hoped the reader would google if she or he felt the need to.

 

 

 

Clearly the setting is outside current ethnic distributions but were you conscious of the ethnicities you ascribed to the names of characters? For example, while the names of most are not obviously Hausa/Fulani, they definitely have that sound, while the protagonist’s name, Onyesonwu, is such a clear bell of an Igbo name (the reason for which is hinted at in one particularly keen passage). I did also notice that the names of ancient and mysterious things often come from Igbo in your book (“enuigwe”, “mmuo”, “Ani”)

I took names from all over Africa, not just Nigeria. Sudanese, Tanzania, oh, I can’t even remember all the places I took from. When it came to the magical system in the novel, that was mostly Igbo, thus the names are Igbo.

 

 

This question is a grab bag. I love languages and words, and I love how you seem to have drawn so richly from sounds of words across Nigeria, and beyond. As you say in the interview I quoted earlier, “Still, the novel IS true to a LOT of real traditions, cultures, etc. I just combined a lot of them.” A few of the names and expressions you used struck me right away, and I’m curious if there are any thoughts behind them, or what impressions they made on you that led you to adapt them. “Banza” (Hausa for “bastard” and a classification of the Hausa City-States). “ewu” (Igbo for “goat”), “yeye” (Yoruba expression for “worthless”), “ogasse” (seems based on “oga,” the Pidgin for “sir”), “alusi” (Igbo deities), “ifunanya” (Igbo for “love,” along the lines of Greek “erotas”), “ta!” (as a harsh warning, deriving from Hausa), “kwenu” (iconic Igbo interjection used at meetings of the people). And any thoughts about Igbo words such as “ifunanya” and “kwenu” which are almost impossible to translate.

Wow, you caught them all! I’m impressed, but not surprised since it’s you. Yes, “banza” means “bastard”. That was on purpose. It is the town where one of the novel’s central characters gives birth to her children while she is unmarried. It is also a place where a culture has sprung up despite its origins.

When my sisters and I visited Nigeria as kids, in the village, the children there would call us “ewu”. We didn’t know what it meant but the way they said it, well, we knew it was an insult. To this day whenever I hear the word, it feels like a terrible word to me (mind you, I also have a fascination with goats…the eyes!). So when I was writing Who Fears Death, that naturally became the word used for children of rape like Onyesonwu. The sound of it (and personal baggage it carried for me) felt right.

“Yeye”, that was me being quietly obnoxious. “Yeye” can mean “worthless” or “useless”. These girls are having their clitorises cut off. It is treated like it is worthless. Plus, I like the sound of the word as opposed to “vagina” or some of the more vulgar terms.

“Ogasse” came from the Igbo term “Oga”. The Red People speak with a lot of S’s in their language, so this was an evolution of the term in their culture.

And the rest of the terms you’ve mentioned, your definitions are spot on. One man who studied Igbo told me that ifunanya is the closest word the Igbo language has to love but it is not a direct translation. There is no word for “ifunanya” in English. I took that idea and ran with it.

 

Do you find yourself hoping that readers such as me, who have the experience with the Nigerian soundscape to appreciate this rich use of languages pick up on it, or do you treat it as a bit of quiet-as-kept secret sauce for developing a rich, fantastical vocabulary in your writing.

Both. I very much hope that Nigerians (or those deeply familiar with Nigerian culture) will pick up on all of this. However, at the same time, for those who won’t, I just hope that it’ll add that African element to the genre of fantasy that is sorely needed. I’d love to see someone else to use my enhanced concept of “ifunanya” in his or her work.

 

I notice that in your use of Igbo, sometimes it’s more northern dialects, and sometimes southern. My hometown is southern Igbo, but my children tend to have northern Igbo names (which sometimes brings slight disapproval from other southern Igbos), because there seemed so much more richness from which to pull names. Any thoughts on how the different dialects of Igbo strike you?

People from different dialects are always teaching me Igbo. So I get it all mixed up. That’s a HUGE part of why it’s been so difficult for me to learn Igbo. All this comes out in my work. It may drive people nuts but a lot of things I do drive people nuts, so I’m not losing any hair over it.

 

You refer back to Zahrah with a reference to The Forbidden Greeny Jungle Field Guide, which I’ve always found one of your most fascinating inventions, and one which you tend to slip into many of your stories. Was it a particularly early and thus cherished idea of yours.

The field guide was indeed an early idea. It was inspired by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the fact that as a kid I had many fields guides that I loved.

The Greeny Jungle Field Guide is information. An infinite amount of information. It is very very sturdy. And it’s written in a voice that I enjoy slipping into. You’ll see it show up in more of my future works.

 

I laughed aloud when I read the bit where you referred to motor scooters in towns as “okada”. Nice touch. Did you know that slang for motorcycle taxis was taken from an old, no-frills commercial Nigerian airline that was popular in the 80s?

No. That’s some good information. I’d always wondered. I just know okada very well. My cousin almost died on one, I see people almost die on them all the time in Nigeria, the streets are flooded with them there, they annoy me, but they make sense (in a country that has been corrupted by oil, ironically fuel/gasoline can often be scarce. So an okada is logical…sort of). I had to throw that term into my novel. I hear they’ve been banned in Lagos. That’s interesting.

 

 

You sprinkled a few mentions to one of my favorite fantasy novels, Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, in your story. Any words on his work, and how it might have influenced you?

I didn’t find Tutuola until I was fairly established as a writer. However, when I did, I was delighted. This was early African fantasy (despite the controversy about his poor English and the fact that he was writing folktales). In Who Fears Death, Tutuola’s stories have become part of the religion/history. The Palm Wine Drinkard is part of the Great Book. I believe this is how religious narratives begin, with great stories.

 

In Who Fears Death the concept of the spirit world, as “wilderness” is key. It reminds me of Amos Tutuola’s bush of ghosts, or the world of the Abiku spirit in Helen Oyeyemi’s Icarus Girl. Clearly the idea of a spirit world that’s a thin veil over our own is a natural one to Nigerians. How has this idea crystallized in your consciousness?

Traditional Igbo belief insists that the spirit world rules the physical world, NOT the other way around. This makes much more sense to me. Who Fears Death is, in many ways, a reflection of my own spiritual beliefs.

 

How would you describe a masquerade to a foreigner? Would you focus on the physical show or on the mystical implications?

Both. But I’d start with the mystical aspect first because that is the base. The masquerade comes through the termite mounds into the physical world. Then it manifests as what we see.⁴

 

Have actual memories of experiences with masquerades inspired any of your stories?

Simple answer: Oh my goodness, YES!! I blogged about this here (“Never Unmask a Masquerade”).

 

I often tell people about the complexity of Igbo culture in its combination of empowerment of women with marginalization of women. How do you deal with this dichotomy in your profession and work?

I insist on being myself. I am strong-minded and independent. I do not draw my self-worth from a man (not to say I don’t like men…heh I think they’re great). I am creative. I am interested in the old Igbo ways. I am an agnostic. I am not a Christian. I respect my elders. I have a deep near irrational reverence for education. I don’t normally drink alcohol, but I’ll take a sip of palm wine. I’m comfortable around people who speak loudly. I can cook Nigerian dishes, but do NOT assume I will cook for you because you are a Nigerian man. I enjoy cooking. I am a mother, but even my daughter knows that I am equally a writer and a professor, too.

If you are familiar with Igbos, you would look at all I’ve just listed and understand that some of what I am is (culturally) VERY un-Igbo and some

of what I am is Igbo. So be it. It’s ok. Oh, and let me add that blood is blood. No matter what I do, I am an Igbo.

 

I have been very pleased at the number of great young Nigerian writers emerging internationally. What contemporary Nigerian writers do you enjoy?

All of them. There are many and they are all great. I’m not copping out at all. I’m serious. Whenever I need a book that I will like, many times it’s merely a matter of finding a Nigerian author. Atta, Adichie, Iweala, Abani, Habilon, Akpan, Azuah, Imasuen, Oyeyemi, the list is long.

 

Your books have gone from Zahrah, clearly in the young adult genre, to Shadow Speaker, a little less so, to Who Fears Death, clearly for the mature reader, and of course a children’s book, Long Juju Man in there as well. What drew you originally to YA, and what do you think encourages you to such diversity of age audience?

I love a good story. I’m not concerned with the category. I will read YA or adult as long as it’s a good story. The same goes for my writing. I write. If the main character happens to be young, so be it. If the main character is old, same response. I really don’t differentiate between the two. That is my publishers’ and book distributors’ job. 😉

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Black & white and color drawings of Arro-yo the windseeker by Ross Campbell.

Drawing of Nnedi Okorafor by Gbolahan Adams

Following footnotes by Uche Ogbuji.

¹ Dada, more casually a Yoruba name for curly-haired baby girls, is also a mystic tradition with echoes across southern Nigeria of babies born with natural dreadlocks. They are considered sacred messengers, and inviolate, but as you can imagine, that can have a somewhat alienating effect on a child. Some Nigerians, especially in post-colonial times have, as Nnedi mentions, have come to view dada children in a less positive light.

² There has been much speculation and even some scientific enquiry into whether the extraordinarily high twin rate in Southern Nigeria is caused by the staple diet of yams (proper yams, i.e. Dioscorea, and not sweet potatoes, which are strangely called yams in the US). The town with the highest incidence of twins in the world is Igbo-Ora (a Yoruba town, despite the name), near Lagos. See: “The Land Of Twins” or “Nigeria boasts world’s twin capital”.

³ As my question indicates, I was not aware of this name for a game with which I’m of course very familiar. I’ve always called it by its Igbo names, Okwe or Nchorokoto, or the Yoruba name, Ayo. Interesting to learn how far this game, which shares elements with Backgammon, and at least in Nigeria is traditionally considered an analogue of the cosmos, has spread beyond West Africa.

⁴ I also discuss masquerades, and include a few videos, in “50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 3.”

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards.

To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

17 responses to “Fantastical Language: An Interview with Nnedi Okorafor”

  1. Uche Ogbuji says:

    This interview was actually conducted a few months ago, but both Nnedi and I have been juggling many things that delayed putting on the final touches, she more so than I. Her books have received many more accolades in the past few months, an eventful period for a truly deserving author. Here is a sampling of the news.

    Who Fears Death is a Publishers Weekly “Best Book of the Year”.

    Who Fears Death is on Amazon list: Top Ten Books of 2010 in SF/Fantasy.

    Who Fears Death is listed in Ms. Magazine’s 10 Must-Read books in feminist young-adult fiction.

    Who Fears Death is nominated by RT Book Reviews in the category of “Science Fiction”.

    Who Fears Death is listed in School Libraray Journal’s Best of “2010 Adult Books 4 Teens”.

    Who Fears Death was one of two finalists for Best Fiction at the Black Excellence Awards (DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago).

    Nnedi’s next book, Akata Witch is scheduled for April 2011 release.

  2. Like many of the people who will probably read this, my exposure to Nigerian literature is limited to Chinua Achebe, and even then only Things Fall Apart. Thanks for opening my mind.

    Emoticons in interviews? Awesome.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Uche,
    I have an appointment, but I’ll be back.
    I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring you.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    This is exhausting.
    I looked up your authors and it turns out I already read and loved Icarus Girl.
    I was able to get Who Fears Death on Kindle and also White is for Witching.
    I couldn’t get Zarah the Windseeker or the other one on kindle.
    I’ve only read partway through the first paragraph and you’ve already cost me money and I’m sure to get in trouble for it!

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Doggone it, Uche!
    Now I have to make a list, because I simply can’t buy a single other book!
    You are a bad, bad influence on my book addiction!

  6. Zara Potts says:

    Every thing I read of yours, Uche, opens my mind a little more and gives me a little more knowledge about the world.
    Thank you. It is a joy to learn.

  7. She sounds like a fascinating author and her strong voice comes through in her responses as well as the “linguistic energy” you describe, which the two of you both display in this interview. In the question on language and words, I love the descriptions of how she folds languages together and uses words that have no translation. Perhaps, it’s the not having a word that lends more magic to an idea, something I’m anxious to see how she explores.

    Thank you, Uche, for showcasing her writing and doing so with such passion. Looking forward to reading her books.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yes. I’ve often said that “X word is untranslatable” is a too-oft trotted out formula, and is often a deceptive and falsely important thing to say. It’s never the lack of exact correspondence from one language to another that’s important, but rather what we do with these perceived gaps, and how they fire our imaginations to diffract through them (sorry, can’t resist the analogy from physics).

      It was precisely what Nnedi did with such word phenomena that caught my attention. She used the word “ifunanya” as an embroidered frame around the relationship of two key characters. It became not just an inert magic word as you might find in Rowling (note: I’m a Harry potter fan, and I especially love the linguistic play of its magic lexicon).

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    Aha! Levi-Strauss. It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name invoked…

    I’m sorry to say I’ve had absolutely no exposure to any Nigerian literature that I know of. Thanks for introducing me to an interesting new field of potential, Uche – I’ll be sure to take Nnedi Okorafor as my starting point!

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      It’s my pleasure. If you want the pure joy of an adventure story, I suggest Zahrah as a good place to start. If you’re looking to take that story-telling while stretched on a rack of harsh circumstance, I’d suggest Who Fears Death.

  9. Erika Rae says:

    I will definitely add this to my list. You recommended Oyeyemi to me a couple of years ago, and I was not disappointed. And, of course, I was a fan of Achebe long before I met you. It’s a limited exposure for sure – but there is something to be said for the Nigerian author. I’m excited to add another Uche recommendation to my list. ( :

  10. […] you read my interview with Nnedi here on TNB you’ll know just how richly she stirs in language as pepper in the stew. She embroiders all corners […]

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