Thursday, June 3, 2010
Nnedi Okorafor on Who Fears Death, writing and culture
I read a few books a year that do way more than entertain or educate - they touch my soul. Nnedi Okorafor has written such a book with Who Fears Death. Nnedi has a unique perspective and a wonderful imagination. Please visit her website and read my review of Who Fears Death (at Mostly Fiction) after getting to know her better here. Some of my readers already had a chance to get to know her at Wiscon where she was the writer guest of honor. The picture at the right was taken there.
AW: Who inspired you to get serious about writing professionally?
NO: In the beginning, I never really had anyone push me to write. It was just something I had this very, very strong urge to do (once I started doing it...I started when I was 20).
In terms of getting published, no one really. It was a gradual realization. I was writing for many years with no intention of getting published. I wrote several novels and just kept going. Then at some point someone must have mentioned the idea of publishing. But most of it came from within, some unknown force.
AW: You knew what you were called to do. Some people never figure that out.
NO: Hey, it took me being paralyzed to figure out that I liked writing, so I'm not much better.
AW: Do tell.
NO: I played semi-pro tennis when I was a kid. At thirteen, I was diagnosed with scoliosis (the curvature of the spine). To this day, my mom thinks it was the tennis that caused me to have it so badly. My game was dominated by one side of my body, my right arm...I had a killer forehand and a killer serve...and I was fast enough where I could run around my backhand to kill with my forehand. I was really, really good. I'd been playing since I was nine. Then I did track, too. I was a track star, blah, blah.
At nineteen, my scoliosis was so bad that my doc said I needed spinal surgery or risk a short life. There was a one percent chance of paralysis, not a bad risk. Many athletes have a spinal fusion.
Well, I woke up paralyzed. It took that whole summer for me to learn to walk again. But when I was forced to finally stop moving (I was very, very active before the surgery), I turned inward and started seeing stories. I started writing, and the next semester I took a creative writing class. I realized I loved writing and I was good at it.
AW: You beautifully balance tragedy and triumph to pull at the heart strings. Is this something you consciously consider as you're writing?
NO: I'm an intuitive writer. I do have outlines, but I'll tell you, eighty percent of the time, I don't know where the soul of the story comes from. I'll look back at it and marvel. Or I'll write something, and as I'm writing, I'll surprise myself. I can't always control my characters and their stories. Yet somehow, it all comes together.
AW:Your novel, Who Fears Death, is set in an alternate Africa. What sort of freedom does this afford you in your writing?
NO: It kept me from having to adhere to all the specific traditions (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) and it allowed me to address issues that are happening in various parts of Africa. Still, the novel IS true to a LOT of real traditions, cultures, etc. I just combined a lot of them.
AW: What sort of changes have you seen when going back for visits to Nigeria?
NO: Well, it's tricky because as I get older, I see and understand more. So, it's hard to say if these are changes, or just things I'm coming to understand more. When I was a kid, things seemed rosier. I feel like these days when I'm there I have to watch my back a lot more.
AW: What year is Who Fears Death set in? Is it meant to be now?
NO: No exact year. It's in the distant future, after things have happened and after cultures have begun to mix and things have been forgotten, but remembered. But not so distant that certain tech no longer works.
AW: The first creature that your protagonist, Onye, turns into is a vulture. Why did you choose a vulture?
NO: Because they eat carrion and people view them as hideous and evil...but someone has to rid us of carrion.
In addition, vultures are awkward on the ground but graceful in the air. They are beauty and ugliness, like Onyesonwu. Plus, I'm fascinated by them. When I see them in Nigeria, I just sense a presence with them. They are unafraid. And when they take off, they make no sound. I can go on and on. Those birds are tough as nails. What a stomach!
AW: My hubby has a thing for crows. I hate them for their cawing.
NO: Oh I love crows, too. Smart and vengeful creatures. Their cawing is so creepy, too.
AW: I LOVED the Red People's mode of transport. Is that in African mythology?
NO: Wasn't that cool? I have no idea where that came from. My mother used to live in the north and she always spoke about playing in small dust devils. That stayed with me.
AW: I also loved that you included a good stepparent.
NO: Now that was intentional. I needed to show that. And he truly, deeply loved her like any biological father. We need to see more of that. In young adult novels, too. Family has always been complex. Western society imposes this impossible structure on the family that causes everyone to freak out.
AW: How do you mean?
NO: Well, for example, sometimes relationships split up, right? And sometimes there is a stepmom or stepdad. But Western society says that only a "real parent" can raise a child or should have that spot in a child's life. Why can't a grandparent play a role? Why can't one's aunt play a parenting role if that's how things work out? Or if a child happens to listen to that aunt more than the mother? I just think family needs to be more fluid, to vary according to the specific individuals involved. And it should be about love.
AW: Your Red People reflect all of those sentiments beautifully. What are you working on now?
NO: I'm going to start editing Akata Witch (my YA novel due out next year) and my Disney fairy chapter book. And I'm also kicking a little something new around, in terms of my adult work....yeah, that one's heavy on my mind.
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