Originally from Nigeria, author Nnedimma (Nnedi) Okorafor, returns frequently; In her books she often brings her readers along the journey. Nnedi writes science fiction and fantasy novels, often exploring the hero’s experience from a young female’s perspective. Everything comes to life in her work–the trees, creatures and even the ground are animated in her stories.
In this interview, Nnedi shares her thoughts on how Nigeria influences her work, explains her thoughts on the business of writing, offers advice to aspiring authors, and shares what living unchained means to her.
You say Nigeria is your muse. How does Nigeria inspire you?
It’s not something I can really put words to. My parents have been taking me to Nigeria since I was a kid. It’s where some of the funniest, craziest, weirdest, scariest, happiest moments of my life have taken place. It’s where most of my relatives are. It’s where I’ve seen the coolest creatures.
It’s the place of the stories my parents and oldest relatives have told me. And I can’t name any books that contain the stories about Nigeria that reflect the ones in my head. That particular part of the earth speaks to me.
Congratulations on winning the Wole Soyinka Prize! What did the award mean to you?
Thank you. The Soyinka Prize means a LOT and always will. As I’ve said before, it was like receiving a big hug from Nigeria. It acknowledged me as a writer there. Nigeria was the first place to really truly deeply honor my work, to claim me. I was flown there, celebrated, treated like a queen- all because of something I wrote!
Recognition is such a small part of a writer’s life; you spend most of your time in solitude creating but also often questioning what you do.
The experience of the Soyinka Prize was so moving. I didn’t realize how much I needed that until it happened.
What are some of the themes you like to explore in your writing? Why are you drawn to those themes?
I like to explore the hero’s journey as experienced by girls. How does it differ for them? How is it the same? Gender and cultural issues also bubble up in my work because they are what I struggle with all the time. I grapple with issues in my own stories.
My characters, I also realize, are often outcast or different or deformed in some way. And they almost always eventually learn to navigate life as who they are, as opposed to changing themselves. Again, this is a reflection of my own experiences. I also like to write about Africa in the present day and in the future.
And then there is setting; in most of my work, the creatures, the trees, the plants, the land are characters.
Have you ever felt you had an inner critic that stalled your writing? How did you deal with her?
No. I don’t get stalled. I’m not afraid to write something that sucks or isn’t working. I just plow through it and eventually arrive at the good stuff. Or I scrap it and start again.
Half the time I’ll finish something and then wonder where it all came from. Who Fears Death is very much like that. It’s like someone else wrote it and that someone was a little scary, spoke in short sentences and had a lot to say.
How do you deal with the business and technical aspects of being a professional writer (i.e. publishing and promoting yourself)?
Ugh. It’s the part that I like the least. I deal with it because I have to.
When I’m writing, I don’t think about categories or what people will think. I deal with that when it’s done. Public speaking stresses me out, though I guess I’m not so bad at it. I do enjoy meeting and talking to people about writing but eventually I always want to sneak off to the solitude of my computer and write.
But it’s a reality; you have to promote your work.
Do you think there are any particular challenges facing women writers in the field? Any challenges you faced as a woman of African descent? If so, how did you (do you) handle them?
As a woman in general, it hasn’t been too bad. There are plenty of women in the publishing industry and there are plenty of woman readers. Also men and boys seem to enjoy my work. The first fan letter I ever received was from an Indian-American teenager. He absolutely loved my first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker.
In the science fiction genre, there are far fewer woman writers. The genre is known for being very white and very male. Nevertheless, I’ve found editors in this genre very open to my work. They’ve actually been encouraging me to write more science fiction–I tend to lean toward fantasy.
As an African woman, I’ve had to deal with a certain sort of, how do I say it, subtle animosity from some African men–let me stress some. Many African men have been lovingly supportive. These men will talk down to you and some have tried to discredit my writing–until they realize I also have a PhD in literature, that usually kills that thread of grumbling. Nothing I haven’t been raised to deal with.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
a. Writers write, they don’t talk about writing.
b. Take your time; don’t run out and try to publish the 1st, 2nd, 9th thing you write. Hone your craft for a while.
c. Listen to readers. Don’t always listen to readers.
d. Follow your own path. And be confident not arrogant.
e. Don’t edit until you have reached the end.
Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?
It means that you’re going to feel pretty alone because most people find wearing their “chains” quite fashionable.
And it means you’ll have the chance to create something new.
Anything else you want to share?
My first adult novel, Who Fears Death (from DAW Books) is scheduled for release in June 2010. The novel’s main character, Onyesonwu (“Onyesonwu” means “Who fears death?” in the Igbo language), spoke through me and I wrote down her story. It’s a harrowing tale but it’s an important one, too. I like to describe it as a Nnedi-esk mix of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, haunted by Stephan King’s Dark Tower. If there is any book that can be described as “unchained,” it’s this one. You can learn more about the book here.