My guest today is Nnedi Okorafor, award-winning novelist and author of numerous award-winning short stories, plays, magazine articles, and essays. Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. An illustrated version was published in Nigeria in 2008 by Kachifo Ltd. The novel takes place in a highly technological world based on Nigerian myths and culture. Nnedi’s other novels include The Shadow Speaker (Hyperion Books, 2007), Long Juju Man (Macmillan UK, 2008), Who Fears Death (DAW Books, June 2010), and Akata Witch (Penguin, 2011).
To learn more about Nnedi and her work, visit her web site at http://nnedi.com.
Welcome to It Happened in Chicago, Nnedi!
Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.
NNEDI: Well, I’ve lived in the area since I was about seven. First, my family and I lived in the south suburb of South Holland. In the 80s, this area had a serious racial problem. My family was one of the first black families to move into this neighborhood. The white residents didn’t take well to this. Let’s just say my siblings and I were lucky to be born fast runners…I’ll leave it at that. When I was about twelve, we moved to the south suburb of Olympia Fields. I currently still live there.
Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
NNEDI: I didn’t write a story until I was a sophomore in college at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana. Before that I always thought I’d be a veterinarian or an entomologist. I loved the sciences and excelled in math; I never showed any great propensity for English or literature. The only hint was that from the moment I could read, I LOVED doing it. I spent a lot of time in the library and I consumed books like candy; science books or fiction, it was all delicious. I also had a very very big imagination. As a kid, I had my entire first grade class believing they were shape shifters. I believed that just beyond the playground was another world full of dragons, horses and sentient rabbits. I remember during art class in 2nd grade creating a giant butterfly out of construction paper and then being terribly upset when it did not fly. Stuff like that.
When I was twelve, I started reading Stephen King. The first novel I read was It. That opened the world of storytelling to me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I came from very scientific medical immigrant parents. My father was a cardiovascular surgeon, my mother a registered nurse and midwife with a PhD in health administration. They weren’t wired to push an imaginative daughter toward the arts. So, only after taking a creative writing course in my sophomore year in college (which my boyfriend at the time had encouraged me to take) did I realize that I had a knack for and an interest in telling stories. From that point on, I never stopped writing.
Q: Please describe one of your earliest works (go back as far as you can remember). Who or what inspired you to create it?
NNEDI: I vaguely remember trying to write a story when I was about six. It was called Donald Duck and the Sand |Witch. It was about Donald Duck making friends with a witch on an island that looked like a…sandwich. OMG, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this. LOL!! I have no idea why I wrote it and I never wrote another story until I was 20 years old.
The first story I wrote in that creative writing class was called The House of Deformities. It was a story set in Nigeria and involved pink ducklings, bull dog puppies, an ancient old woman with a cleaver, looming vultures, fly-riddled raw meat, and a very ominous outhouse -- yes, it was a true story (I was about 8 when we stopped at this mysterious roadside restaurant in Nigeria)….except for the black hole to hell in the outhouse floor. It really was a pretty good story. :-)
Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?
NNEDI: My professor at U of I, Professor Jean Thompson (also a great author) was pivotal in my early days as a writer. She was the first person to pull me aside and say that I was good and should keep going.
Q: I understand that many of your stories take place, either literally or figuratively, in Nigeria. Can you tell us a little about your “Nigerian connection”?
NNEDI: Both my parents were born and raised in Nigeria and from a young age they have been taking my siblings and me back to Nigeria to get to know family. So along with my American experience, I had a sort of parallel Nigerian experience. My parents were the type of immigrants who wanted to become American AND remain Nigerian, and they passed that on to my siblings and me. Thus we are both American and Nigerian citizens, make sure we visit often and have ingested both cultures in our own unique ways.
Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing Zahrah the Windseeker? What was one of the most difficult?
NNEDI: Of all the books I’ve written, Zahrah the Windseeker was the easiest. It came to me whole, from beginning to end. I knew the story immediately. The most difficult part was paring it down. There were so many tangents that I wanted to go on. I loved the world of the story and I loved the field guide. I actually had to take out several scenes for this reason. Like the Bush Cow Party Zahrah witnesses one night while in the jungle -- did you know those thieving little bush cows can play drums? :-). I’ve since returned to Zahrah’s world. I wrote a short story called From The Lost Diary of Treefrog7 that is about two of the explorers who contribute to the book that Zahrah uses to navigate the Greeny Forest. I’m also working on a Zahrah the Windseeker graphic novel with illustrator John Jennings.
Q: Of the characters mentioned in your novels, please tell us about one you would like to meet and why.
NNEDI: Papa Grip/The Desert Magician/Long Juju Man/Aro…each of these characters is actually the same guy…or creature…or deity, whoever he is, they are all him. In Zahrah the Windseeker, he is Papa Grip the quirky town chief who wears hot pink caftans, loves to dance and gives Zahrah poignant words of wisdom. In Long Juju Man, he is a tricky annoying trickster ghost who eats rotten mangoes, smells like pepper, is fond of butterflies and teaches Ngoli bits of wisdom. In The Shadow Speaker, he is a deity of the crossroads who proclaims himself “Jesus’ General!” and shoves Ejii toward her destiny. In my forthcoming adult novel, he’s a very traditional rigid-minded but very powerful sorcerer who can change into a vulture.
I know this character, in all his forms. He insists on appearing in all my stories; it doesn’t matter if it’s a central role or a cameo appearance. He must be present. I’d love to sit down to dinner with him (I imagine he’d want to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant…somewhere where he could eat with his hands. He’d order something spicy with beef or goat meat) so I could ask him who he is, what he wants with me, how to make Nigeria’s roads safer and what the question to Life the Universe and Everything is, since the answer is apparently 42. ;-).
Q. What would you like us to know about your current work/s in progress?
NNEDI: I have an adult novel coming out in June titled Who Fears Death (DAW Books). It’s, I guess, what you’d call African magical realism or as my editor likes to call it, African magical futurism. It is linked to my previous novels but in a way you won’t expect. I’m very very proud of this one.
Then I have a YA novel from Penguin Books coming out sometime in 2011 titled Akata Witch. This is a fantasy novel set in present-day Nigeria and involves some utterly insane Nigerian juju and mystical creatures. Sunny, the main character, was born in the United States to two Nigerian parents. When she is nine, she moves back with her family to Nigeria. Oh, and to add to the cultural complexity, Sunny is albino. “Akata” is a derogatory term for African Americans or foreign born-Nigerians, it means “bush animal”. It’s a name Sunny is called quite a lot by her classmates. In other words, the book is also about culture conflict and otherness. But it’s also about a girl who becomes a witch.
I’ve also got a YA short story coming out in an anthology called Life on Mars (Penguin Books). It’s my first alien story. It’s set in the desert of Niger and my alien has a special relationship with Nigerians. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on a graphic novel version of Zahrah the Windseeker which will be different from the novel. It’ll show more angles to the story and we’re going to have some fun with the visual aspects of it. Lastly, I’m working on a Disney Fairies chapter book. The character mine will focus on is Iridessa, the light-talent fairy. The tentative title is Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog. That’s supposed to come out later this year or in 2011.
Q: Anything else you'd like to share?
NNEDI: That’s about it. Thanks for interviewing me. :-)