Interview with Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death?
This interview is being included in the 2013 Women in Horror Interview Series. Every February, Women in Horror Recognition Month (WiHM) assists underrepresented female genre artists in gaining opportunities, exposure, and education through altruistic events, printed material, articles, interviews, and online support. You can find out more about WiHM here:
Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. She holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Chicago State University. She resides in the suburbs of Chicago with her daughter Anyaugo.
Though American-born, Nnedi’s muse is Nigeria. Her parents began taking her and her siblings to visit relatives there when she was very young. Because Nigeria is her muse, this is where many of her stories take place, either literally or figuratively.
Because she grew up wanting to be an entomologist and even after becoming a writer maintained that love of insects and nature, her work is always filled with startlingly vivid flora and fauna.
And because Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are her greatest influences, her work tends to be…on the creative side.
Who Fears Death (DAW Books), is a magical realist novel that evenly combines the African literature and fantasy/science fiction. It won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was a Nebula and Locus Award nominee. The Washington Post said that Who Fears Death is , “Both wondrously magical and terribly realistic.”
In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue. Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.
Q. First of all, I want to thank you for being a part of the “Women in Horror Month” interview series. Did you know that there was such as thing as Women in Horror Month?
A. Thanks for including me. Did I know there was such a thing? No, but I don’t know everything, so that’s no big deal.
Q. The Lansing City Pulse’s review of “Who Fears Death?” said that your “writing style and dark thematic approach are comparable to horror master Stephen King.” But aside from your admittedly being a fan of his, you have also written “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes”. How do you feel about the Pulse’s comparison to him?
A. I’m delighted by the comparison. It fits. I’m not just a fan of King’s, I learned a LOT about how to tell a story from him. As for the Magical Negro issue, no one’s perfect and a student can certainly point out her professor’s shortcomings without losing respect for her professor.
Q. Do you think that if more black voices are reflected in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres where the Magical Negro trope is most prevalent, that we can get away from that archetype?
A. Yes. Truth, authentic, sincere diversity is the solution to almost all problems of race in storytelling.
Q. Can you tell our readers about the paranormal themes in the story “Who Fears Death?”, and what impact they have on your overall story?
A. The mystical elements in Who Fears Death are rooted in reality. There are elements in Who Fears Death that Westerners will read as fantasy, which are actually ideas, tenets, and creatures that people from other parts of the world and from other cultures believe in. I, myself, believe in many of them. Most of these things are African, much of them specifically from Nigeria. And though I may embellish or add to many of these things, I would not mess around with; I treat them with respect.
I hope that as my readers go on the journey with/as my characters, that they sense the realness and are affected by it. I hope that readers walk away from Who Fears Death as changed as my characters.
Q. What can you tell us about the “Who Fears Death?” movie?
A. It’s still very much in the beginning phase. We are still working on how to translate the novel into a film. It’s not an easy task because the book is so full of story. In due time.
Q. Many of your stories take place in Nigeria, and like “The Awakening” include Nigerian myth as well as culture. Do you think that your connection to Nigeria gives you a unique voice in genre fiction?
A. Yes. I don’t see it as a “connection”. I’m Nigerian, I’m Igbo. It’s part of me and it comes through in my writing. At the same time, I’m American and I’ve grown up reading Western genres of writing. Thus when I write, this hybrid thing is the result. I draw stories from Africa, especially Nigeria, but the way I write them takes from both African and Western traditions. All this combined with my own personal way of seeing, thinking, feeling makes for the flavor tales I write.
Q. “Amphibious Green” and received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy, and you one the McMillan award of Africa for “Long Juju Man”, a story about a girl’s encounters with an irritating crafty ghost. These are just some of the reasons I included you in the list “20 Black Women in Horror Fiction” even though you are usually not called a horror writer. What do you think about being associated with the genre?
A. Oh my goodness, I wrote Amphibious Green a looooooong time ago. That was the first short story I wrote that won an award, so it’s special to me. I actually thought that you might have read the first and only horror story I wrote called “On the Road”. It was published in Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction and Fantasy .I’ve always felt that this was one of my best stories. Also, some have said that Who Fears Death had many elements of horror in it.
How do I feel about being associated with the genre of horror? Absolutely tickled. I grew up reading a LOT of horror. I loved it as a young adult and teen. I used to go see all the horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker, Poltergeist, etc. My favorite authors were Clive Barker, Stephan King and Robert McCammon. I learned to love storytelling through horror. I think I’d make a great horror writer if I weren’t such a scaredy cat (or maybe BECAUSE I am a scaredy cat). The older I get, the less I can tolerate horror novels and watch horror movies without getting ridiculously terrified. I’m a busy woman, so staying up all night because I’m afraid of what’s under my bed is no longer a good option. When I wrote “On the Road”, I scared the heck out of myself. For weeks, I couldn’t go near roads at night because I was afraid of…the road monster I’d written in that story. Can you imagine what writing a full horror novel would do to me?
Where to Find Nnedi Online:
~ by Sumiko Saulson on March 3, 2013.
Posted in Interviews, WiHM 2013
Tags: Author, Fantasy, fiction, Horror, Igbo, Interview, magical realist, Nigerian, Nnedi Okorafor, novel, science fiction, Stephen King, Who Fears Death?, WiHM, WiHM 2013, women in fiction, Women in Horror Month, Women in Horror Month 2013, Women in Science Fiction, Women of Color