Interview with Nuzo Onoh, author of Unhallowed Graves
Nuzo Onoh is a British Writer of African descent. Born in Enugu, the Eastern part of Nigeria, formerly known as The Republic of Biafra, Nuzo lived through the Civil war between Nigeria and Biafra, an experience that left a strong impact on her and continues to influence her writing.
She attended Queen’s School Enugu before proceeding to the Quaker boarding school, The Mount School, York, England and finally, St Andrew’s Tutorial College, Cambridge, from where she obtained her A’ levels. Nuzo holds both a law degree and a Masters degree in Writing from The University of Warwick, England. She has two daughters and lives in Coventry, from where she runs her own publishing company, Canaan-Star Publishing.
Now recognised as the front-runner of African Horror, Nuzo is the author of The Reluctant Dead, a collection of African ghost stories. Her latest book, Unhallowed Graves, will be published on 28th June, 2015 and is now available for pre-orders from Amazon.
“Night Market – Oja-ale” narrates the terror of Oja-ale, the night market run by the dead. Everything can be bought for a deadly price in Oja-ale. Alan Pearson is a sceptical British diplomat, contemptuous and dismissive of native superstitions…. Until the day he receives a terrifying purchase from the Night Market, which defies Western science and logic. And Alan must finally confront the chilling truth of Oja-ale.
“The Unclean” follows the tragedy of a grieving mother forced to take some deadly actions when her dead child returns to haunt her with terrifying consequences.
“Our Bones Shall Rise Again” is inspired by the 1803 tragedy of Igbo-Landing in Georgia USA. The ghost of a drowned slave is resurrected from his watery grave to exact revenge on the family that betrayed him and sold him into slavery, with tragic consequences.
Q. Your second book “Unhallowed Graves” tells three different tales of angry ghosts buried in cursed grounds. What inspired you to write these stories?
A. Several factors inspired the three long stories that make up the collection in Unhallowed Graves. The first story, The Unclean, was inspired by a personal tragedy which brought up the archaic burial traditions of my people, turning what was a terrible loss into a harrowing trauma that ended with exhumation and an unmarked grave. A few years later, I heard that a good family friend had been forced to drink the corpse-water used in washing her husband’s dead body. The woman was also made to spend three nights in the forest with her husband’s corpse to prove she had no hand in his demise. These two incidents inspired me to write about The Unclean, where my protagonist is haunted by her dead child buried in accursed grounds.
The second story, Night Market, was inspired by a story told me by a good friend and is the first story I have written with a white protagonist. It narrates the story of a night market run by the dead, where everything can be purchased for a deadly price.
The final story, Our Bones Shall Rise Again, which is my favourite story, was inspired by the tragedy of Igbo Landing. Amidst the marshes of Dumber Creek in St Simon’s Island, Georgia, USA, lies a site known as Igbo Landing. On that site in May, 1803, a group of enslaved Igbos opted for mass suicide by drowning rather than be taken into slavery. The slaves had been captured in West Africa and during the voyage, the Igbo slaves rose up in rebellion, taking control of the ship and drowning their captors. The Morovia ran aground in Dunbar Creek. The Igbos, upon assessing their situation, resolved to walk home over the water rather than submit to the living death of slavery. They walked into Dunbar Creek in a collective act of deliberate suicide. It is said that as they took this fatal march, the slaves chanted that the water spirits brought them to the Island and will take them home again. This story of resistance towards slavery has formed part of African-American folklore and the site has become a popular tourist destination today. It is believed that their ghosts still haunt the beaches, with the sound of slave chains still reverberating at Dunbar Creek where the incident happened in the wee hours of the morning. There are also reports of eerie sounds and shadows in the marshes at Igbo Landing. Legend has it that the voices of the dead slaves at Igbo Landing still cry out from those foreign waters, demanding to come home to Igbo-land.
My story, “Our Bone Shall Rise Again”, is a work of fiction which merges history with lore, hauntings and possessions, superstitions and mystical occultisms, giving me an opportunity to return their restless spirits back to Igbo-land and give them their long-sought revenge in the process. In fact, I dedicated my book, Unhallowed Graves, to those brave and tragic Igbo souls of Igbo Landing.
Q. How do these stories connect with the ghost stories in your first work, “The Reluctant Dead?”
A. The Reluctant Dead was all about hauntings by ghosts with unfinished business. The stories showcased some of the different kinds of death in Igbo culture, such as untimely death, sudden death, accursed death, tragic death and bad death. There was an element of revenge in the six stories in the collection. In contrast, the three long stories in Unhallowed Graves, focus on hauntings by a particular type of ghost – those buried in accursed or unhallowed grounds. In Igbo custom, especially in the rural villages, certain corpses were deemed unfit to be buried in consecrated grounds or amongst the rest of the family in a communal compound. These were bodies of people whose deaths were viewed as unclean, accursed or bad, such as lightening victims, suicides, executed criminals, mothers that died in childbirth etc. Other categories included dwarves, albinos, children born with “unnatural” defects such as a set of teeth, extra fingers/toes and children that died before their parents, especially, born-to-die children, where a child keeps returning to the same family to torment the family by dying young in each reincarnation. All these bodies were cast into the bad forest with nothing to mark their graves. Unhallowed Graves therefore tells three different stories of hauntings by people buried in accursed grounds. Naturally, one would assume that such ghosts would be bitter and out for revenge. Thus, just as in The Reluctant Dead, the three stories of Unhallowed Graves are about unfinished business but most especially, revenge by angry spirits from accursed graves.
Q. You call the genre African Horror – how does it differ from other works in the horror genre?
A. I think I discussed this issue in one of my earlier interviews. African Horror is a cesspool of terrifying supernatural entities and superstitions, which very few cultures can rival in their sheer volume and malevolence. Africa is a culture that accepts the supernatural as a normal part of everyday living. So for instance, here in the West, if a person dies, there can be only two main causes of death, natural causes or unnatural /unexplained causes, usually murder or manslaughter. But rarely are the deaths attributed to supernatural causes. But in African culture, in particular the Igbo culture about which I write, no death is simply natural unless it is an old person who has fulfilled all social and cultural obligations. Otherwise, every death is viewed as suspicious, an act of the ancestors, gods, bad karma, ghosts, witchcraft, night-flyers, mami-water, juju and a host of other supernatural causes. The type of death and the kind of burial will generally determine the type of ghost that manifests, the level of malevolence exhibited and the degree of intervention required by powerful witchdoctors or Pentecostal prayer warriors. Consequently, African ghosts always have some unfathomable agenda and that is what I think makes the horror more unsettling and chilling than mainstream horror. And just like the Japanese Kaidan horror, African Horror is geographically specific and showcases the culture, beliefs, traditions and practices of the people (in my case, the Igbo tribe in the main) within a haunting context.
Q. Who are some other authors who write in the genre?
A. I’m sure there are some African writers of horror stories, albeit, their stories are not always set in Africa. Writers such as Akua Lezli Hopes and Nnedi Okorafor who are of African descent write more on Fantasy than pure African horror with our mish-mash of cultures, superstitions and dark practices. Ben Okri is another brilliant writer in the genre. But my all-time hero and the person that inspired in me the love for the genre, remains the great Amos Tutuola, whose books, The Palm-wine drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts have become modern African classics. I’m hoping to see more African female writers in future.
Q. Tell us about your choice to set the stories in pre-Colonial, Colonial and Modern Africa. In what ways do you think the supernatural tie these three periods together, in the stories themselves, and in real life?
A. Yes, I decided to set my stories in various significant periods of Nigerian history. The story, Our Bones Shall Rise Again, is set in pre-colonial times when the slave trade was at its notorious peak. At that time, Christianity was yet to have an impact on the traditions and beliefs of the Igbo people of Nigeria. Divinity, ancestral veneration, occultisms and a belief in reincarnation was the norm. Thus, my protagonist, Oba, the greatest medicine-man in the twelve villages and beyond, had an unshakable faith in the powers of the ancestors and deities, a belief that convinced him to lead his clansmen in a collective act of mass suicide by drowning rather than be taken into slavery. The deities had promised him a future resurrection to exact vengeance on the wife that betrayed him and sent him into his unhallowed grave underneath the murky waters of the unknown sea. The second story, The Unclean, is set in colonial Nigeria when Queen Elizabeth 11 “owned our lands and our calendars”. By that time, the impact of Christianity was very powerful on Igbo society. My protagonist, Desee, was a devout catholic and an ex-pupil of Irish Nuns. Yet, when her dead son started haunting her, she resorted to the long-held practice of occultism and divinity. The final story, Night Market, is set in modern-day Nigeria, right inside the vibrant city of Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. The characters are not of the Igbo tribe, as in my other stories. Yet, we see a similar belief in the supernatural and a strong faith in occultism, similar in both the Yoruba and Igbo tribes of Nigeria.
I have tried to show that despite the impact of western civilization, Africans still cling to their old beliefs, customs and practices. While education, religion and globalization may have diluted these beliefs in some areas, deep down, most Africans believe in the existence of some supernatural forces, entities, deities and gods. Ancestor veneration and worship as well as a belief in reincarnation is still a strong force. While some people may not actively practice the customs, deep down, most Africans, regardless of education or status, believe in something not quite of the visible world. As the saying goes, you can’t be a real African unless you believe in something…anything… supernatural.
Q. Tell us about the Night Market
A. Night Market is different from my other stories because for the first time, my protagonist is white. I first heard about the urban legend of a night market forbidden to the living from a good friend who was a white man living in Nigeria at the time. He told me he’d heard about it from a highly educated and influential Nigerian, who advised him to steer clear of the market. My friend was of course sceptical of the lore and his scepticism bred in me a desire to shatter his safe beliefs. As everyone knows, we writers are word-magpies and I saw the possibilities of a good ghost story in my friend’s narrative. My friend also suggested that I include a white person in my stories for a change. We felt the impact would be stronger when his western beliefs are shattered by the mysterious realities of African occultism. So Night Market was born; a dark and silent market run by the dead, where everything and anything can be bought for a deadly, non-negotiable price.
Q. Are you working on any other stories and books we might hear about in the future?
A. Yes, right now, I’m working on my next African Horror collection with the working title of The Sleepless, due out next year, on the same date I release all my horror works, 28th June. There is a belief that children and babies are innocent, helpless and vulnerable. But what happens when their innocent sleep is murdered; when they are abused by adults; when their corpses are dishonoured by the grown-ups; when the soil sours their souls and they return to exact revenge on the living? Using African superstitions about restless infant ghosts, I hope to disabuse the notion that children are helpless and in the process, bring to my readers some terrifying tales of revenge by angry ghosts of infants, mostly, victims of adult cruelty.
Q. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
A. Only to say a massive thanks to all the readers that supported my first book, The Reluctant Dead, with tweets, reviews, emails and purchases. Their support inspired me to continue in the genre and I would appreciate more reviews and tweets for Unhallowed Graves. For anyone interested in finding out 10 top things they didn’t know about African Horror, please visit http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/nuzo-onoh-unhallowed-graves-817451.html and read all about it. Finally, please get your copy of Unhallowed Graves today from Amazon.com. And please make the 28th of June of every year your date with my new books on African Horror. Again, my gratitude for all your support.