David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Eman Quotah’s Bride of the Sea, a spellbinding debut of colliding cultures, immigration, religion, and family, and an intimate portrait of loss and healing. At the core of the novel is Hanadi, a young girl who has grown up with her mother in the US but is yet to know her father though he has desperately searched for her for years from his home in Saudi Arabia. Hanadi’s mother has kept her hidden from him out of fear of losing her daughter. “Quota’s deft characterization and pacing, says Booklist, Starred Review, —combined with an inside look at Saudi Arabian life, make this debut a compelling and worthy read.” Rakesh Satyal calls the book, “A marvel. An intricately realized novel that honors every place it depicts.” Bride of the Sea is out on January 26 from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m excited to share today’s episode with the incredible Nnedi Okorafor, which we’ve somehow perfectly timed with the launch date of her new novella, Remote Control. But before we begin, I want to share something with you that I’ve been waiting to share for this specific episode. If you’ve listened to the show before, you know that there are all sorts of potential benefits to becoming a listener supporter, whether it be receiving an email with each episode, pointing you to things referred to in the conversation or particularly interesting things I discovered and preparing for it that would be worth exploring after the conversation, or the bonus audio archive which has included everything from Ted Chiang, reading an essay, exploring our fear of super intelligent AI, to Daniel José Older, giving a gripping reading from Shadowshaper Legacy prior to its release, to an hour-long craft talk by none other than Marlon James on the art of narrative seduction, to getting books like the Hugo Award finalist and Locus Award-Winning Ursula K. Le Guin conversations on writing, signed by me, co-author with Ursula of this book. You also know that writers, since the fall, have been reaching out to offer things to support the fundraising push for Between The Covers from Rikki Ducornet with Borges-inspired prints to handcrafted collectibles by Nikky Finney. But there’s one thing that I’ve been waiting to let you know about until today, that is an amazing offer from the estate of Ursula K. Le Guin of three of her out of print chapbooks from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. You could definitely say this is Le Guin-Marginalia but Marginalia of the best sort, incredibly charming, funny works that reveals something new about Ursula’s personality. The first is an illustrated poetry collaboration between Ursula and Ursula’s mother that came out in 1979 called Tillai and Tylissos. The second is a comedic illustrated collaboration between Ursula and Vonda McIntyre signed by both writers called A Winter Solstice Ritual for the Pacific Northwest. The third, also, very funny and whimsical and also, like the first two illustrated is called The Art of Bunditsu, How to Arrange Your Bonzo — A Form of Japanese Tabbist Meditation that is a celebration of her cat and appears to be possibly co-written with her cat at the time in the early 80s. Long story short, if you’re curious about any of this—large or small—head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers, you can look through everything and consider supporting Between The Covers. Lastly, just a brief moment on spoilers for this episode, we use Nnedi’s book, Remote Control, out today as the launching pad to discuss everything from her work with Black Panther to the Binti Trilogy to Akata Witch to her work with Dark Horse comics LaGuardia, and most of what we talk about regarding Remote Control happens within the first third of the novella. We do try to focus more on the details of the world than the developments of the plot. But everyone has their own threshold around this. So if you are someone particularly concerned about spoilers, I would suggest stopping more or less around 35 minutes, grab a copy of the book from Tor, read it, it’s only 150 pages long and come back for the bulk of the conversation without anxiety. Otherwise, for everybody else, enjoy today’s program in full with Nnedi Okorafor.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Author Nnedi Okorafor, a writer of countless books of African Futurism and African Jujuism, the term she herself coined for her work within the realms of science fiction and fantasy respectively. With a master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State, a master’s degree in English, and a doctorate in English from the University of Illinois in Chicago, Nnedi Okorafor is also a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, the oldest and most esteemed workshop for writers in science fiction and fantasy. Her 2005 book of young adult fantasy, Zahrah the Windseeker was the winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature, awarded biennially to the best literary work produced by an African. Her children’s book, Chicken in the Kitchen won the Africana Book Awards. Her young adult novel Akata Witch was an Amazon’s Best Books of the Year and Akata Warrior won the Locus Award for best young adult novel. Neil Gaiman said of the series, “The sheer joy of something like the ‘Akata’ series is the feeling that I simply have not read this before, and that is so rare.” Among her many books for adults, Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Who Fears Death. She joined past Between The Covers guest, Daniel José Older in successfully calling for the removal of H.P. Lovecraft as the likeness of the statute given to the winners. Her book Binti with Tor Books, the first of the Binti: Trilogy, won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best novella. She recently published her memoir, the Locus Award finalists Broken Places & Outer Spaces about being a nationally known athlete in tennis and track, and someone who aspired to be an entomologist, an insect scientist suddenly finding herself paralyzed—a rare outcome to a surgery for scoliosis—and the ways losing the path she thought she was on became the beginnings of her journey, not just to walk again but as a writer. If all of that was not enough, Nnedi Okorafor has also been quite involved in the world of comics. Following Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, Okorafor joined Marvel to work on Black Panther, Long Live the King, Wakanda Forever, and the Shuri Series. She developed the African futurist comic LaGuardia for Dark Horse Comics, the winner of both this year’s Hugo Award and Eisner Award for best graphic story or comic. Ursula K. Le Guin has said of Okorafora’s writing, “There’s more vivid imagination on a page of Nnedi Okorafor’s work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics.” Like Le Guin, with her well-known Cat Pard, Okorafor has a famous cat familiar herself, Pumpernickel Pickle Periwinkle Chukwu Okorafor, The Space Cat who likely has more followers than you do on Twitter. If after hearing all of this, a mere sampling of the books, comics, and awards in Okorafor’s career, you wonder where you’ve been, I suspect it won’t be long before Nnedi Okorafor is a household name. Her novel, Who Fears Death is in development at HBO to become a series produced by George R. R. Martin. Okorafor is co-writing the adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed for Amazon Prime Video to be directed by Kenyan Film Director and Author Wanuri Kahiu and produced by Viola Davis. She’s adapting her Binti: Trilogy into a TV series for Hulu, co-writing the pilot with Stacy Osei-Kuffour, the writer for HBO’s Watchmen. If you aren’t already living in an Okoraforian universe, you’re likely about to be, which makes us particularly lucky to have Nnedi Okorafor here today for her newest novella, Remote Control, just out from Tor. Library Journal in its starred review says, “Okorafor builds a stunning landscape of futuristic technology and African culture, with prose that will grab readers from the first sentence.” The protagonist “Sankofa is at once innocent and experienced, facing a world forever changed for and by her. This compelling novella is Africanfuturism science fiction at its best.” Publishers Weekly in its starred review ads, “Following a common trend in Okorafor’s work, this imaginative, thought-provoking story uses elements of the fantastic to investigate the complexities of gender and community outside of a European, colonial imagination. Readers will be blown away.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Nnedi Okorafor.
Nnedi Okorafor: Thanks for having me.
DN: Recently, on social media, you’ve been talking about a variety of ways that people inaccurately frame your work, one of them is incorrectly calling some of your adult books YA, simply because they center a child protagonist. Another was that people keep repeating that your stories are rooted in or focused on racial oppression, simply because they center black people and especially, black women even though your stories don’t always or mainly focus on racial oppression including the book we’re going to discuss today, Remote Control. But the place I want to start today in our conversation is another one of your misconceptions that you are battling against, and that is your work is often called Afrofuturist, even after you pointed out that it is an Afrofuturist, it returns to be called Afrofuturist over and over again, you’ve gone to great lengths to clarify this, you’ve coined the terms African Futurism and African Jujuism, you’ve written an essay to define these terms that’s been read 30,000 times yet you’re still, I think at the beginnings of this battle, to have this term change the conversation. You’ve said that you’re tired of talking about this but that it’s important to repeat it, I was hoping we could just establish the grounds of our conversation today, with you talking about Afrofuturism versus African Futurism and why the distinction is a vital one when it comes to your body of work?
NO: Yeah, it’s very important. This is an ongoing battle, it is about changing the conversation and expanding the conversation. I think that’s really important if we need to be blunt about it, it’s about looking at black speculative fiction and understanding that it is diverse, it is not something where you can put us all in one category, in doing that, reducing us all so that we all fit in that category, so that we all are similar. I’m talking like science fiction, fantasy, everything is thrown in there, and it’s very reductive. I think the most important part for me is the opening up a conversation. It’s similar to how I felt when I was talking about Lovecraft with the World Fantasy award, that whole issue, I wasn’t so focused on getting the statute change as I was about starting a conversation because I think that conversation leads to an understanding that I can start it but I can’t cause people to understand. This distinction is really about that, it’s really about getting people to think bigger, more globally, and just with a greater important diversity because I think that as long as we don’t do that, I think that all the stories, not just mine, but all of our stories by black people in speculative fiction are being reduced, they’re being misread, you’re not seeing everything about these stories that makes each and every one of them special.
DN: Just to stay with that a moment longer, is part of that reduction the erasure of African-centric speculative and fantastical fiction when you use the Afrofuturist label because it’s centering Black-American experience?
NO: I think that there’s a redirecting going on, a redirecting of what is important, what is significant, and what is leading the way when there are multiple things leading the way, it’s not just one, it’s not just one group of people. Mind you, when it comes to the African identity, I don’t even fit that, I’m Nigerian-American, by the most solid clear definition of being African-American, I don’t fit that. My parents came here in 1969 as immigrants from Nigeria, I am not the direct descendant of stolen Africans, but at the same time, I wasn’t born and raised in Nigeria either, so I’m not that either. When I’m having these conversations, I’m speaking as somebody who’s just, I don’t fit anything solidly, and I’m perfectly fine with that. I think that my point of view of not fitting in anywhere, I think that helps me to be able to see things more clearly and understand things more clearly from an outsider-insider point of view. My whole thing is really about changing the narrative and just opening it up a lot more because I just think it’s really important. I think it’s important in how stories are read. If you’re only seeing one point of view, here’s an example—if this gets me in trouble, fine, it is what it is—but in the United States, you often hear white people describe black people as African-Americans, every single black person in the world like somebody who has never even set foot in the United States will be called, “Oh, they’re African-American,” I’m like, “That’s wrong,” someone’s born and raised in London for example, Idris Elba is not African-American for example. In doing that, you’re reducing people in a way that I think is very problematic. I think that the issue with African Futurism and Afrofuturism, what I’m bringing up is touching on that, it’s a microcosm of a much broader issue.
DN: You’ve talked before about a different relationship to technology that Nigerians have, that you discovered in your frequent trips going there as a child growing up as a child of Nigerian immigrants to the United States, how places that without running water or electricity might still be ahead of us with innovative ways that they’re using cell phones or people building computers from scrap or running them off of generators. I was thinking about your comic, LaGuardia, where aliens come to Earth not to attack us or dominate us but they actually want to to get along and participate in human culture. There’s this wide variety of responses from country to country on how that’s being received but it’s Nigeria that welcomes them where they establish first contact. This made me think of a video I watched of the Kenyan film director, Wanuri Kahiu, in that video she said, she’s a science fiction filmmaker, she box at the idea that science fiction is a relatively new phenomenon on the African continent, she said that science fiction and fantasy are actually extremely old in Africa, that nearly everywhere she has been on the continent, has cultures that looked to space, that have seers that look into the future, that have storytellers who tell stories from the perspective of insects or animals or birds. You’ve said that many of your early stories that were called by others science fiction and fantasy were simply you, describing the way things actually were in the Nigerian way of life and worldview. I was just hoping you could expand on that a little bit.
NO: Yeah, one thing that I wanted to say is that it’s not so much that I view that Nigerians for example, were ahead in their view of technology, it’s more like it was a different point of view, it’s a different point like their way of viewing. From what I was seeing, it was a different point of view that I didn’t think was being portrayed. It comes back to this idea of point of view, perspective worldview, then the question of not “what is science fiction?” but has science fiction existed beforehand, before the golden age in the West?” It’s all about point of view, it’s all about the way that you look, it depends on the way that you view things. There’s that issue of point of view where in one point of view, the mystical and the magical are separate from the mundane, that’s the more Western point of view, to have something mystical or magical is odd, it’s bizarre, it’s not the norm or you go to the magical world. Whereas in other cultures, to have the mystical and the mundane worlds coexisting is normal. That was the issue that pops up when people talk about magical realism and the fact that the label of magical realism is put typically on cultures that are on Non-Western cultures. It’s more that these cultures, their point of view is simply different, so this idea of science fiction exists like that science fiction didn’t exist in African culture. It’s a matter of point of view if you look at it from this point of view over here which is from that culture’s specific point of view, what they’re used to dealing with and the way they’ve been going, sure, you’re not going to see any science fiction but when you deconstruct that, then look at things through a different point of view, you’ll see that’s been there for a long time, it’s just been in a way that you haven’t been able to process yet because you’ve been looking at something through a very specific point of view.
DN: Would it be correct to say that the magical society in Akata Witch isn’t a Nigerian analog to Harry Potter because it’s based on an actual people in Nigeria, the Leopard People, thus, is that an example of the mystical, the seemingly fantastical, the real, and the realistic being the same thing at the same time essentially?
NO: Yeah, that’s the thing, that’s why I get so irritated when that comparison is made because that’s what I mean by that reductive thinking because, “Okay, I’m familiar with Harry Potter, I’m not familiar with what’s going on in the Akata Witch.” I understood that because I don’t really know where I’ve read anything that was like Akata Witch where we took these ideologies and cosmologies and built something in this African Jujuist type of narrative, so you’ve got something that’s unfamiliar. Even Nigerians were unfamiliar with what I was doing and I knew that, I’m okay with that, things have to start somewhere. You’ve got something that’s unfamiliar, the way that’s problematic for me when people react to something unfamiliar is by looking at it through what’s familiar. It makes things easier, you’re more comfortable, you’re like, “Okay, we can compare, well, it’s like this. Oh, so Akata Witch is a Nigerian Harry Potter, I can get that, I can understand that because I love Harry Potter, it’s familiar to me so therefore, now, I can understand Akata Witch because I understand Harry Potter.” I understand the inclination to think like that but that way of thinking will prevent you from ever really seeing beyond what you’re familiar with. So with Akata Witch, yeah, I’m sure there are comparisons to Harry Potter but there are aspects of it that you’re not going to see as soon as you say, “It’s a Nigerian Harry Potter,” you’re not going to see what I was doing with Nigerian cosmologies—in particular, Igbo, but I worked in some European housing in there too—but with these Nigerian ideologies and cosmologies, how I was flipping some of them, how I was growing some of them, exaggerating some of them, just having a lot of fun, and dealing with those things that are taboo, you’re not going to see any of that because you’re going to be thinking, “Oh, Harry Potter, so it’s magic. ” [laughter] This general term, it’s magic, it just reduces everything, there’s so much in the Akata series that people actually believe in that I was messing with, that’s actually really powerful, and I was taking some chances and playing around with it. Yeah, when you make those comparison things, you’re going to see what you’re familiar with. There have been stories where I’ve read them, and I did not have any of those lenses, I didn’t view those things with any of those lenses, I read it and experienced something huge and incredible. Then I talked to other people, they looked at it through those lenses, it was so boring what they described, it’s just like, “Oh they’re using these tropes and this theme, I’ve seen all that before.” You end up just seeing what you’ve already seen which is a shame.
DN: We’re moving to Remote Control more specifically. You’ve said that you started the book with the main character Sankofa in mind, that also, this character is someone you’ve been working on in various forms and ways over time, I was hoping we could start our conversation about Remote Control, with Sankofa, what about her as a character has captured your imagination across book as you’ve worked out this particular protagonist?
NO: Yeah, I’ve been writing Sankofa for a long time. I think I’ve left two different universities in the time that I’ve been working on, I think it was even before 2008, I’ve been working on her for a long time and not just in Remote Control, I discovered her in the part two of The Shadow Speaker because I wrote a part two of The Shadow Speaker, and I discovered her in that, I really liked her character, I really liked her. Then I plucked her out, then started writing Remote Control. What’s interesting about Remote Control is in that book in particular, I’ve been working on for over six years. It was a whole novel. I worked on that for four years, then I got to a point where after editing and editing, making it perfect and getting feedback from my editor, she’s like, “This isn’t working, this doesn’t work,” I looked at it, and I realized that I had written two books as one so I chopped it, that’s how I got the novella because once I chopped it literally down the middle, it worked perfectly. Sankofa, I’ve just been following her, I know her really well, I know so many details about her.
DN: Is the character in The Book of Phoenix who also is from Wulugu, Ghana and also, discovers a magic seed from an unusual tree, is that one example of the way you’re working out this character even though they have different names that you’re playing with the variables of a protagonist that you can’t let go of in a sense?
NO: Actually, The Book of Phoenix happens after Remote Control, it’s the same place. The way that I view it is that—this is going to sound weird—but there are three sisters, the first sister is Sankofa, the second sister is Phoenix, and the third sister is Onyesonwu, who fears death. The way that I wrote them, it was backwards because I wrote Who Fears Death first, then I went back, then The Book of Phoenix, then I went back, then it was Remote Control. It’s like three sisters, they’re not the same character but the things that they do affect the world of the next one. What Sankofa does affects the world of The Book of Phoenix. When I arrived there, I already knew what was going to happen in that area, that definitely informed who Sankofa was in the world that Sankofa was living in as well. There’s a definite connection but they are two different characters.
DN: Interesting. Let me ask you a writer’s question about the setting because you’ve called Nigeria your muse and a lot of your work draws on Nigerian influences, but your Binti Trilogy moves to the Himba, Tribe of Namibia and Remote Control centers around a Muslim family in rural Ghana. I wondered if there were extra considerations or safeguards you do when you’re moving from a culture that is your own to these other African cultures, for instance, when I was talking with N. K. Jemisin about her most recent book, she mentioned that she used a sensitivity reader for the portrayal of particularly the indigenous character in The City We Became but also, for other characters, is there anything that you do that you add into your regimen when you’re moving from your lived experience with Igbo culture in Nigeria to other cultures in Ghana or Namibia or elsewhere on the continent?
NO: Yeah, I think the difference is even when it comes to my muse, it’s not just Nigeria, it tends to be the Southeast, it’s like a specific area. Whenever I write outside of those areas, if I write for example, a Yoruba character, the way that I handle that, I like to just talk to people who are of that culture. I like to run things by them. It’s not so much that I interview them, it’s not an interview. I haven’t yet written about an area that I have zero connection to, like zero, I always have either some friends who are of that character or I can run something by them or I know them well enough where I’ve listened to them so I haven’t even had to interview them specifically like in Who Fears Death, we had to deal with a female genital mutilation, I know people who have had it done. I’ve had to hear about the repercussions of that for a long time way before I wrote the book. I had that connection already, come to Genocide, I’m Igbo, we have the Biafran War. I always have some direct connection to everything that I’m writing about, so that I kind of avoid that feeling of, “Oh, I don’t really know you that well.” I have yet to really write about, because I know lots of Ghanaians, I definitely have to talk about Wulugu, I haven’t been there but I have to talk to people who have been there so I get a real feel because you can do as much research as you want but there’s nothing that can compete with either a first-hand experience of someone who’s been there, who smelled the air, who’s touched the soil, who’s eaten the food, who’s seen just whatever happens there. Also, being there physically is the number one thing for me, if I can get there, if I’m writing about the desert, I have to be in the desert. I’ve been in the Sahara Desert, I’ve felt 114 degree heat, I know what it feels like, I know what it smells like, all of that, I have to get those details but that’s what I like to do when it comes to research. It’s like the reading of books and all that, it just doesn’t work for me, it has to be like I have to have in person contact. Even when I wrote about Lagoon, there was a character who had to write a manatee, I was like, “I don’t know what a manatee feels like,” so the closest I could get was a beluga whale like touching them. [laughter]
DN: You touched one?
NO: Yeah, it was firm but soft, their forehead. [laughter] I know all the issues about beluga whales in captivity. Whoever’s listening to this, I know, but yeah, that’s how far I will go if I’m writing about something, I have to get as close to it as possible because I don’t feel comfortable writing about something that I haven’t touched either through a person or literally.
DN: You’ve talked about how you’re interested not just in technology but particularly, in how technology is affected by culture, not just the way technologies are invented but then, how they’re used and how culture can often dictate that. Can you talk about some of the technologies we might encounter in the future Ghana of Remote Control?
NO: Yeah, the one that I love the most and that I’m most proud of is the jelli telli because I want one. [laughter] I want someone to read about it and make it. The jelli telli is a piece of gelatin that you stretch that it can cover the whole entire wall or it could be small and it sticks to the wall, it’s durable, it’s a TV, [laughs] a really good picture. The way that I came up with that was whenever we would go to the village in Southeastern Nigeria, the roads would often be treacherous like the potholes from the water damage from the rainy season, my God, there have been times where our car has almost tipped over to the side or fallen into a ditch, especially when you get to the actual village when the roads become dirt roads, it’s really something, then you suddenly emerge, and you see all these beautiful mansions that everyone’s built in these places because it’s like your ancestral homeland. Every time we go there, there would be people with these flat screen TVs, I’m like, “How do you get that here?” [laughter] I was just fascinated with that idea, then I just started thinking about a flat screen TV that could deal with that journey and have no problem, that’s where the jelli telli came from. Then there’s also, in Remote Control, the prayer shacks, there weren’t too many of those in the story but that was part of the world, that’s always been part of the world—I wish I could have gotten them in more but there’s no reason—but the prayer shacks, they’re portable rooms, they’re there when people want to pray. They want to pray, you go inside, all of the wi-fi, all the connections, everything cut off. It’s complete silence in there, there’s nothing that can get through a prayer shack. The floor is covered with oriental rugs and all of that, it’s very clean and nice. It’s for prayer, especially people moving through who have to do their either the morning, afternoon, or evening prayer, all of that, things like that, it takes into consideration the culture of the area.
DN: When we think of our 14-year-old Muslim girl protagonist, Fatima, who becomes Sankofa when she gains her powers, what is the significance for you of naming her Sankofa in that name change?
NO: Yeah, names are always important to me, every name that you find in anything that I write, there is a reason. It may not be a reason you can predict or understand but every name, whenever I’m writing it’s like, oh man, whenever I get to having the name of character, either I know it right away or I’m going to have to stop, then let that marinate or the character is named Name for a while because I need to let it come to me. [laughs] The names are always very significant, I like to lean towards African names or names of the culture because I know that readers are always like, “I can’t pronounce this name, so I say blah-blah-blah when I’m reading it.” I think we need to get over that. But Sankofa, when things happen, [laughs] she forgets her name, and she renames herself, this idea of naming yourself. If you know me, [laughs] you know that’s an important practice, she renames herself Sankofa. Sankofa means to look back. The Sannkofa bird is a Ghanaian symbol—I actually have one somewhere around here—where it’s a bird that’s looking over its shoulder, there’s an egg behind it, it’s getting the egg. This idea of knowing where you came from so that you know where you’re going, that’s really the metaphor behind it. Sankofa is the “Adopted Daughter of Death,” and she has this ability to take life. There are multiple levels that the name is working on. In the story, it’s because her brother was carving a Sankofa bird from wood, that’s one way that she holds on to her brother. But on a metaphorical level, it’s this idea, she sends people back, she takes people’s lives, and she sends them back. When you send them back, they go and find their source so that they can go forward, it has a spiritual meaning as well.
DN: I don’t know, for some reason the Sankofa made me think of a lot of things about your work at large also, because if we thought about the bird is looking back to get the egg but its feet are facing forward, as you say, it’s about looking back in order to move forward, there’s some connection between the past and the future that I feel like is really repeated, obviously, in very different ways across your books, but I think of how the mysterious seed that sets the quest of the story in motion is both something that comes from space, from aliens, and also, at the same time comes from a tree, that it’s magic but that its magic is both natural, [laughter] alien, and technological but also, that aliens are themselves natural in this world. You could say Sankofa’s power is derived from a seed or an alien, a tree or a technology, similarly in Binti, how there’s an ancestral code patterned into her hair that speaks of her family’s bloodline, it’s braided into the history of her people, yet in her journey to become who she is, this most integral part of herself becomes literally alien, yet at the same time, that new part of herself is essential to who she is, I don’t know if I’m saying that right.
NO: You’re saying it perfectly. I’m just so happy that you’re saying this, I’m like, “Okay, I conveyed it, I did it,” [laughter] because they’re complex ideas to portray and keep the story moving, so I’m very happy that you picked up on all of that. The past, present, and the future, and how they play off of each other and how they propel each other is a very important theme to me. The idea of this alien seed that falls from the sky that is given to her by a tree that is rooted in the Earth, then the blending of all of those ideas, those creating, and those affecting and infecting this character in ways where sometimes, it’s asked for and other times it’s not, the same thing with Binti, those themes are definitely in there, they were intentional, like Binti’s change in the idea of like she’s a daughter of the soil. Binti means daughter, it means girl and daughter. That was even one of my primary ideas when I wrote Binti was that one, I wanted her to be an average girl, I did not want her to be special even though people already read her as she’s special or whatever but I think anyone who’s the main character is special. She’s a daughter of the soil. She literally puts soil on her body, that is part of her culture. She goes on this journey where we understand that it’s not literally the soil that is her identity, it is far more than that. That idea of change, evolution, just that idea of becoming, it’s really important to me because I revisit it over and over and over again, I revisit it in the Akata series as well, in my forthcoming adult novel Noor, I revisit it again. That idea of becoming across the journey is really important to me.
DN: I want to connect that to something you talked about with LeVar Burton in your recent conversation which I loved, which was your love of insects, which goes back to your childhood. In your memoir, insects are the main thing that you hallucinate when you’re on pain medications post surgery but with LeVar, you say something interesting to me that somehow feels connected to what we were just talking about, that you don’t try to find points of commonality with you and insects, you don’t try to find the human overlap with the insect worldview instead you’re happy to allow them to be truly other and to be alien on their own terms. I loved how you then earnestly suggested that you should be on any team put together to converse with aliens on first contact which I think is really true, hopefully, we can get some momentum going with that.
NO: Yeah. [laughter]
DN: But I also wondered if this willingness to allow insects to be themselves without trying to anthropomorphize them or to understand them or to make them more familiar to you to wonder beside them, for instance, for what they are, does that extend to the way your characters themselves become other to themselves, also, then othered as they embrace their otherness? Because there are parts of them that they don’t understand but they learn how to cohabitate with.
NO: Yeah, that’s another big one for me, the idea of the embracing self, embracing that which you don’t necessarily understand but it is yours regardless. I think that’s an important lesson in general, I think a lot of people can benefit from that and would be much much much happier if they did. I think a lot of that also comes from my own experience with one paralysis, being paralyzed, then just having this strange body. It doesn’t fit any norms, it doesn’t even fit the abnorms, you could read about, “Okay, there’s this condition, let’s learn about this condition. My condition doesn’t have a name, it’s so specific to me that I can’t look something up to learn more about it.” The best thing to do is to embrace it and say, “Okay, it’s mine, therefore, I’m going to choose the way that I’m going to move forward is what this is as opposed to trying to force myself to be something else and to be this thing that is not quite me.” I think that with these characters, that’s something that’s really important. You see it with all my characters, it’s all of them. [laughter]
DN: Yeah, I was going to ask you about you yourself—you already answered this question—but I was thinking of Ngozi in your comics, the Nigerian girl who is in a wheelchair, who bonds herself physically to the alien symbiotic organism Venom in order to be able to walk. It made me wonder about the hardware in your back post-surgery, something that is alien to you that is now very much part of you, if there was a self-conception of yourself as being a hybrid in this way, alien, natural, technological, and organic.
NO: There was a lot of me in that character, [laughs] there’s wish fulfillment as well. I really thought hard about that character. I know there are some people who are upset, they’re like, “Okay, you have a character who can’t walk, she uses a wheelchair, then you gave her this magical alien, and suddenly she can walk,” I’m like, “You didn’t think that through, you didn’t think your criticism through enough.” One, this idea of what’s wrong with a little wish fulfillment? I think it’s also people assuming that I’m speaking from the point of view of people—for lack of a better term, I don’t want to anger anyone—who have no disabilities, I do. This idea of her suddenly being able to not just walk but fly and do all these things was fun, it was fun to write but also, in writing her, I knew that in her mind—when she bonds with Venom and they become this one thing who can shapeshift, walk, run, and fly, all these things—but she knows what she is, she knows that she can’t walk, she knows that she’s still what she is, that’s not a problem. She’s accepted that but she’s also able to do this over here. Further down the path than I think people were giving me credit for with that, that was very intentional.
DN: I want to stay one more beat with hybrid identities and maybe, connect back to what you said at the beginning about you, as a Nigerian-American, not totally fitting in Nigeria but as an African-American, literally an African-American but not an African-American descendant from stolen Africans, you’re not of the same culture either of other African-Americans. But it made me think of your personal story, the way when I think of the hybrid identities and a lot of your work, I think, in your memoir, about how your family was the first black family to move into the suburban Chicago neighborhood when you were a child, how you and your sister were racially terrorized by older white kids through a lot of your childhood, but also, the flip side of you going to Nigeria which was crucial to you being connected to and deepening your connection with your culture but you were also othered there as an American for someone who wasn’t speaking fluent Igbo, who didn’t fit. In your work, there’s often this question of two homes or perhaps no home, that I think of, again, Akata Witch, an American girl with Nigerian parents who moves to Nigeria to develop magical powers. There’s that othering but she’s not just as a Nigerian-American in Nigeria, she’s also Albino. On top of that, there’s a taboo about witches in Nigeria that makes centering one as the hero of a story troublesome to some Nigerian readers, then Binti who comes home to reconnect after being the first person in her tribe to go to another planet to university but her hair is now tentacles, and Sankofa used to be called Fatima before she became the “Adopted Daughter of Death,” she accidentally wipes out her hometown including her family before she understands her own powers. But she, too, ultimately returns home. “What is home?” seems to be the question many of these books are asking. I was hoping maybe we could just dwell another minute with hybrid identity in relationship to home.
NO: Yeah, this is another one, [laughter] another of my central themes, what is home? Can you have multiple homes? But even above that, the idea that I most want to push is don’t turn away even when home is problematic. I’m working on the third Akata book, there’s definitely a scene where it’s like the don’t turn away thing, like deal with home even if home isn’t home, that is something that is really, really important to me. I think that a lot of it has to do with, on a personal level, going home. If we’re talking about, I was born here, my parents have been taking us back from a young age. Those trips, I remember them as being a dream, God, they’re just paradise, especially when I was little but there were problems too, there were difficulties, there was a lot of cultural conflict, a lot of it. Where I could have easily been that one who just turns away from is like, “This is too much trouble, I can’t deal with this, I don’t deserve to be judged like this.” I would have had a right to say all those things definitely, but I don’t deserve to be judged like this, I don’t have to do this, I’m just not going to come here. My sisters and I, we’re one year apart, I’m the youngest, then my middle sister, then my oldest, we always moved as a unit but we would always have these cultural moments where we’re just butting heads directly with culture, I’m talking about things with relatives and patriarchy, all these things just butting heads with it, but we would always come back. We would leave and be like, “I’m never going back again. Oh my, God, this is so ridiculous.” But we would always go back because it’s home. That whole idea of “don’t turn away, you deal with it, you face it,” you understand it but also, protecting yourself as well, it’s something that I’ve definitely dealt with in all of my stories. You definitely see it with Sankofa when you think about “why does she do what she does? Why does she make the decisions that she makes?” This idea that you have to deal with home even when it’s dark, the things that you’re dealing with are dark, you always have to come home because that’s the only way you can know yourself, that you can fully truly know yourself. It comes back to the Sankofa symbol of looking back and understanding that in order to go forward.
DN: I’m glad you brought up the patriarchy because I wanted to talk about that in relationship to Remote Control. Years ago, when I had Jo Walton on the show, she talked about how George Eliot, the author of Middlemarch, had in her mind a science fictional way of thinking even though she wrote before science fiction. She mentioned how Eliot had engaged with and envisioned all the unseen ways the technology of the railroad had changed things for women, that a journey that would have been a three-day journey prior to the railroad would have required protection for a woman if she didn’t want to be killed or raped suddenly could be done alone. The ways that the world changed because of this was something that interested Eliot and made Jo Walton feel like she, not only had a science fictional way of thinking, but that if science fiction had existed, perhaps she would have been writing in that mode. Sankofa is a 14-year-old girl, perhaps an unusual protagonist for a story that is a road novel in a way as she walks alone without human protection. But in this case, she’s ultimately safe and free, she’s protected by the fear people have of her as the “Adopted Daughter of Death.” Even though no animals and insects are disturbed as she moves through the world, and even as she moves through the world with a fox accompanying her, she’s the harbinger of human death. One thing that is interesting about this is simply the way by making the people respect her because of their fear, she’s able to move through the world almost as how we might imagine a woman might move through the world if there were no patriarchy, or that’s the way I read into it. She can go places alone even though she’s not yet an adult woman, her every decision—large and small—doesn’t have to be consumed with how to avoid being killed or assaulted by someone. I was hoping maybe, you could just talk about the power of this in this book in relationship to gender.
NO: Yeah, it’s deep because her reputation precedes her, people know who she is, they fear her coming. She’s this little girl, she wears traditional clothes—she wears whatever she wants but she likes to wear these traditional clothes like her mother—I remember being inspired by The Wire, Omar Little, there’s a scene, you can find it on YouTube where Omar’s coming and everyone, [laughter] they’re calling out his name as he’s coming, his name is echoing ahead of him, people are going inside, people are grabbing their kids and leaving, the power of that. [laughter] I remember, first of all, he was one of my favorite characters but the power of that, then to give it to this girl. It’s not that she’s immortal, it’s that people can’t kill her, people give her clothes, they know to bring her clothes, they give her food, she doesn’t have to worry about any of that, they’ll give her shelter. Whatever she asks for, she will get. There is nobody who is going to argue with this girl. It’s not that I was purposely thinking about it but I know just this idea I’ve often thought about whenever we’re traveling through the less urban parts of Nigeria, that feeling of your femaleness, you feel it, you feel that vulnerability, you start looking in the car, “Who’s with you?” “Okay, this man is this man, okay, all right,” you know that feeling. What would it be like to travel through this beautiful place and just have everything given to you, and not have to worry about that? Not just even the rural parts of Nigeria, just even on the street here, every woman knows the feeling of walking to your car at night when you’re by yourself. To not have that feeling, wow, just to be able to just enjoy the night, enjoy being alone and the strength of it. There’s that, but also, the fact that this girl at such a young age, when she gets this ability, she learns to embrace it early. It’s not like she went through this time when she’s just like, “Oh, I’m scared of this power, oh what’s it going to do?” She embraces that. She owns it. She moves. She realizes that she can and will move with authority. “Okay, people will give me clothes, they know what to give me, I want these things, I will ask for those things.” It was a lot of fun, [laughter] granted her abilities, they’re dark, it was a lot of fun to write a character who had that freedom, the strength, and also, the freedom to embrace it. It’s one thing to have those abilities and to therefore embrace it, that means you’ve arrived. That was definitely a big part of the story.
DN: To stay with Sankofa a little longer, a couple of weeks ago, you retweeted some news about poverty brought on by COVID, and how it’s pushing some parents across Africa and Asia to marry their daughters off younger than before, essentially undoing years of activism. You said, “If we don’t address the system on a structural level, this will continue to happen. The sacrificing of girls becomes the place if we don’t look at the system.” I was thinking of that in relationship to another thing you’ve talked about, and that’s how there’s a certain knowledge that’s kept secret which is forbidden for women in Nigeria. For instance, the masquerade in Nigerian rituals, something that you’re very interested in, but no matter how many male relatives you ask, you’re rebuffed about the knowledge that men have about the masquerade. You say in a blog post, “One day I will succeed. And then as soon as the information falls on my female ears (for such things are certainly NOT written down), the sky will turn black, plants will grow underground and babies will speak like old men,” then you say, “I’m kidding. Maybe.” But in Who Fears Death, there’s a character who is seeking forbidden knowledge but in Remote Control, it feels almost like the reverse or the inverse that Sankofa is the source of a forbidden knowledge even though she doesn’t perhaps understand it yet herself, I wondered if this was, in some way, a way of addressing this structural level on a narrative plane.
NO: Yeah, it’s in the future. Whenever I write about these things, I always think about, “Okay, these things are going to get worked out, they’re going to get worked out, worked in, they’re going to atrophy, they’re going to corrupt or whatever.” But these things are going to be dealt with in some ways. Sankofa is a different type of story, she is the source, she’s the beginning, she’s the beginning of a tradition. In the future, something’s going to grow from what she is, from what she does, from who she is. She literally calls it down, she’s the beginning. There’s no one who she has to get these secrets from. The only ones who she can get secrets from are aliens, there are no human beings, there’s no culture that knows more about this than she would, it’s a completely different dynamic where she does not have to travel into these traditions of men to get the knowledge. In that way, it’s a different story. But there is still patriarchy in Remote Control, and we see it in the way that she deals with her brother. They’re very subtle but they’re there. I didn’t make it so that it was a big part of what drove the plot but you see it, there are certain characters, certain women that she encounters where you can see that patriarchy is still alive and well, unfortunately, in this world. There are powerful women who live within it and have to learn how to navigate it in order to be what they are which is a theme that I like to deal with as well because I think it’s very real on a very now basis; powerful women dealing with patriarchy and having to navigate it so that they can be what they will become.
DN: When you mention these subtle touches, I think of how, on a big and an obvious way, we can say that your protagonists and the agents of change in your book, the people put front and center are women and girls—black women and black girls—but there are also subtle ways, just like you’re talking about the subtle ways there’s patriarchy in this book, there are subtle ways you’re bringing women into the narrative too. I think of Binti being a user of an astrolabe, I was hoping you could talk about, I mean it’s not announced why she’s interested in astrolabes but there’s a history in our world around them that informs your choice to have her be interested in them.
NO: Yeah. What brought my attention, where I first learned about the astrolabe, which was I think, in The Golden Compass that he based the alethiometer—I’m glad I remember that, [laughter]—he based the alethiometer on astrolabe. I’m sure that was somewhere in my head because I love gadgets like that, I love things that you can hold like cell phones, [laughs] like ancient cell phones because that’s what an astrolabe basically is, it’s an ancient GPS which is so cool to me. I also love orreries, orreries are so cool. I love those devices that measure things and just everything about them. But I was in the United Arab Emirates in Sharjah, I was there for this book festival, they had a children’s museum section—I go to museums, I don’t care if it’s for kids, I’m going to go, [laughs]—so I went, and all the inventors that they had listed were all men except for one—they had traditional Arab inventors, they were all men except for one—she caught my eye immediately. There was someone dressed up as each of the inventors. This woman, she was dressed up, she’s wearing her veil, and everything, she was holding a giant astrolabe, I think her name was Mariam al-Asturlabi. I don’t think that she invented it but she had perfected it. She was known for perfecting it. The fact that she was the only woman, then she has this wonderful gadget—then I remember I went up to her with my daughter, my daughter got to hold it, I got to hold, the thing was heavy and beautiful—it stuck in my mind, I wanted to know more about this object. Just the fact that it was a woman who perfected this thing, then the more research I did, I learned about it being basically, the first GPS, this idea of knowing where you were in the world, knowing your place where you stood in the world that was perfected by a woman in an environment where there were probably no other female inventors, it was probably very taboo what she was doing, that stayed with me. That went right into the DNA of me writing and creating Binti, the character.
DN: Yeah. I want to talk about you writing for Black Panther and some of the things that you found problematic about the world of Wakanda before you began writing. One of them was the focus on how all the stories in the Wakandan world were of the rulers of the aristocracy. Part of what you did was move the attention to the everyday people when you started writing in that universe. It feels like you’re doing that here too, with Sankofa, who becomes quite powerful but begins as an everyday girl, she doesn’t have an aristocratic background or claims to be one. I wondered if this was all connected to something you’ve also mentioned in interviews is that there’s a phrase among the Igbo people, that Igbo have no royalty. If those are connected, could you just talk a little bit about what that means?
NO: Yeah, that’s a common phrase amongst the evil people that we have no kings. I’ve grown up hearing that, understanding that, and agreeing with that. [laughs] I’ve always wondered about stories that always, I’m like, “Why does the story always have to focus on the king or the queen or the royalty or the people with power, the people with money?” Those stories did not interest me. I always wanted to know what was happening with the villager outside who was trying to get by, I wanted to know those stories, I wanted to know the story of those who receive some great power and they’re just the average person. That’s the kind of story that I’ve always wanted to hear. With Wakanda, I wanted to know what the Wakandans were doing, what they thought of things. It seemed odd that we’d have a monarchy in such a modern and futuristic society. It made sense in the structure of looking at Africans from an outsider point of view, Africans have kings but not all Africans have kings, royalty is not the only ruling structure—I don’t even like the word ruling—but the only governmental structure. The evils were very democratic, you have different pockets so that they weren’t united. That led to a lot of problems but it also led to a lot of good things too. I’ve always pushed back against that. Because I remember when I was asked to write T’Challa and the Black Panther, I hesitated, I’m like, “I need to think about this,” it wasn’t like, “Oh, yes, I will do this immediately.” It wasn’t like that, I hesitated for two weeks, I thought about it for two weeks because I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the narrative and also, I had some issues with that structure. I’m like, “How can I write in this when I have such a problem?” Then once I looked at the character of T’challa and his constant conflict with the individual versus what is expected of him, that was the end that I could find where I could relate, where I could understand him, and where he became interesting to me where he’s dealing with, “This is what I want to be as a person, this is what I was born into.” They were always in conflict with each other. Once I focused on that and just burrowed into that idea, then I could write it, it just made sense. I knew what I could bring to the narrative.
DN: If we were to take this idea of decentering authority and decentering royalty into the world of writing through much of your writing education, you are actively discouraged by your teachers to not write science fiction and fantasy and to not even bring it to your classroom. You’ve talked about attending the Clarion Writers Workshop—which is geared towards science fiction and fantasy—as being a pivotal moment for you. I guess I wanted to hear a little bit about—and I’m sure our listeners will want to hear about—what was different about workshopping your work in the Clarion setting versus when you were in a non-genre academic setting where even before someone has looked at your story, they’ve put an asterisk there, that there’s something wrong with it.
NO: Yeah. Oh, God, that was such a big deal for me because I was coming from academia where I had to hide under the veil of magical realism. [laughs] I’m writing this crazy stuff, and it wasn’t like I was trying, I was writing from the heart. These are just the stories that came through from the very first story that I wrote, I did not put a label on anything that I was writing, I didn’t say, “Oh, this is fantasy, oh this is science fiction,” or whatever, I just was writing these stories, they had these mystical elements in them, and they were strong. The more I wrote, the stronger they grew. I was enjoying myself but I was actively being told, “Oh, you’re such a great writer but the science fiction and fantasy stuff isn’t real literature.” These were from professors that I loved, respected, and was learning. I learned so much from them about the craft of writing but they were saying this. I’m hard-headed, I’ve always written what I want to write, that saved me because if I were any softer, I don’t know, I would have been writing some literary stuff with no plot, [laughs] that kind of thing, that wasn’t going to happen. I got through that but there was a feeling of I’m writing these narratives, I’m writing about this woman and the pre-colonial Nigeria who has the ability to fly, she’s being ostracized by her community, what I was writing was not being properly understood, it was very strange. My classmates enjoyed what I was writing but it stood out, it definitely stood out, the feedback that I was getting often didn’t fit. When it came to character it was great, when it came to plot it was not. I felt this way. So when I graduated, this was between my second masters right before I went back for my masters in literature, it was Nalo Hopkinson who told me about the Clarion Writers Workshop and it changed so much for me. I’m so glad, I’d read Midnight Robber, I’d recently met Nalo, it was huge reading Midnight Robber, I was like, “Oh my God, people are doing this? This is what I’m talking about.” I got into a conversation, she’s like, “You should go to Clarion,” I’m like, “What’s Clarion?” I looked it up, learned about it, and applied, then I got into it. When I went to Clarion, it blew my mind because one, the writers were fantastic, they were from all walks of life, all like a whole spectrum of ages. There was one 12-year-old genius kid who’s writing and I’m like, “This stuff was good.” [laughter] Then there were much older people in their 50s and 60s, it was across the age range. One guy was writing insect porn. [laughter] There was one writer, she was writing stuff with Hoodoo in New Orleans, deep South mysticism, she was amazing. Then there was one NASA guy who was there, it was great. I was around all these weird people who had these big ideas about story, their stories were good, consistently good. That was the first time I encountered that where the story that we read, every time we met, they were consistently good. It was at Clarion where I really finally accepted what I was, [laughs] it was at Clarion, I’m like, “Okay, I don’t know if this is science fiction or fantasy or whatever but I am in this.” People were reading what I was writing, they weren’t saying this is some madness, they got it, they didn’t get all the cultural stuff but they were understanding it in a way that was just a relief for me. I didn’t realize how much I needed Clarion until I went to Clarion. I needed that so badly.
DN: How early or late in your life did you come across your first women-centric or black-centric science fiction fantasy stories as a reader?
NO: In my opinion this was late, this was like in 2000 or 1999 that year because first, I discovered Nalo Hopkinson’s work, then I discovered Octavia Butler—I discovered Octavia Butler so late, oh my God, [laughter]—it was at Clarion, that’s the crazy thing, it was at Clarion where the group had gone to this bookstore and I saw for the first time, a book that was facing outward in the science fiction and fantasy section that had a black woman on the cover. When I discovered Nalo’s book, it was to the side. This one was facing outward, I’m like, “There’s a black person.” [laughs] I immediately bought it, I bought it, I didn’t know who Octavia Butler was at all but I bought it. That book turned out to be Wild Seed, I opened it up, started reading it, the character is Nigerian, her name is Anyanwu which I know exactly what Anyanwu means, [laughs] it’s in pre-colonial Nigeria, I was like my mind was blown, I was hooked, that was a big deal because at that time, the story that I was workshopping most at Clarion was the one about the Nigerian woman in pre-colonial Nigeria who had the ability to fly and was about to either executed or kicked out of her village. I’m writing this thing, then I read Wild Seed, the characters like Anyanwu and the character that I was writing were so similar, and that was the first time I saw that. It was huge for me. In that year, it was like Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler, then later on, it was Ursula Le Guin. But I discovered them late, it was almost after I had been writing and writing novels and all that, I discovered them late, but better late than never.
DN: Wild Seed is what you’re adapting?
DN: Is it actually true that you talked with Octavia Butler about it when she was still alive?
NO: Yeah. In this first conversation, I remember nothing because I was so stunned to be talking to her, I remember nothing that I said. When I was at Clarion, I discovered that she had taught at Clarion prior, I was like, “What is going on? This is just so crazy, I discovered this book, I read it overnight, then she actually was here, what?” [laughter] Then me being the ambitious person that I can sometimes be, I was like, “Can you put me on the phone with her?” They’re like, “Oh sure.” [laughs] In my head I was screaming, I’m like, “What did I just do? This is crazy.” Next thing you know I’m on the phone with her. That was the first conversation I had with Octavia. I remember nothing from it, I think I said dumb and stupid things. [laughter] Then later on, a few years later, I spoke with her again, I had questions about Wild Seed, this is way before, of course, years and years before I was adapting it, I just had questions because I was always fascinated that any science fiction author of her caliber, who was African-American would write about Igbo people. I was fascinated by that. I loved that. I just wanted to know more, I wanted to dig into her brain more about that like, “Why’d you write about the Igbos? Please, tell me.” [laughter]
DN: That’s amazing.
NO: Yeah. I asked her some questions, some of her responses to those questions are what I’m using for the adaptation now because there are things that I asked her. Now, I’m just like, “Man, glad I asked her because now, I can incorporate those into the script.”
DN: Yeah. I can’t wait for that. Do you have a date?
NO: No date yet but we are currently working on the script for the second episode. It’s like I’m learning that sometimes, things aren’t officially greenlit, you just keep going. [laughs] You just keep going and you’re like, “Is anyone going to say something?” No one says anything, then you just keep going. So yeah, that’s what’s happening with Wild Seed.
DN: I want to ask you about corporate and governmental power in Remote Control on some of your other work. One of the reasons your family stayed in the United States, as you mentioned, was because of the Biafran War, a war where up to two million Biafrans died of starvation due to the Nigerian naval blockade where as many as four million people were displaced, and where Genocide against the Igbo people in Northern Nigeria, in particular, was one of the catalysts for it with up to 50% of the victims in the anti-Igbo pilgrims being children. Another reason for the war was oil and a battle of control for oil. You’ve confronted these issues in various ways in your writing, both the Biafran war itself and Nigeria’s production and extraction of oil as the largest producer of oil for Africa and a historically significant exporter to the United States. When I think of the Niger Delta being, at the same time, one of the great sites in the world of biodiversity and also, one of the great sites of numerous ongoing oil-related environmental disasters, I wondered about this in relationship to Remote Control and the authorities who want to control the magic seed that has given Sankofa her power, and also, how Sankofa can move through the world without disturbing anything non-human, so much so she’s even followed by animals but yet whenever she touches human technology, it stops functioning which is why we have a character who’s walking everywhere. Talk to us about the afterlives of the oil wars or the Biafran War, if any, in Remote Control, particularly around questions around the authorities, whether they’re corporate or governmental that want to control this alien yet tree-centric magic artifact. I mean I have a sense in my body that they don’t want to control it for good, we don’t really have that spelled out for us but talk to us a little bit about this. [laughter]
NO: Yeah, oh man, that’s so much, and all that was so on point. The presence of oil, the need for oil, and what that has led to, and corporations, it’s so much. It’s looming in the background with Remote Control. It’s because Remote Control is part of a bigger universe that I’m writing. In that universe, these corporations are definitely making moves around the world dabbling in things, understanding things, and understanding the powers that are on the Earth, the powers of people, the powers of things, they are understanding them, they are gathering them, seeking to weaponize them, and use them for their own good. In Remote Control, that is a presence, that’s part of the driving force of the plot even though it remains in the background. In the original iteration of this, it’s more in the foreground but it’s more in the background now. When you read it, you’ll just feel you’re like, “Okay, this corporation is there.” [laughs] The reason why it feels that way is because yes, they are very much pushing things, manipulating things, influencing things, and seeking and seeking and seeking. This overarching idea of viewing the African continent as a place to mine things from is like an overarching theme or idea that’s above the story or even a thread or something that’s even underneath the story, this idea of mining. Without giving too much away, that comes into play very directly in Remote Control, this idea of mining and wanting something that’s in the soil, that is powerful, that they may not know exactly how it’s powerful but they know it’s powerful. [laughs] Sankofa herself is under that watchful eye, it’s like the opposite of that thing. As you said, wherever she moves, she doesn’t disturb where she moves. That idea of not disturbing and just being is the exact opposite of what the corporation—and the corporation is almost like a metaphor for humanity in a lot of ways because it’s invasive, destructive, self-serving, and not understanding that it’s not always about the self, and not being about the self can be about the self. [laughs]
DN: In our world, Ghana is one of the epicenters for seed wars, essentially of big companies like Monsanto wanting to disrupt the ancestral ways of gathering seeds and sharing them down by introducing patented GMO seeds. I’m assuming it influenced your story that LeVar Burton read, that you discuss because we get the unforeseen circumstances as well as the upsides, but is the fact that it’s a seed and it’s Ghana, is that at all related to our world as a starting point?
NO: Yeah, with Remote Control, because I’ve been doing a lot of research into these GMO seeds and what’s happening in Ghana, Remote Control was the beginning of that. I just immediately incorporated that into my story because I was like, “This is…” for lack of a better word “…problematic.” [laughs] But I can say that in my later works, it’s more so. The stuff I’m working on now, definitely more so, that idea of the GMO seeds and the problem of them, that’s something I’m concerned with now, but Remote Control was the beginning of it.
DN: You have called yourself an irrational optimist, you brought that up when talking to LeVar Burton. That way, even if it’s becoming harder, particularly over the last four years and also, during the pandemic. I think that’s obvious in your work that regardless of whatever difficulties or disharmonies or disasters or deaths that occur, there’s also always a sense of possibility and renewal. In your memoir, I’m thinking also of when you were talking about Frida Kahlo’s paintings in general but specifically about her painting, The Broken Column, about her own injuries and hardware in her body, you said, “I view The Broken Column through a skewed lens where Frida wants me to see her suffering and anguish, I also see a woman who has become more because of that suffering and anguish. I don’t see a stone column for a spine, I see a column of steel. The cracks in it make her more flexible. I don’t see nails, I see sensors that detect the world around her, bringing her more information than any purely organic human being. I see a cyborg.” I wanted to ask you in light of this, but instead of asking you about optimism, I wanted to ask you about two emotions that Americans often consider negative emotions. But I wanted to see how they relate to or don’t relate to your narratives, one of them is anger, I think of how Binti returns home because she feels like she’s full of toxic anger, she needs to go through a coming-of-age pilgrimage to cleanse herself of it. But I also think of how Sankofa wipes out her town, it’s not stated, I don’t even know if it’s suggested but I wondered if there was something in her, something even unknown to her that is being unleashed that’s destructive or unprocessed and so destructive. The other emotion I wanted to ask about was fear because you’ve said before that your best stories often come from fear and what you’re afraid of. Maybe you can use Remote Control as a lens if you want but could you talk about anger and fear in relationship to story making for you?
NO: Gosh, anger is a theme that’s in almost everything that I’ve written. The way that I see anger, it may come from my childhood and my days as an athlete, the role that anger plays because anger, if it’s harnessed properly, can be very powerful and very useful. On the tennis court, if you get angry, it could muddle your brain where you stop concentrating, you end up losing to someone that you’re way better than, it can easily do that but if you focus that anger and you channel it in a way that’s useful, you will end up like, “God, it’s like just this big giant burst of energy.” It’s very useful. I learned that from a young age, the uses of anger, the positive uses of anger. Also, like man, I used to get really mad, so there’s that, [laughs] I would get really angry, I used to fight a lot up to the age of 12 where I realized, “Oh, I shouldn’t be doing that.” [laughs] But before that, I would fight and when I would fight, I was like a shark, when sharks are having a feeding frenzy, their eyes roll back and they’re just gone. I was that kind of fighter, [laughter] I would just be gone. Once I get at that point, you are done, it doesn’t matter if you were bigger than me, just no. That reveling in the anger, knowing what it feels like because I remember, even though I stopped at the age of 12, I remember how satisfying fighting was, [laughs] it was really satisfying. I enjoyed it, I will say this, I could say this, okay, because I stopped fighting when I was 12, but I enjoyed it. There’s a use of anger but also the joy of it, the reveling of it, it felt great. I think I channeled that in sports as well, if I get mad, I just revel in the physicality of it. I’m coming from that. In my stories, gosh, you’ll see Onyesonwu, she definitely has some anger issues, you can see how she deals with those, how she channels it, and you can also see the consequence of it. You’ll see that in the Akata series, Sunny fights as well, those scenes are easy to write for me, [laughs] it’s really easy to write but she fights as well. When she’s being bullied, she is not the type of kid who would sit back and be bullied, she’ll fight you, she’ll fight all of you. In that, she learns something about herself as well, she faces some things. In Remote Control, in that moment where the car accident happens, I wouldn’t say it was an anger in her but the colonels were definitely there because she was dealing with the requests of her brother, that’s where the patriarchy thing is, that shows this hierarchy, that’s her brother, he asks her to grasp a wasp, “See if that triggers your abilities.” She’s used to him doing that to her, she’s had to deal with that, I’m sure deep down, she’s not even old enough to understand that this is pissing her off, this is building up in her, when that happens, I think the pain of it, the shock of it, and the anger of it, I could definitely see that playing a role in what ends up happening. In terms of fear, it’s very similar with fear, these are two emotions that inspire what I write. I will say, it’s not that I’m just going around angry and like, “Oh, I’m going to sit down now, I’m going to write because I’m mad.” Sometimes it is. [laughter]
DN: I want the live feed of you doing your writing in that mode. [laughter]
NO: But fear, I’ve said it before, that when something scares me, I know that’s something that I should write. The idea of Sankofa, she comes from this wonderful family, full of love, and all of that for this thing to happen, that’s terrifying to me. Then she has to find her way, that is terrifying, when I wrote it, I’m like, “This is really dark,” I didn’t like to be in that, I didn’t enjoy being in that. Because it was so terrifying to me to write, I knew it was something to write. Who Fears Death, just fear is all over that one and me facing fear. Binti, the fact that it’s in space, I’m terrified of space, I’m terrified of outer space because you die there, that’s all you’re supposed to do as something from Earth is you die. I’ve never written anything set in space. I’m like, “Okay, I’m scared of writing in something set in space, I guess I have to do it.” Fear is a beacon for me, like a creative beacon. Now, as a seasoned writer, I understand if I’m afraid of writing something, I should write it even if it doesn’t feel all that great, I should do it.
DN: Another way you turn fear and pain into something positive in the memoir, other than the meditation on Frida Kahlo is when you talk about the Japanese Art of Kintsugi or Golden Joinery where a broken object is repaired but the cracks are preserved as gold rather than erasing the evidence of it being broken in the first place. It feels, in a way, like you had a superpower as an athlete with your 114-mile per hour serve, but then you turned your unasked-for cracks into another superpower. There’s a term in the Binti trilogy called treeing which describes a power of a mathematical trance that Binti goes into but the term originates from your days as an athlete, a term in tennis when—if I understand it correctly, correct me if I’m wrong—a tennis player goes unconscious and one’s game goes to another level, one can almost anticipate what’s going to happen next. It feels like your writing career has been treeing as of late hitting on all cylinders, that you’ve amassed this incredible, almost supernatural momentum, so much so that I don’t think people would be surprised that LeVar Burton calls you the busiest writer he’s ever known. [laughter] I’m both scared to ask what you’re working on now but also, I really want to know what you’re working on now.
NO: Oh boy, I’m working on a lot. The idea of treeing is actually a really good term because treeing is like you’re playing out of your mind, it’s unconscious, you’re guided by something else and you’re just going with it. It’s like there being you’re underground, there’s a tunnel there that just keeps appearing, you just keep following it even though you don’t know where it’s going. That’s what’s happening. It’s so true. What am I working on now, typically, whenever someone asks me this, I really get through the list, it’s that much. [laughter] There are things that I can’t announce yet.
DN: Start with those, tell us about those. [laughter]
NO: Okay, the things that I can’t announce? [laughter]
DN: I’m joking. [laughter]
NO: Okay, I’m working on the third volume in the Akata series, there’s that. That’s really thanks to this horrible pandemic, I haven’t been able to travel since March, before that, I was traveling everywhere. Once I was forced to stay in one place—which I was not happy about and I’m still not happy about—I just started writing. I knew I was going to start writing it, I meant to start writing it in the fall but I just started writing it. It just poured out of me in such an easy deluge, it was crazy. I had so many other things that I was doing, I still was able to write that. Now, I’m in the editing process of that, it’s complete with beginning, middle, and now, I’m just editing the thing. Then, I also finished an adult novel called Noor, which is going to be published by Daw. I’ve been working on that one for some years, it’s been like maybe, four years. I didn’t expect to finish that either. There’s a secret project, [laughter] I’m waiting until we can announce that one because that was a lot of fun. Then in terms of the TV/Film stuff, I’m adapting Wild Seed with Wanuri Kahiu, we’re now working on the second episode. Then I’m adapting the Binti series with investment that’s being produced by Media Res which is amazing. There are four other projects in that realm that I’m working on. [laughs]
DN: At the end of this pandemic, is there a hammock on some island somewhere for you with your name on it? [laughs]
NO: That’s actually a really good idea. When we finally get through all this—and I do believe we’ll get through this, probably not as soon as we think but it’s eventual—but when that happens, yes, at some point I will take a break. But right now, it’s not that I’m a workaholic or anything like that, it’s just that the stories are just blooming from me, they’re blooming. I enjoy writing, I enjoy creating, I enjoy the process, all of that stuff. Also, Who Fears Death is being developed by HBO. But I enjoy all the different types of writing, I enjoy writing prose, I enjoy screenwriting, I enjoy doing comics, and all of that. It’s just like all the different types of writing, it feeds me because storytelling is storytelling but I also just like doing a lot of different things. I do. There’s some part of me that I think likes the pressure as well. I figure that I need to accept that. [laughter]
DN: Thank you for being on the show today, Nnedi.
NO: Yeah, my pleasure, this has been great.
DN: We were talking today to Nnedi Okorafor about her latest book from Tor Books, Remote Control. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was not recorded at the studios of KBOO but at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Nnedi Okorafor’s work at nnedi.com. If you enjoyed today’s program, consider supporting Between The Covers at patreon.com/betweenthecovers where you can learn more about the bonus audio archive including readings by N. K. Jemisin, Ted Chiang, Carmen Maria Machado, Marlon James, and many more, get collectible work from everyone from Forrest Gander to Nikky Finney to Ursula K. Le Guin, become an early reader at Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of the year, months before they’re available to the general public. Again, this and much more can be found at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank Tor Books and TED Books for sending me the Binti: Trilogy and Broken Places & Outer Spaces respectively, and to the Tin House team who keep the podcast afloat, Elizabeth DeMeo, Alyssa Ogi, and Spencer Ruchti from the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the summer and winter Tin House Writing Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album, Imre Lodbrog & sa petite amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.