Who Fears Death: An Interview with Nnedi Okorafor by Matthew Cheney

Jeff VanderMeer on August 23, 2010

Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the award-winning young adult novels Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker, the children's book Long Juju Man, and, most recently, the adult novel Who Fears Death. (Visit her Amazon page for more information on all of these titles.)

Okorafor was born to Igbo (Nigerian) parents in the United States, and her work draws on Igbo culture as well as American and European styles of fantastic literature, including science fiction. Who Fears Death is a powerful combination of science fiction, African folklore, and stark realism. It tells the story of Onyesonwu, a woman of extraordinary powers in a post-apocalyptic West Africa, a world of perils and mysteries, of lost technologies and brutal wars. Onyesonwu's name means "Who fears death?", and her birth was the result of rape used as a weapon in battle; this legacy affects the woman she becomes, and the novel portrays her education as a sorceress and her quest to bring order and peace to her life and world.

Okorafor is a past winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature, the CBS Parallax Award, and the Macmillan Writer's Prize for Africa. We conducted our interview during the summer of 2010 via email. -- Matthew Cheney

       Who-fears-death Nnedi to the side 

Matthew Cheney for Amazon.com: One of the things that most struck me about Who Fears Death is not only the story it tells but how it tells it. It seemed to me that one of the things the book is about is the effect of stories on our lives and actions. What led you to choose the structure you did for the novel?

Nnedi Okorafor: You’re spot on. I didn’t just write a first person narrative. This is Onyesonwu telling her story two days before her execution. It’s an Oral Narrative, which is a traditional African method of storytelling. The story is even introduced with words spoken by Patrice Lumumba, an African man with a charismatic short life and a brutal death. But the story has also been translated (by me, the Nigerian American who loves and maintains great respect for both her cultures) to be suitable for another form of storytelling--The Novel, a Western form. So even in this way, it is a hybrid. She’s telling her story to someone, so the story is told to that someone with that someone’s background in mind. And that someone is not from our time and is of a specific cultural background. This forced me to work hard to get the world across.

There are books within books in this tale. There is a moment where she tells a folktale that is deeply connected with her story. And as the writer, I know exactly what happened to her world, but all people in the story know is what was in the Great Book--which is part history, part myth, and part manipula-...I mean, ah, guidance, something I believe we should all be able to relate to when we look at our own history books...and holy books.

Who Fears Death is also about stories, how they affect us and how they affect, predict, and create history and destiny. It’s about “what is written”. The structure itself reflects this. An aside, I’ve got a story tattooed to my ankle and it is in Nsibidi symbols. The tattoo is the story of my life.

Amazon.com: The epigraph for the book comes from Patrice Lumumba, the first and only legally elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo (assassinated in January 1961). This year, 2010, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Congo's independence from Belgium. In eastern DR Congo today, some of the worst sexual violence against women in the world continues as a tool of war. Though your initial inspiration for the weaponized rape depicted in Who Fears Death was a newspaper article about Sudan, I couldn't help thinking of the Congo as I read your novel, especially given the use of Lumumba's words as an epigraph -- the hope he offered for a better world was soon replaced by the nightmare of Mobutu's corrupt dictatorship. Hope often falls away in the face of horror, and particularly in the face of protracted wars and unfathomable atrocities, but despite its sometimes horrifying events, Who Fears Death was for me a very hopeful book, a novel that has a lot of faith in humanity's ability to recover from terrible circumstances. Does setting the novel in the future help with that, do you think, by allowing us to imagine possibilities and not focus only on the facts of now?

Okorafor: I get teary eyed whenever I think of Lumumba. He went in there and just…tried. Head on, he tried. He was brave enough to stand up and make some tough decisions. And with such heroism and genuine love for his people. In the face of terrifying threats. And then he was brutally murdered. But still, after the tears, when I think of him, I feel hope. He represents hope to me, despite what ended up happening after his death. Despite what is still happening. He tried. I guess I’m a great big old optimist. I believe human beings are good forces. I believe in the future. Even when I’m unhappy, I am still happy. For me the glass is always half full. This is reflected in Who Fears Death.

The inspiration of this book was my father’s death and then reading about weoponized rape in the Sudan. But as I wrote, all these other issues from all over Africa were drawn into the novel. I was born in the US only because my parents, at the time, could not return to Nigeria due to the Biafran Civil War. Many strongly believe that the Biafran War included the genocide of Igbos (it depends on who you speak to). Note: I am Igbo. Also, female circumcision is something that is traditionally still practiced in parts of Igboland. So many of this novel’s issues are ones that resonate in my blood. Once I connected, then I started connecting to every part of the continent because all these issues are very African issues. And these African issues are global issues. And so we can all connect.

I set the novel in the future because I wanted readers to see the story, not get bogged down in the, “Well, that’s not perfectly accurate, actually in [blah blah blah]”. Nor did I want to have to think about who I was representing and my allegiance to so and so. When people get wrapped up in issues of accuracy and allegiance, they often miss what’s really important.

Amazon.com: That's a statement I'd love to put on billboards! The layers of storytelling in the novel really make questions of accuracy beside the point, because it seems to me the book is very much about not whether stories are true/accurate, but how they are received and used. How can writers locate what's really important in the stories they want to tell, and then shape those stories accordingly?

Okorafor: I feel  very responsible for every story I tell. These aren’t just tales that I’m throwing out there. There are so many layers of reality, so many layers of “life”. Stories multiply them. One should NOT take this fact lightly. It’s like when I consider juju; it’s ok to mess with it, but you’d better know what you’re doing.

What makes a story important is located within how it affects me. That also goes for wielding the power of a story. I don’t deal with stories that I am detached from. I deal with stories that touch me in some way, that are connected to me. That way when I work with them, that feeling of responsibility is innate, it is assumed. I am writing science fiction, fantasy, magical realist literature based in African culture. If I do African culture wrong, I do wrong to myself. This isn’t about accuracy at this point. It is about “truth”. Two different things. Am I making sense?

Amazon.com: Sure, that makes a lot of sense. Now, to completely change topics, I'd like to talk about a particular section of the book. The Red People live in the eye of a perpetual storm -- it's an extraordinary image, and it conveys a lot about both the attraction and peril of a group sealing themselves off from the world. How did the concept of the Red People occur to you?

Okorafor: Honestly, I don’t know. I do know that once in Nigeria -- no twice, at two different times -- I saw a woman walking down the road who was African looking but her skin was just… red. I don’t know if these two women had rubbed palm oil on their skin or something but their brown skin had this very strong tint of red. Both women were really beautiful. Over the years, I’ve thought about these two random women a lot. I’ve asked relatives and Nigerian friends if they’ve ever seen such women, the only person who had was my sister Ifeoma (who was there when we saw the first red woman). When something fascinates me it almost always makes it into my stories.

As for the culture of the Red People, th at just came as I was writing. That’s one of those writer things where the story blows in from some other place and you just write it down. Even the giant sandstorm they live within, I don’t know where that  came from (though I do have a fascination with violent winds- tornadoes, hurricanes, sandstorms, etc) but once it was there, the metaphor made so much sense to me.

Nevertheless, I believe that much of the Red People’s culture came from some of my own views. I believe our society has too many labels that are rigid and cause problems for families. I feel like we focus more on fitting labels than cultivating and nurturing love. And I also believe that those who are different, those who are “other” often have to hide, “contain” and separate themselves in order to survive.

Amazon.com: The Red People's separation, then, is not a strictly good or bad thing, but, like so much of life, a mix. They aren't interacting with the broader society, but they're protecting themselves, maintaining themselves, and Onyesonwu benefits from her time with them because it allows her to replenish and build the strength she needs later. Can fiction, and particularly science fiction (broadly defined!), be a way of finding strength for survival?

Okorafor: Yes and no. There is always strength within a group. It self generates. But science fiction needs to exist outside. I see it as a camera lens that should be used by all sorts of people in order to be useful. Right now, I feel too much of that lens is being monopolized by one or a few groups of people. Other groups don’t even know it exists. And when it’s given to them, they turn it over in their hands with a perplexed look on their faces and then throw it aside because they don’t know it’s a lens.

Amazon.com: You have a Ph.D. and teach at Chicago State University. People often talk about the dangers and benefits of academia for writers, and I'm curious what led you to an academic career?

Okorafor: I come from an Igbo family and Igbos tend to bear a reverence for academia. Often, we collect degrees. This wasn’t a conscious thing really, more like an assumption I was raised beneath. In my family, no matter what you study, you are to earn the highest degree in that area. There is a strong belief in education in my family. My parents did not come from money but they came from families that also had this strong belief -- if you got an education, you would succeed in life. There was no discussion of people who have degrees and cant’ find a job. It’s an absolute belief.

I wanted to be a writer, so I had to find a writing program that had a PhD. Once I had the degree, I knew I wanted to be a professor. It just felt right. A little perk is that in the Nigerian community, there is great respect for professors. Even my cousins proudly call me “Prof”.

Lastly, as a writer, the university setting is perfect. I love being around people who are seeking knowledge, who are experts in their fields and obsessed with so many different ideas and disciplines. And though the schedule can be taxing, it allows me the flexibility to write.

Amazon.com: You've just returned from teaching at the Clarion West Writers' Workshop. Is your approach to teaching aspiring SF writers different from your approach to teaching general fiction-writing classes?

Okorafor: Nope. It’s the exact same.

Amazon.com: What do you find helpful for guiding young or aspiring writers? What do they need to think about and know to become the best storytellers they can be?

Okorafor: Aspiring writers need to look within themselves. Look and listen, listen hard. They also need to be honest with themselves. And they need to let that honesty and emotion fuel their stories. This is easier said than done. Oh and it certainly helps to be aware of other perspectives, though it’s not mandatory to write about them. Travel. Read. Ask questions. Ignore categories (let editors and book distributors handle that). And don’t be afraid of failure.

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