Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor, born to Igbo Nigerian parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, is an author of fantasy and science fiction for both adults and younger readers. Her Tor.com novella Binti won the 2015 Hugo and Nebula Awards; her children’s book Long Juju Man (Macmillan, 2009) won the 2007-08 Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa; and her adult novel Who Fears Death (DAW, 2010) was a Tiptree Honor Book. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo.

First things first: Congratulations on winning the Hugo last year for your novella Binti! Tell us what winning the award means to you.

It feels really special to me, and I can’t help thinking about it along with the Nebula because both feel connected. When I returned home to Chicago from Buffalo for the summer, a day later, Binti won a Nebula Award. Then at the end of the summer, a day before I left Chicago to head back to Buffalo, Binti won the Hugo. Both awards were a total shock to me. Why? Every award feels like a rare moment when so many factors align; expecting to win seems silly to me. Both my Nebula and Hugo will always carry that feeling of shock when I think about them.

Binti is a space opera about an African girl in the future who sneaks away from her beloved home to attend the finest university in the galaxy. For that kind of story to be the one that won me two of the most major awards in science fiction and fantasy means there’s been some sort of shift. This is especially uplifting when I consider the strong signs of other more nefarious types of shifts in this country. For me, these awards are a sort of beacon in the fog.

Your latest novella Binti: Home picks up where Binti left off. How did you decide to tell Binti’s story in a series of novellas rather than a novel?

I didn’t decide; the story did. It was August 2014 and I’d just left my family in Chicago to take a position at the University at Buffalo, NY. My family had not wanted me to take the position, and I’d done it anyway. I felt like I’d just left my home planet and I was nervous about my choice.

I started writing.

I hadn’t been asked by anyone to write a story for an anthology or publisher. No deadlines. No required length. No nothing. I just started writing this narrative about a girl named Bint, which simply means “girl” in Arabic (which became “Binti” after I sold it to Tor because of the negative stigma the word has). I knew the world of Binti was huge. I knew I loved this character. I knew she was opportunistic when she left home. I had no idea all hell would break loose on that ship until it did. I was just writing. It was liberating and it had a depressurizing effect on my own life. And I knew that when I got to a point, it was time to stop, so I did. I knew there was more, but at that point, I knew the story was done.

I edited it. Polished it. Reread and reread it and loved it. Then I looked at the length and was like, “What the hell do I call this?” It wasn’t a short story any more. I Googled the length and realized it was a novella. I told my agent and he happened to know exactly where to send it: Tor.com’s new novella line.

August 2015 came around. Exactly a year after I’d written Binti. After spending the summer in Chicago, I was back in Buffalo for the start of the semester. I started writing again. Again, I did it without anyone knowing. When I finished, Binti 2 was longer than the first, but it was still a novella. It stopped where it stopped. I knew the moment when I reached part two’s end. It completed an arc, but with this one there was very clearly more.

Come August 2016, I didn’t write part three, but the moment I arrived back at Buffalo, my brain threw the entire plot at me. From end to beginning (my stories usually come in a non-linear way). I wrote the first two pages, but wanted to let it cook for a bit before I wrote it. It wasn’t time to write it yet. That time came in mid-December 2016. I finished the first sloppy draft on January 1st, 2017, around 3 a.m., after I’d come home from celebrating New Year’s. Though at this time I was already contracted to write a part three, there was no deadline. Come sun-up on New Year’s Day, I shot a quick email to my agent and editor letting them know what I’d spit out. They were pleased and probably surprised, though they’ve seen me do this before.

I remember reading Stephen King’s Green Mile as a novella/serial series and loving that format. I didn’t consciously try to write this story in this way, but subconsciously, I’m sure that pleasure played a role in me feeling the freedom to write a story in a non-traditional format. Binti 1, 2, and 3 are all just one big story, and the spacing between them allows for a different experience of that one story. But it’s the only story that came to me in this way, and I’m really blessed to have the opportunity to tell it/have readers read it in this way.

You wrote in the acknowledgments of Binti that your daughter, Anyaugo, essentially came up with the plot of the novella. Was she also involved in plotting Binti: Home?

Anya didn’t come up with the whole plot of Binti. I was stuck on that ship with Binti and the murderous aliens; I knew the ending, but I wasn’t sure what should happen next. I told her about being stuck and she suggested something that went on to become a major part of the plot. The same happened with Binti: Home. When I write, Anya is very often around me or FaceTiming with me. So I’ll look up from writing and talk to her about what I’m writing. She always has something to say, and nine times out of ten, it’s good stuff. The same with part three. There was a major part in part three that we actually argued over because it was disturbing. I wanted one thing; she was like, “Heck no! You can’t do that.”

We live with my characters.

I love the way Binti visualizes numbers and mathematical equations. It made me think of the patients with number-space synesthesia described in neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. Does Binti have numerical synesthesia, or is her ability to visualize numbers and equations in space based on this idea?

I’ve never heard the term “numerical synesthesia,” but now that I have, yes, this is how she often sees. This is how she is able to calm herself. This is her path to tapping into the energy of spirit. I’ve also blended it with a phenomenon that I became familiar with while playing sports. “Treeing” was when you were effortlessly performing at a level beyond yourself. It was like looking into time and space and being able to manipulate it, but if you tried to analyze it, you’d fall out of it. Hence the phrase that I started using in Binti 2: “falling out of the tree.” I’ve had this feeling when doing math as well. It’s weird, I know . . . and this is going to grow weirder and more complicated as the story progresses.

One of the most potent images and symbols of the Binti series is the edan, the mysterious device Binti finds in the desert that turns out to be an ancient piece of alien technology. At one point, it comes apart, leaving intact its golden spherical core; it seems to represent Binti’s psychological development. By the end of Binti: Home, she feels torn because she’s reconciling three identities: Himba, the tribe she was born in; the alien Meduse, because she has okuoko—the species’ blue sensory tentacles—where her hair used to be; and Enyi Zinariya, the tribe with alien technology coursing through its veins. The edan also seems to be commenting on the intersection of these identities. Would you like to say anything about that?

Having just finished writing the third installment, I’m smiling at this question. I’ll start from the beginning, because things have come a long way.

The edan is an object usually used by Yoruba sorcerers (for lack of a better word) to find their way. It’s sort of like a magical GPS. A friend of mine (who is Yoruba) told me about this, and it stayed with me.

In Binti, the edan is alien technology that only a particular extraterrestrial people know and understand. Binti finds it when she is eight years old, and as the story progresses, learns about its functions in a nonlinear, incomplete, random, often sporadic way. It becomes more the more she lives her life and studies it. As she becomes, it becomes.

The entire story, Binti herself, her edan, all comment on intersectional identities. This was not something I set out to write about. But being who I am, from the cultures that I’m from, living the way I live, especially in the last few years, this theme was bound to come forth in my works, strong and bold and conflicted.

Speaking of ancient alien technology, Binti also discovers that, as a descendent of the Enyi Zinariya, she also carries the biological nanoids from the alien civilization known as the Gold People. This part of the novella reminds me of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens program. My critique of this thesis—if you will—is that it discredits technological advances made by non-white, non-European peoples. In other words, ancient civilizations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas “needed” intervention from aliens to build their pyramids, great temples, their societies, and what have you. But I was wondering if you were playing with this idea or subverting it in the world building of Binti’s story.

I believe aliens have definitely been here. I don’t think the theory that they have affected, interacted with, exchanged with the people of Earth (human and otherwise) in the past takes away from the accomplishments or innovations of anyone. I think the general belief that certain peoples are less than other peoples is what does that.

That said, I wasn’t consciously commenting on these ideas. I just believe that some things have happened on this Earth that would surprise the heck out of us if we knew. We don’t control or know everything, and that fascinates me. And not everyone is going to use amazing tech to try and rule or dominate others. Some things may just stay within a small group of people because some people really do just like to keep to themselves.

You were a keynote speaker at the 4th Annual Igbo Conference (bit.ly/2jF3Dcp). You said in your speech that science fiction is where you prefer to discuss and speculate about your cultures. How is the Binti series an example of this?

Some may get very angry with Binti’s family in part two. They may see her family as cruel, intrusive, controlling. It will probably be the same way that many saw the sorcerer Aro in Who Fears Death. These are cultural things that I am very used to and that I don’t demonize, despite disagreeing with it.

Much of Binti is about the push and pull of family and culture, and what it is and what it means to travel beyond one’s roots and grow while bringing along your roots. Too often, as an American, I see this sentiment that in order to evolve, one must leave family behind, one must leave one’s foundation behind, break bonds, forget the past. I say, “What if you bring family with? Aren’t you more that way?” Yes, it’s a harder road to walk, because you have to travel while carrying the loads of home and the past, and it requires a lot of negotiating and understanding and submitting. This is the cultural conversation in Binti. She’s constantly asking herself, “Who am I? What am I?”, but always while maintaining that she is Himba. And the Himba people are constantly grappling with this issue, too. Can one move into “modernity” with her culture? What does “modernity” mean? Most of the time it just means assimilating to Western cultures and ideals so you can enjoy technology. What is lost? Who is in control of the direction of “modernity”? Must it always be this way? If not, how? This is an issue I know Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora will have to face in the future, if not already.

The opening line of Binti, “I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer,” comes up again in Binti: Home. It captures Binti’s embrace of both technology and spiritual beliefs. Science and magic coexist without any problems or cognitive dissonance for her or her community. Where does this openness to the concrete and the mystical come from?

This comes from being an African. Being a Nigerian. Being Igbo. I was born and raised in the United States, but my upbringing was very Naijamerican (Nigerian American). My parents were connected to Home, but also very open to making the US and its culture a simultaneous Home. Duality, hybridization, gathering of more and more, is part of who I am, not leaving things behind to travel lighter.

Then there are the things I’ve observed while visiting Nigeria. Such as seeing people without running water or electricity in their homes build a computer from junk. Seeing yam farmers in the village using cell phones. Watching the way my video game-addicted cousin’s desktop computer wouldn’t miss a beat when the power went out because it was connected to a small generator. Watching my uncle say a prayer over his broken DVD player. Watching a friend of mine get out of his broken down car, speak some Yoruba words, and then say “I know who did this,” after he got back into the now running car (this actually happened in the United States, not Nigeria). I can go on and on about the ancient and the modern, technology and spirituality, living together comfortably.

In your interview on The Africa Channel’s Behind the Words (bit.ly/2jI8fPd), you spoke about your parents moving from Nigeria to the US primarily for school, but also because of the Biafran War. How much did the war inform the ongoing feud between the Meduse and the Khoush?

In this case, not much. Nigeria’s Civil War was caused mainly by colonialism time bombs going off; schisms purposely encouraged by the British to create unrest. The war between the Khoush and Meduse in Binti is more me looking at humanity as a whole and various hatreds that have been cultivated and acted upon for so long that no one even remembers the origin. We just hate and judge because that’s what’s been done before. The treatment of the Khoush by the Meduse is based on Arab racism toward Black Africans in the Middle East and parts of Africa and the simultaneous cultural blending of and relationship between the two groups.

In the same interview, you talked about being diagnosed with severe scoliosis. You underwent spinal surgery during your first year of college. How much did this experience inspire the scene in Binti where the Meduse change her hair into okuoko by injecting their DNA into her spine?

Great observation. This was purely unconscious, but definitely the origin. Of all places, I chose the spine. That surgery changed me and my destiny forever. It was involuntary. And afterwards, I could do nothing but live with the change. And I often resent it, and still the change led me to some of the greatest things in my life. Yes, having this happen to Binti may have been unconscious, but it was not a coincidence.

This scene brings up issues of consent, or a lack thereof, between Binti and the Meduse. Binti’s mother, in fact, asks her about it in Binti: Home. On one hand, the injection ensures her survival during her trip to the university and gives her the ability to speak and understand the Meduse’s language. On the other hand, she didn’t consent to being genetically altered. Her run-in with the Meduse and her friendship with Meduse ambassador Okwu have literally changed her. I thought of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy and how thorny the issue of consent gets between the humans and the Oankali, her gene-trading aliens. Was her trilogy a reference point for the dynamics between Binti and the Meduse?

Again, not consciously. But Octavia’s literary DNA runs through me. Thus, it’s no coincidence.

In the introduction you wrote for the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, you mention that Wild Seed was the first novel of hers that you read. Wild Seed was my first Butler novel, too, and I’ve been a Butler fan for life since reading it. I was wondering if you could go into more detail about what drew you to Wild Seed and how it spoke to you.

When I picked up Wild Seed, I had no idea who Octavia Butler was. It was the year 2000, and I was at Michigan State for Clarion. The only reason I noticed and then bought Wild Seed was because it was the first novel with a black woman on the cover that I’d ever seen in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. I had no idea that Octavia herself was a black woman, either. I read that book not knowing for sure . . . well, upon reading the first few pages, I knew.

I was immediately blown away because within the first few pages, I found myself reading about an Igbo shape-shifter in Nigeria who was a woman, but hiding in her village as a man. Oh my goodness, that was it. I was hooked. Of all of her books, Wild Seed was the perfect one for me to start with. At the time, I was writing about an angry mean woman in pre-colonial Eastern Nigeria who could fly and was about to be lynched by her village because of it. Reading Wild Seed let me know that such stories could be published and loved. That was a big deal for me as a black writer.

You also mentioned in your introduction that you interviewed Butler about her last novel, Fledgling, and that you met her in person at Chicago State University. I’d love to hear what that was like.

I remember keeping her on the phone longer than I needed to for that interview. Once I had all my interview questions answered, I just wanted to talk to her and listen. I’d spoken to her a few years prior as well. She was just really cool, funny, and full of witty wisdom. I remember laughing a lot during all our conversations. She was cynical about the world and had strong political views. Meeting her in person was just sweet. I’m tall and she was taller. She came to CSU for the Gwendolyn Brooks Writer’s Conference, a black conference at a black university, and the place was packed with black people. I think it surprised her to see that big room full of mostly dark faces gazing at her with wide eyes of love and awe. This wasn’t long before she passed and I always hope that she understood that day how much she is loved amongst blacks in the US, that we do read science fiction, and we love her.

What has been her influence on your writing?

Epic.

You’ve mentioned that Butler and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan author of one of your favorite books, Wizard of the Crow, write in a clean prose that you admire. What is the attraction to their prose style?

When the story itself is complex, I don’t like the words to obscure or weigh it down.

You’ve tweeted that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind has influenced much of your work (bit.ly/2kWGDdZ). How so?

My daughter and I watched it recently and I just saw so much. The giant bugs helped me imagine Binti’s world. Nausicaä was an agent of peace in a similar way that Binti is (though Nausicaä does kill a bunch of men in one memorable scene). Oh, and when I imagined the breathing room in Third Fish (the living ship that Binti leaves Earth in), I was imagining the room where Nausicaä was growing the pollution-free plants in the dungeon of her father’s palace.

In which works of yours can we see Miyazaki’s influence?

Binti, Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix, Lagoon, Akata Witch, The Shadow Speaker . . . yeah, um, all of them.

One recurring theme I’ve noticed in your work, such as Zahrah the Windseeker and the Binti series, is the symbiosis of the natural world and technology. In your far-future scenarios, humans have developed technology that depends on both flora and fauna. What interests you so much about bridging the natural world with technology?

It’s simple. I think we as humans can go further and become more if we work with nature. And I believe everyone (from flora to fauna to mineral to metal) will be happier if humans work with nature.

On the planet where Binti goes to university, there are these transportation shuttles made from the molted cuticles of giant creatures that live in the forests. Knowing your passion for entomology, I have to ask if these giant forest creatures are huge insects. Are they?

Oh yeah, they’re insects. Huge, blue, slow-moving beetles.

Another recurring theme—and plot point—that I’ve seen in Who Fears Death, the Binti series, and your short story “Afrofuturist 419” published in Clarkesworld in 2016, is the need to leave home. I would also include Lagoon, because the shape-shifting aliens leave their planet to make first contact with the city of Lagos. And earlier in this interview, you mentioned your recent move to New York for a teaching position at the University of Buffalo, NY. Tell us about the personal significance of this theme to you.

I’ve always followed the stories. And the stories have always pulled me further than I would ever have gone without them.

I’ll start with my paralysis. In that first year where I relearned how to walk, I avoided driving at night, because though I had regained my ability to walk, I sometimes couldn’t feel my legs or feet. I was interning at a newspaper and one day there was this story I really wanted to chase. However, it involved me interviewing a family at night. It was that day that I came up with the idea of driving with a flashlight. I’d flick the flashlight on whenever my legs and feet seemed to disappear. Seeing them let me know they were still there. I still use a flashlight to drive at night.

With my writing career, it’s been similar. I went from spending many years rarely getting into an airplane to hopping airplanes like buses. I had a fear of airplanes (mainly the idea of not being in control) and of travelling to unfamiliar places. I had to learn to face that fear in order to go to all these places I was invited to because of my works. In this way, I grew as a person and my worldview expanded.

When it came to my teaching career, it’s another similar experience. I was teaching at Chicago State University and was really miserable there. It’s not really a university for writers who are actually writing. When the opportunity to teach in New York State at the University at Buffalo (an R1 institution) arose, though I was worried about (and afraid of) leaving my home in Illinois to teach there, I had enough experience with travel and stretching my boundaries to take the leap.

The themes of change, moving beyond one’s comfort zone, stepping into the dark or the unknown and learning how to deal with whatever comes my way are dear to me and, thus, constantly appearing in my stories.

“Afrofuturist 419” incorporates multimedia storytelling with an audio file of the Nigerian astronaut abandoned in space by the private spaceflight company he works for. It also uses the epistolary format by way of the infamous Nigerian 419 scam letters we’re all familiar with on the Internet. What prompted you to tell this story with these narrative devices?

When I read about the 419 scam letter concerning a Nigerian astronaut in space, I knew I would write a story about it. How could I not? Plus, I love the film The Martian (the novel, not so much). I have a journalist background and have been a reporter before. I wanted this story to be heard, not read, and my character was male and Nigerian.

All these elements led to the multimedia telling of “The Afrofuturist.” I always let the story guide me when I write, and this one led me to come up with a creative odd format.

Structurally speaking, we’re distanced from astronaut Abacha Tunde through the epistolary format. We don’t get to his voice until the last third of the story. It highlights his displacement from the planet and also humanity. That spaceflight company just left him out there to die!

Yep. Sadly, nothing I can’t imagine, heh. It’s a commentary on who’s quite often the expendable one. Remember when we had the Ebola crisis? Why did the two white Americans get the Ebola serum when hundreds of Africans had died and were dying? Yeah. African lives have consistently been treated as less than by others.

Award-winning Nollywood (Nigerian film industry) director Tchidi Chikere does the voice of the astronaut. How did you come into contact with him to do the audio file?

Tchidi and I have been friends for nearly a decade. I merely had to ask him for the favor and after a good laugh; he was happy to do it.

You co-wrote the short story “Rusties,” also published in Clarkesworld in 2016, with Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu. How did this project come about? What was it like collaborating with her?

My daughter and I went to Kenya last summer to attend Wanuri’s traditional wedding and for a vacation. Wanuri and I talked out the plot of “Rusties” while sitting on the porch looking out at the Indian Ocean one night in Diani, Kenya. We wrote it a few weeks later. Wanuri and I have several projects we are working on together, including Camel Racer, an animated film with the South African film production company Triggerfish. When we write things together, it’s a true collaboration. By the time we finish, neither of us will even know who wrote what half the time.

“Rusties” has this intricate social dynamic in its world building where African citizens opposed to the traffic-policing robots join forces to form an anti-AI union because automation has taken away jobs. Some of them even resort to illegally stripping metals from the robots’ motherboards to make what are called “backlash bracelets,” which then get adopted into the rap music scene. It’s a take on showing the cause of a robot uprising that I haven’t seen done before. How did you and Wanuri develop this idea?

Through a lot of cynical laughter and snickering.

In your 2009 interview on Clarkesworld (bit.ly/2kWJ8gF) you said, “If it scares you to write it, then you should definitely write it.” Could you tell us what scared you to write “Afrofuturist 419” and “Rusties”?

With “Afrofuturist 419,” the idea of getting left behind in space is terrifying to me. And space itself is terrifying. It’s vast, you die out there because you’re not supposed to be out there, and there is too much we don’t know, like what’s out there and why it’s out there and what it’ll do when it gets inside.

The terror of “Rusties” lies in being self-absorbed. We all get self-absorbed. But what happens when all hell is breaking loose around you? What if it happens when you are not ready? When you’re too busy freaking out over a stupid break-up? Also, what if you cause the robo-revolution because you were projecting your issues with your stupid cheating boyfriend on a robot? What if the robo-apocalypse is all your fault?

Has your idea about what scares you changed over time as you work on new projects?

Not really. Fear is where the energy lies. Facing it is almost always a great story.

Going back to what you stated in your keynote speech at the 4th Annual Igbo Conference, how do “Afrofuturist 419” and “Rusties” discuss and speculate about your cultures in science fiction?

“Afrofuturist 419” forced me to channel a typical Nigerian man who was kind of losing his mind. That was fun. What would he miss, being stuck out there? What would he seek to do? How would he speak? How would he feel about space travel and how would his family feel?

“Rusties” was just speculating about what could happen with the robot cops currently in Kinshasa.

Science fiction is not something you add to African culture. It’s not something separate from it. Both stories look into the future, and that’s what makes them science fiction.

As we approach the end of the interview, I have to note that Binti: Home ends on a cliffhanger. When can we expect to see the next installment?

You can expect to find out what happens next, haha. That’s for me to know and interested readers to find out. But just so you know, I know exactly what happens because I just wrote it.

Do you have any other writing projects in the works you can tell us about?

I’m still polishing a novel set in a near future part of Africa called Remote Control. I’ve been working on it for six years and it’s complete now and deep into the most major edits. The sequel to Akata Witch, titled Akata Warrior, is scheduled for release in the fall. I have a comic book project that should soon be announced. I’m working on a very cool short story for a very cool anthology. And so much more, including film projects that are too new to discuss. I stay busy.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.