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Nnedi Okorafor, a pioneer of Africanfuturism, doesn’t want her work put in a box

Hugo Award-winning writer talks about ‘The Desert Magician’ series, her creative process, and why it’s OK to be a lone wolf

In the years since the release of 2018’s Black Panther, the popularity of Black and other diverse voices in science fiction and speculative fiction has undergone an explosion on both bookshelves and screens. Nnedi Okorafor has been in the vanguard of this movement, and one of its most recognizable names.

The Nigerian-American science-fiction writer is a pioneer of the Africanfuturism and AfricanJujuism genres, and has received multiple accolades, including the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and World Fantasy Award. She’s also been outspoken on the pros and cons associated with the commercialization of diversity in these genres.

We spoke to Okorafor recently about the rerelease in September of her critically acclaimed 2007 novel Shadow Speaker, and its sequel, the forthcoming Like Thunder (scheduled for release on Nov. 28), which make up the Desert Magician duology, as well as her views on the industry and how to stay inspired.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have carried multiple series and stories simultaneously. The release of the Desert Magician duology seems unusual because you’re revisiting it after more than a decade between entries. Can you tell us how this happened?

Yes, there’s a whole story behind Shadow Speaker and Like Thunder.

Shadow Speaker was my doctoral dissertation topic. It was originally published in 2007. When it came out, it went through a whole series of things with the publisher. The editor who initially bought Shadow Speaker was a Haitian American woman who connected with the story immediately. And back in 2007, there was not much of that out there. Soon there was a large turnaround in the publisher, and that publisher was replaced with another several times. And so, by the time the book came out, the publisher that I had didn’t know anything about the book, wasn’t interested, wasn’t really connected to the project.

So, I’m writing this African science fiction fantasy fusion-type of story that was deeply African, it was very rooted, closely rooted to African cultures and politics and all that. This is coming out in 2008. It didn’t have much support, didn’t have much publicity, all of that.

So that was how Shadow Speaker first came out. Very little publicity, very little support, and still managed to win a bunch of awards, but it could have been better.

Just after Shadow Speaker came out was when I wrote Like Thunder. So, Like Thunder was written some time ago. It is not as if I’m revisiting an old story — the stories were written years ago.

Finally, years later, I felt that the time was right. I was like: ‘I think it’s time. Shadow Speaker needs to be out there, and it has a part two that is stellar.’

I showed it to my publisher, and that’s how you get what you get now. While update’ isn’t the right word, I was able to improve it over the years. So, the Shadow Speaker that was just released is a stronger version.

With Like Thunder, I’ve been rewriting it over and over again. Every so often, a year or two would go by and I’d be like, ‘Oh, let me just bring this out and rewrite it again and rewrite it again.’ So that’s gone through its many iterations as well. So, the version that is coming out is the strongest it could have been because we went through a whole editing process, even after years of editing and editing and editing this thing.

It sounds like this is a perfect example of how a creation is an intersection between your creative process changing and dealings with the industry.

Very much so. With all of my work, and especially my early novels, there is a story. Even with Zahrah the Windseeker, my first novel, there’s a unique story.

There’s a reason why my first few novels are all different publishers, because I had to find the right editors and the right publishers where they understood what I was doing, and they got the scope of what I was doing and they were ready for it. It took me a few times to get there  But once we get to Who Fears Death [2010] and then The Nsibidi Scripts series [starting in 2011], I really found where I needed to be.

You’ve seen the entire genre of Black science fiction or Black speculative fiction rise to prominence. You’ve participated in it and seen it commercialized. How does that feel? 

It’s been utterly surreal to be able to have seen the whole thing. Of course, we can always say that, ‘Oh, there was science fiction written by Black people before a certain time period,’ but not in the sense of where it’s been named, where it’s like, ‘This is Black science fiction. This is Black fantasy. This is Black speculative fiction.’

I came along in what one might say is the second generation. The first generation, which is across a spectrum of time, includes Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler. And then you have Tananarive Due and Steve Barnes and Nalo Hopkinson, others.

Then, people like me came along right after that. But that’s still very early. I’ve watched enough of it where I’ve seen it where there was none and now where there’s a plethora.

Yes, we know there needs to be more. But to my eyes, there’s a ton now compared to what there was before. There was nothing before. There was no vocabulary. There was no point of reference. There was confusion when you presented. When Zahrah the Windseeker came out, which was in 2005, reviewers were confused by it.

Even with Who Fears Death, when they were first starting to show it to film and TV studios and some of the biggest names in the industry. And it was Whoopi Goldberg who was showing it, who was so excited about this book. And industry people were telling her, ‘We don’t do African science fiction. What is this? We don’t do that.’ This was before Black Panther and all of this. So, I’ve witnessed it. I’ve been a part of it. I’ve been to the conventions before all this was a thing.

Having seen all that, what do I see now that bothers me? The boxes that people put the work in. Because if there was an advantage to being early, it was there were no boxes and there were no terms for what we did. You just did whatever you felt was right.

But today, everything’s so reduced to be the same thing. When I was writing this African-centered science fiction and fantasy, it was just from within. It wasn’t because I’d read this other thing like this and I wanted to do it. There was no ‘I saw that that was successful, now I want to do it.’

A lot of us were generating this stuff from the heart. It didn’t come from an industry. While there’s an obvious advantage of having a large community, the disadvantage is a lot of the original thought starts falling away.

This relates to when I was teaching creative writing: I could see the difference in the writing of those students who were cliqued-up. There was a group of them, and they were all supporting each other and encouraging each other. But they were cliqued up, versus that lone wolf over there who’s just doing their own thing. The lone wolf might be all over the place, but it’s something original.

I think it’s amazing when I see that there’s so much out there. I love it. But I just also want to see more of the lone wolves just creating from a different place.

This conversation played out publicly with your distinction between Afrofuturism and what you call ‘Africanfuturism’ or AfricanJujuism.’

I just want conversation. I want an acknowledgement of the diversity in our writing.

We are too diverse of storytellers and creators for all of everything to be put under one category.
So that was really my biggest reason for making that distinction. I needed that conversation to be understood because if we don’t have this conversation, all our stories get reduced. And once we get reduced, we’re basically reduced to our racial background. That’s it. Our experience is not important and the stories. I found that as a Nigerian American with a very aware and complex view on culture, I can’t have that. If the reduction happens, I’m completely erased.

Several film and streaming projects were announced years ago. Do you have any updates on those?

During the strike, all projects are stopped, all of them. I have five projects that are in development both in TV and film. They’ve all stopped, and so now they’re all about to start.

I’m superexcited, but I’m also kind of freaking out with stress and anxiety because it’s like I had a whole bunch of things going, and they’re all on their own rhythm. And they were all stopped at the same time. Now they’re all about to start at the same time.

Do you have any thoughts on the creative process, maybe advice for aspiring creatives?

I guess one thing that I haven’t really said much about involves fear around the emergence of artificial intelligence and how it may affect creatives. My advice: Don’t stress about it. Keep being human and keep using your humanity to create. And do the work. Don’t be afraid of the work. There are no shortcuts. That’s part of the beauty of creating – that there are no shortcuts.

Enjoy those difficulties. Don’t be afraid of telling your stories. There’s always going to be someone who wants to hear it. And tell it your way. Don’t follow trends. 

When it comes to process: For me, I’m highly disciplined. I come from an athletic background, and that’s really where the way that I work comes from. It’s relentless, and I like work. The discomfort is part of the process. That’s the standpoint that I come from. There isn’t one way to tell a story. I don’t write linearly. I write nonlinearly. I don’t outline. I just sit down and start writing.

There are all sorts of ways. Learn your way of creating. If you’re new to this, give yourself time. When you’re new to this, the only way to find your voice is by experimenting and having the confidence to experiment.

Don’t look for instant gratification. Don’t look for validation from others. Figure it out on your own. Don’t listen to that voice in your head that’s saying it sucks, because we all have that. It kind of keeps you humble. But keep going.

C. Brandon Ogbunu, a New York City native, is a computational biologist at Yale University. His popular writing takes place at the intersection between sports, data science, and culture.