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There will never be another Octavia Butler. But she is a great influence on my own work. She

showed me that what I was doing was possible and publishable. I just want to be

“Nnedi the Tall Nigerian American Woman who Writes that Weird Stuff.”



Books by Nnedi Okorafor


Long Juju Man / Zahrah the Windseeker The Shadow Speaker  / Who Fears Death


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Nnedi Okorafor Interview

 By Charles Tan


Charles Tan: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to conduct an interview. First off, this is embarrassing for me but how do you pronounce your name?

Nnedi Okorafor: No worries. I keep the phonetic spelling of my name on file in my computer for just this question (which I get all the time J): Neh-dee (Nnedi) Oh-core-ra-for (Okorafor) Mm-bah-chew (Mbachu).

Charles Tan: Is there a story behind the name Nnedi?

Nnedi Okorafor: My full name is Nnedimma Nkemdili Okorafor-Mbachu. Imagine if I put that on my books. Talk about scaring people away. Ha ha. “Nnedimma” means “Mother is good.” Nnedi means “Mother is”. Apparently when I was born I came out looking exactly like my grandmother.

Charles Tan: What kind of research did you have to do for The Shadow Speaker?

Nnedi Okorafor: Plenty. But for different things. I did a lot of research on the Sahara Desert, the Wodaabe people of Niger, the Hausa people of Nigeria and Niger, various forms of Islam, the Aïr Mountains, the country of Niger, a lot of scientific stuff (especially for the capture station), etc. I did a lot of scientific research, mainly involving creatures. The many creatures of my stories are usually based on creatures that I’ve personally encountered or that I have read about.

Charles Tan: Can you share with us your experience with paralysis?

Nnedi Okorafor: I’ve always been very athletic. I was always the kid who was chosen first during playground games. Both my parents were athletes, my three siblings were all athletes.

From the age of nine I focused on the sport of tennis. All through grade school and high school, I played semi-pro tennis. I also was exceptionally good in track and field. Up to the age of 19, my life revolved around two things—sports and books (reading them).

Starting at the age of 12, I developed scoliosis that progressively grew worse as I grew up. When I was 19, after my first year of college (I was on the tennis team), I learned I had to have spinal surgery or I’d definitely be severally crippled by the age of 25. There was a one percent chance of paralysis. Which gamble would you make? Yeah, even today, I’d still choose the surgery option.

May 18th. I went into the hospital walking and woke up a day later paralyzed from the waist down. I spent the rest of that summer learning to walk. I returned to school using a cane. It was awful.

However, this incident also made me turn inward for a while. It also forced me to give up sports. Though all my strength remained, I’d lost my agility and my balance was terrible. You can still knock me down pretty easily.

So, I had a tragic sense of loss, hints of rage, a creative mind, and a lot of unspent energy. The conditions were right for the discovery of fiction writing. I discovered it that very semester when, upon a friend’s advice, I took a creative writing class. The rest is history.

Charles Tan: Did it have any impact on your writing?

Nnedi Okorafor: My experience with paralysis IS why I started writing.

One thing I took from the experience was a sense of urgency. I basically had one great talent snatched from me and then another took its place. I remain plagued by a need to write as much as I can before this gift gets snatched from me, too. It’s part of why I write so much and so fast.

Secondly, what I learned from sports, what is a large part of why I was able to walk again, was a very strong sense of discipline. I use that same discipline when I write novels. It’s another reason why I write so fast.

Lastly, being paralyzed forced me to disregard the physical for a while and travel inward. That’s where I found much of the weird stuff you find in my work. That’s where I discovered the storyteller within. Friends of mine say that the whole paralysis thing was fate. Maybe, but it still sucked.

Charles Tan: When did you decide to pursue writing seriously?

Nnedi Okorafor: It was more of a gradual thing. After my first creative writing class, I didn’t stop writing. I just fell in love with it. I started knitting novel and I didn’t even know it. I had no intention of getting published. It was purely for the love of story. I did this type of continual writing for about five years. I wrote three novels. Then somewhere along the line I started getting short stories published. When I wrote my fourth novel, I started thinking about getting it published. I think when I got my first agent, I realized that I was writing seriously.

Charles Tan: What is it about fantasy or science fiction that attracted you as a reader? As a writer?

Nnedi Okorafor: I see the world as a magical place. I believe that was why I was attracted to fantasy and science fiction as both a reader and a writer. This kind of literature also seemed to address issues of otherness in ways that really resonated with me.

Charles Tan: You’ve mentioned in an interview that among many things, you’re a horrible speller and didn’t do so well in English. How has this affected your writing or what steps did you take to overcome them?

Nnedi Okorafor: In high school, my best subjects were math and the sciences, especially geometry, calculus, and biology. I excelled in grammar, too. Plus I had always read voraciously. However, when it came to the subjects of literature and writing, I was pretty bad. Maybe I didn’t have the best teachers or maybe it was all just a matter of time or maybe the books we focused on didn’t spark my interests. I think it was a combination of all these things. Eventually, I got it together by college.

As far as spelling, there’s no hope there. Ha ha. I think it’s genetic. My mom, who has a PhD in health administration and was at the top of her college class, is also a terrible speller. My mom and I also both have weird issues with knowing our left from our right. I have to really think about it. Thank goodness for spell-check.

Charles Tan: Can you elaborate on the importance of formal education in your development as a writer?

Nnedi Okorafor: I learned about structure during my masters and PhD (English with an emphasis on creative writing). Point of view, character development, theme, form, these are what I took from academia when it comes to my writing. Fiction writing requires creativity and no university can teach that. However, it also requires craft, and that a university can teach very very well.

Charles Tan: Is incorporating Nigerian elements into your stories a conscious decision on your part or does it fall more along the lines of “write what you know”?

Nnedi Okorafor: Nigeria and the greater Africa are where my muse resides right now. Maybe someday that will change. I don’t see that being soon. It’s not a conscious choice, it just is what it is.

It’s not always writing what I know. I’ve never been to Niger (where The Shadow Speaker takes place). Well, I’ve flown over it. I’ve written an adult novel that incorporates a mix of Nigerian, Sudanese, and Tanzanian magic and culture. I’ve only been to Nigeria.

If I’m doing anything conscious it’s that I’m filling in blanks. I’ve always wanted to read fantasy set in Africa that is about Africa and Africans, that’s set in the now or the future.

Charles Tan: Do you foresee yourself as the “next Octavia Butler”?

Nnedi Okorafor: There will never be another Octavia Butler. But she is a great influence on my own work. She showed me that what I was doing was possible and publishable. I just want to be “Nnedi the Tall Nigerian American Woman who Writes that Weird Stuff.”

Charles Tan: Is there a shift for you when writing adult fiction vs. young adult fiction?

Nnedi Okorafor: I write YA and adult fiction in the same way. I don’t figure out what it is until it’s done.

Charles Tan: How about your short fiction vs. your longer fiction?

Nnedi Okorafor: Usually my short fiction is just the start of my longer fiction. Only once in a while do I really write a short story that is a short story. I have a story in a science fiction anthology called Seeds of Change.

Charles Tan: What in your opinion are the elements of your writing that distinguishes your young adult from your adult fiction, if any?

Nnedi Okorafor: When it’s all said and done and I look at my YA and adult work, I see that my adult fiction is significantly darker and far more graphic.

Charles Tan: You’ve mentioned that you’re both a feminist and a womanist. Could you define for us what each of them means for you and how they sometimes clash with each other?

Nnedi Okorafor: To me, to be a feminist is to believe in the equality of men and women, despite differences. It also means that you acknowledge that there is inequality and seek to right that wrong in your own way. So I’m a feminist. Womanism is feminism for people of color, feminism that actively incorporates the complexity of race into the equation. Yeah, I’m that, too.

Charles Tan: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in becoming a writer?

Nnedi Okorafor: My family and, I guess, culture. In my family, and amongst Igbos as a whole, the most respected careers are in medicine and engineering. Writing is a hobby.

I remember my father scoffing at the idea (he was a cardiovascular surgeon and a Chief of Surgery in Chicago). I definitely had to prove myself. So when I decided I was serious, I knew I had to do more than just get published. I had to get a PhD in writing (Nigerians love degrees) and get published by a top publisher, amongst other things.

Charles Tan: What projects are you currently working on?

Nnedi Okorafor: I just sold a YA fantasy novel to Penguin Books titled “Sunny and the Leopard People.” It’s about a Nigerian albino girl who discovers some serious strangeness in her neighborhood and eventually becomes a part of it. I’ll be editing that soon. And this summer I wrote a sort of part two to The Shadow Speaker tentatively titled “Stormbringer.” Then there’s also my adult novel, Who Fears Death, that is currently being shopped around.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is the author of Who Fears Death (DAW, 2010),  The Shadow Speaker (Disney Media Group, 2007; rpt 2009) and Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin, 2005; rpt 2008). Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines and journals, the latest being “Spider the Artist” in Seeds of Change (Prime Books). Nnedi is a 2007 NAACP Image Award Nominee and the recipient of several literary awards including the 2008 Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. She is currently a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Chicago State University.

Charles Tan is a speculative fiction fan from the Philippines. He has lots of online doppelgangers, including a Singaporean politician and a Filipino basketball player, but people should be warned that the “real” Charles Tan is a bibliophile who stalks his favorite authors. His blog, Bibliophile Stalker is updated with daily content including book reviews, interviews, and essays. He is also a contributor for SFF Audio.

9 December 2008

Source: NebulaAward

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Nnedi Okorafor—Behind the Words, Part 1

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Who Fears Death

By Nnedi Okorafor

Well-known for young adult novels (The Shadow Speaker; Zahrah the Windseeker), Okorafor sets this emotionally fraught tale in postapocalyptic Saharan Africa. The young sorceress Onyesonwu—whose name means Who fears death?—was born Ewu, bearing a mixture of her mother's features and those of the man who raped her mother and left her for dead in the desert. As Onyesonwu grows into her powers, it becomes clear that her fate is mingled with the fate of her people, the oppressed Okeke, and that to achieve her destiny, she must die. Okorafor examines a host of evils in her chillingly realistic tale—gender and racial inequality share top billing, along with female genital mutilation and complacency in the face of destructive tradition—and winds these disparate concepts together into a fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling.—Publishers Weekly

“My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died.”

Those are the opening lines of Who Fears Death. I remember when I wrote them. I was thinking of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I was thinking of change, cultural shift, chaos. Okonkwo’s death. And my own father’s very recent death. Yeah, all that in those two lines.

In more ways than one, the opening scene of Who Fears Death, titled “My Father’s Face,” was the beginning of it all. Originally, it was not the beginning of the novel. This scene takes place well into the story when my main character Onyesonwu is sixteen and has been through so much. The original beginning was when Onyesonwu was five years old and happy, living with her mother in the desert. Nevertheless, “My Father’s Face” was the first scene I wrote.

Though my stories tend to be mostly linear, I’m a non-linear writer. I’ll write the middle, then the ending, then the beginning and kind of jump around until I’m done. Then I’ll tie all the scenes together and neaten it up. Nevertheless, when Who Fears Death was all said and done, I wasn’t surprised that “My Father’s Face” turned out to be the beginning of the actual book.

I started writing Who Fears Death just after my father passed in 2004. I was very very close to my father and writing was my way of staying sane. I based “My Father’s Face” on a moment I experienced at my father’s wake when everyone had cleared out of the room and I found myself alone with his body.

I was kneeling there looking at his face, thinking how much it no longer looked like him and how terrible that was. My morbid thoughts were driving me into deeper despair. Then suddenly I felt an energy move though me. This energy felt highly destructive, as if it could bring down the entire building. Almost all the details in the scene I went on to write were true, I felt them…well, up to the part where Onyesonwu makes her father’s body breathe.

As soon as I wrote that scene, everything else rushed at me. My father’s passing caused me to think about death, fear, the unknown, sacrifice, destiny and cosmic trickery. Only a week or so after my father’s passing, I read the Washington Post article, “We Want to Make a Light Baby: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing” by Emily Wax. I was absolutely infuriated. The storytelling spider in my head started weaving faster. I realized that this article was showing me why the people in my story’s town disliked Onyesonwu and why she was so troubled.

My mother, my sister Ifeoma and my brother Emezie flew with my father’s body back to Nigeria for his burial. When they returned, I learned through my siblings about the way widows were treated within Igbo custom, even the ones with PhDs…like my mother. I was again infuriated. And I was reminded yet again of why I was a feminist.

A year later, I went to Nigeria for the one-year memorial where I met my cousin Chinyere’s fiancé Chidi. His last name was Onyesonwu. I was intrigued. I knew “onye” meant “who” and “onwu” meant death. I wondered if it was an ogbanje name (these named often have the word “death” in them). I’d always been interested in the concept of the ogbanje. Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.

I asked my cousin’s fiancé what his name meant (I thought it would be rude to ask if it was an ogbanje name. Plus it was his last name, not his first.). He said it meant, “Who fears death.” That night, I changed my character’s name and the title of the story. When I did that, it was as if the novel snapped into focus.

During that trip, I touched my father’s grave. I heard stories about the Biafran War and arguments about how what happened during this civil war was indeed the genocide of the Igbo people. I saw death on the highway and thanked the Powers That Be that my daughter (who was some months over one year old) was asleep. I got to watch the women in my father’s village sing all night in remembrance of my father. My maternal grandmother, mother, daughter and I were all in the same room at the same time—four generations. My sister Ngozi and I visited the lagoon that seemed so huge when we were kids but was really quite small. It was populated by hundreds and hundreds of colorful butterflies.

I wrote, conceived and incubated parts of Who Fears Death  while in my father’s village, sometimes scribbling notes while sitting in the shade on the steps outside or by flashlight when the lights went out. I wrote notes on the plane ride home, too. When I think back to those times, I was in such a strange state of mind. My default demeanor is happy. I think during those times I was as close to sad as I could get.

When I got back to the States, I kept right on writing. Who Fears Death  was a tidal wave and hurricane combined. It consumed all of my creativity and sucked in all the issues I was dealing with and dwelling on. It mixed with my rage and grief and my natural furious optimism. Yet when it came to writing the story, I was more the recorder than the writer. I never knew what was going to happen until my character told me and my hands typed it. When I finished Who Fears Death , it was seven hundred pages long. A Book 1 and a Book 2. Don Maass (my agent) felt this size was too great and suggested that I pare it down. This process took me another two years.

One of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria’s great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces.” This tiger of a story definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I’m glad I was ready for it.—Nnedi Okorafor

posted 25 January 2011

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
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#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


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#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
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#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
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#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale." Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates in ours.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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