“I think we can do more to formally bestow speculative fiction with its deserved place in African literature. We can look and see, and interact more…” _ Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
By Chimezie Chika
In the last few years, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki has risen as one of the most remarkable African speculative fiction writers of his generation. Without a doubt, he is the most awarded and nominated African speculative fiction writer working today, scoring many ‘firsts’ in the process. Amongst other such accolades, he is the first African-born author to win a Nebula Award, an Asimov’s Reader’s Award, and the first African editor to win the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award.
Despite these successes, he still believes that a lot more needs to be done in projecting Africa’s unique speculative narratives, especially in light of the more difficult terrain that African writers have to navigate in a deeply marginalised publishing world. He puts some of these difficulties down to the gap in knowledge of African cultures and traditions in the West. To this end, his new book Between Dystopias: The Road to Afropantheology (2023) puts forward a new framework for African speculative fiction.
In this interview, he talks to Afrocritik about the concept of “Afropantheology”, which is literature imbued with African spiritual realities, among other relevant issues, including speculative fiction trends and publishing.
Chika: Congratulations on multiple fronts, Oghenechovwe, especially for once again being a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards, Nebula, and Hugo (awards which, amongst other accolades, you have previously been nominated for and won on multiple occasions); also for the publication of the groundbreaking anthology with Joshua Uchenna Omenga, Between Dystopias: The Road to Afropantheology, and finally for producing the winner of this 2023 Caine Prize through your co-edited anthology, Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction (2022). How does it feel to have achieved so much?
Ekpeki: It feels like different things at different times. Most times it doesn’t feel like so much. Because there’s so much more yet to be done. A lot of these are historical firsts won through impossible work and backbreaking efforts and methods that are not sustainable. So I dream and work towards a time when we won’t need to do that much to get this much. Sometimes though, I am humbled and grateful and astounded at how much it is. Sometimes I’m proud, other times I’m just plain tired. Or angry at how much the world tries to brush away the value of what has been done or how ignorant it is of the process and efforts. Overall though, gratitude. I’m happy about it.
C: You are a man of many firsts. You are the first African to get nominated and win several renowned awards in the speculative fiction spectrum, both as a writer and editor. Your curatorial work in the last few years has also been acclaimed. Considering the nature of speculative fiction and its place on the continent, I am particularly interested in the role that literary prizes play in acknowledging and rewarding literary excellence as well as in curating canons. In the past, I have also written about the dearth of African literary prizes in comparison with the West. Do you think there are enough existing African speculative fiction prizes/grants that acknowledge the efforts of prolific writers and editors like you?
E: I don’t think that there are enough. Or that the existing prizes do enough to recognise speculative fiction, which is an intrinsic part of our identity and culture: a little bit of genre snobbery we get from the West. I think we can do more to formally bestow speculative fiction with its deserved place in African literature. We can look and see, and interact more. There’s a wave of speculative fiction writers re-embracing the genre, or coming back to their traditional roots all over the continent. There’s Afropantheology as well to go with that revitalisation. So we can look and see as I said, acknowledge and interact with that ongoing work. All of us. In lists, awards, and whatever ways we interact with stories.
C: Speculative fiction writers have complained of not being taken seriously (we will come to this). But on a general note, how important are speculative stories? Do you see a stark difference between speculative fiction and other forms of fiction?
E: I will say that speculative fiction is a core and intrinsic part of what it means to be African. An original African, if you will. As you already know, I’ve written a whole essay about this, created a genre, and released an anthology — which we have been discussing here — about this. So I think I have already done enough practically to answer this question.
C: Despite its successes in the last decade with the likes of Nnedi Okoroafor, Tomi Adeyemi, and others, there seems to be a perception of speculative fiction generally as an inferior genre. As a result, prominent SF writers often feel obligated to defend their craft. Wale Talabi published such a piece in Omenana in 2015 arguing as to why Africa needs more science fiction. Tade Thompson followed in 2018 with his own. Last year, TJ Benson published “The Utility of Speculative Fiction” in Efiko Magazine, where he argued that “all writing is speculative”. This argument naturally leads us to your most recent essay (with Joshua Omenga), “Introduction to Afropantheology”, in which you argue that everything labelled speculative fiction is the existing reality of Africa. In your words, “African cosmology recognises two spheres of existence — the physical and the spiritual, between which there is an inseparable link and constant interactions.” Again, you insist that Afropantheology stories are not necessarily fiction but an extension of cultural realism. What is the way forward for Afropantheology? Do you think it is the definitive umbrella under which African literature can thrive?
E: Afropantheology is a prism through which we can see stories and our world. Reality can be fictionalised and fiction can be realised. These are issues that African and other scholars, storytellers, and critics have long grappled with: the place of the spiritual in modern-day life. The loss and erasure of our religions, traditions, cultures and stories due to colonialism, slavery, and ongoing neocolonialism is evident wherever you look on the continent. I think that Afropantheology can provide an answer to these questions and solve these issues. But again, it’s a way of seeing; it’s a type of lens that we have to adapt to. And we must let our eyes adapt to its peculiar vision for it to do any good. And ultimately that depends on us. We will get from Afropantheology, what we give to it.
C: One of the most noticeable features of some of your stories in Between Dystopias is how widely they vary in style and subject. It seems somewhat unthinkable that the writer of the mind-bending “The Witching Hour” could have written “Destiny Delayed”, a story of immense pessimism. But then versatility is very common among writers of speculative fiction. It seems to me that much of what you tag as “Afropantheology”— the stories in the anthology — revolves around an uncompromising dystopian worldview. Is this really the case, since the idea of a pantheon suggests mythology? Is African cosmology as reality essentially dystopian?
E: Don’t forget we said these are realities. Spiritual realities. And when we talk of reality, much of it, our reality has been dystopic. Through history, centuries of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism – which continues to this day – and the effects of which we haven’t shaken off. We walk a two-fold path, through pantheology and dystopia, both of them weaving into each other, intertwining along the way. So we must acknowledge that reality, that history, which is an indelible part of us, which is also woven so deeply into us. It is literally in our DNA. That, I believe, is the flavour you speak of, the dystopian aftertaste you find in my work. It’s merely your sensitive palate tasting something of the spices from plants our soil was deeply saturated in.
C: Many of your stories are often set in a kind of fabulist-futuristic universe where virtually anything is possible and where some kinds of tyrannical systems operate. One of the most enjoyable stories in the anthology is “The Mannequin Challenge”, in which an impulsive young man in a future Lagos is condemned to turn into a mannequin by an old man. In another, “O2 Arena”, people in a future, semi-lawless Lagos find themselves in all sorts of attritional struggles to acquire precious oxygen or “O2”. You define Afropantheology as the fictional “renderings of the histories passed down from keepers of African cultures and lores”, yet in this anthology you have these dystopian stories set in hermetic urban locations, especially iterations of Lagos. Why do you speculate a lot about the future of Lagos? What does Lagos mean to you as a speculative fiction writer? What possibilities does the city offer within the scope of Afropantheology?
E: Do spirits and spirituality only exist in the past? In old lost civilisations? That kind of thinking would be very Western. In thinking of the past, present or future, I find time to be one thing: a circle. A cycle which we spin through arriving where we started and going round and round again and again. And the spiritualities of pantheons are woven through it all. A lot of our old cultures are things we are rediscovering now and a lot of our discoveries and what we call modernity now are things that have long existed in the past and are simply being expanded upon. Spirituality as well is not consigned to the villages or exempt from the city. It’s all around us, everywhere we are, including Lagos, where we live. It is in fact, inside us and even when we travel or leave the continent altogether, we carry it with us, beyond Lagos. Into the stars even, when we venture there. This is why Afropantheology encompasses so much, all of Africa: Disaporan, Black, etc.
C: Given how they explore African spirituality, stories like “The Deification of Igodo” and “The Land of the Awaiting Dead”, which you co-wrote with Uchenna Omenga, are often vilified by the largely Christian and Muslim populations in Africa. The irony of Western monotheistic religions in Africa and the images associated with them is not lost on me. What do you hope to achieve in these stories?
E: The very goal of Afropantheology is reclamation and expression. For us to be able to tell our stories as they are supposed to be told, we must tell them completely, and sing them, if it comes to that, proudly and without shame. The goal is to hold, share, and rediscover all these old, forgotten parts of us that have been suppressed for a long time, and to let them flourish again and be heard loudly in these present times. The goal is to also make up for those centuries of suppression.
C: In some of your essays, you have written forthrightly about issues with the literary and publishing industry. In “Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki”, you point to the racial discrimination associated with African names. In “A Different Kind of Show, Not Tell”, you talk about the censoring of the story ideas of African (and marginalised) writers by Western publishers who want them to show “comparative titles” in publishing. I relate to this because my personal essay, “Spirit Wife, Spirit Life”, was rejected by many Western magazines who did not understand how it could even be nonfiction. How are these concerns related to Afropantheology?
E: Yes. We talked about the suppression of our stories, which is part of what Afropantheology aims to correct. That suppression wasn’t only with arms and ammunition; it was also with institutions and attitudes. Afrophobia is a thing. Look at the way that our gods were demonised, the way our names were mocked, the way our stories were locked out of these institutional spaces that were built with our wealth. And they were done with false values and self-fulfilling prophecies of economic doom, sales, and marketing theories, and all sorts of projections meant to keep us down. Contrary to what they say, the numbers do lie, and the maths isn’t adding up. All of this is part of what Afropantheology speaks and fights against. Because our spirituality is conveyed in our stories. And the success or suppression of those will have similar effects.
C: Often, as writers, we ask ourselves why we write and who we are writing for. The question of who we are writing for is not as straightforward as it may seem. As a writer of sci-fi and speculative fiction, who is your ideal reader? And in your experience, have you found writing to be emotionally and materially fulfilling?
E: It is as you say, not a straightforward question. But my ideal reader is anyone out there in the world, anyone who has the sensitivity and the acumen to grasp what is being told. All are welcome. On both counts, I will say it’s a work in progress. It hasn’t been nothing. Far from bad, but it could be better. A lot better. You know how it is. The world does not exactly open its coffers to give, either emotionally or materially, to the African, especially an African in Africa. And least of all, Nigeria, the said poverty capital of the world. But what is it our Christian brothers say? In every situation, we thank God.
C: Interesting. Yet I find it particularly curious that as one of Africa’s foremost writers of speculative fiction, you are yet to publish a full novel as your peers Suyi Davies Okungbowa and Wole Talabi et al have done. What is the reason behind this and will it change any time soon?
E: A novel takes a lot of time and energy and space and stability. And for someone like me, that’s hard. I’ve been doing a lot of editing, publishing and promotional work. I have published the most award-winning/nominated SFF works by African writers in the near century or so of the industry’s existence. Beyond African writers, I have also published some of the most awarded works by writers and scholars of Black SFF. And that takes a lot, operating from the poverty capital of the world, with no access to tools that should make this easier like Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Patreon, Paypal, you name it. Having to pay people in dollars, pounds, and weightier currencies from the flaccid naira. Operating with our near moribund facilities and conditions like inconsistent power, bad network, etc. It takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to do all this, from a place like this, which impacts my personal work and projects. Everything comes at a cost, progress requires sacrifice. So, there.
Meanwhile, something is in the works. So, you know what we say: Destiny delayed is not destiny denied.
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is a multiple Nebula, Otherwise, Nommo, Locus, Asimov’s Readers, British and World Fantasy Award winner. He has been a multiple Hugo, Sturgeon, British Science Fiction, & NAACP Image awards finalist. His stories have been widely anthologised and appeared in prominent magazines, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, and others. He was CanCon ‘22 and ICFA ‘23 Guest of Honour, a VICFA conference coordinator, and a member of the VICFA board. He has co-edited several books and anthologies, including Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction 2022, and others. He lives in Lagos.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.