Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Second Coming of African Lit

When I think of the phrase "African literature," I immediately think of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and Wole Soyinka's The Man Died. I think of Mongo Beti, Mariama Ba, Flora Nwapa, Bessie Head and Doris Lessing. They are all amazing writers whose books dealt with themes of identity and the struggle for liberation  and helped to define what in academia is known as Post-Colonial literature.

A lot of writers today are still dealing with those themes (I think of Uwem Akpan's short story collection Say You are One of Them or Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, both of which deal with the subject of war),  I work in the publishing industry and I have been privileged to see the rise of a new kind of African literature. It's exciting, it's innovative and it's completely different from what's come before. On the surface, it seems uninterested in excessive seriousness; it seems to just wanna have fun.

I hear from a lot of people who sell books for a living that Africans don't read. It's more than the dismal literacy rates in many countries, though. Because when Africans do read, they don't read African authors. Instead they prefer to read romances, thrillers and fantasy books from Western authors.
A Pacesetter novel
I don't think this is because Africans disdain their own authors, I think the truth is that Africa doesn't seem to have its own form of popular literature. In the West, there's a divide between high and low culture, between opera and ballet, and country music and wrestling. In literature that divide shows up in the separation between those who read Phillip Roth and those who read Dan Brown. What we know as African literature is dominated by high culture writers published by the West, for the West. We don't have our own romances, thrillers or fantasies anymore.

In the 60s and 70s, when the Nigerian publishing industry was at its height, there were plenty of examples of popular literature. There was the Pacesetter series, short crime thrillers and romances that were immensely popular. In the East there was "Onitsha Market Literature" and the North had a thriving Hausa literature scene. Except for the Hausa literature market, most popular ventures collapsed when the publishing industry died under the strictures of military rule.

I think that's changing. I'm seeing is the emergence of African popular literature, romances, thrillers and sci-fi that cater to the popular imagination without being weighed down by "heavy" themes and what my people like to call "grammar."It's imperfect. A lot of it is still published in the west (like Mukoma Wa Ngugi's crime thriller Nairobi Heat) or self-published (like Ekene Onu's chick-lit romance The Mrs Club) or online only (like Biram Mboob's sci-fi thriller Harabella) and hasn't yet found its way to the masses.

But as economies improve, and the middle-class continues to rise, the demand will only grow. Already, publishers are returning to the continent and they are looking for ways to make money. Just as Nollywood has revived African popular cinema, one of them will come up with a series or will discover an author who will revive popular literature. It is only a matter of time.

Trust me, I'm a professional. I know.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology now available


I joined Wagadu.com last year and found it to be a genial, welcoming place filled with incredibly talented, passionate people. They gave me a lot by way of support and I wanted to give a little something back, so when I heard that their first anthology was out, I wanted to spread the word.

Griots is the first anthology dedicated to sword and soul. Sword and Soul is a genre of speculative fiction that combines African traditions, history and culture with adventure, heroic fiction and sorcery - think Conan the Barbarian set in Ancient Ghana or the Empire of Mali. The volume is edited by Charles R. Saunders, author of Imaro, widely considered to be the creator of the genre, and author Milton Davis.

It features 28 of some of the most exciting writers and artists in speculative fiction today including Minister Faust, Geoffrey Thorne, Carole McDonnell, Valjeanne Jeffers and Ronald T. Jones. Some of the artists include Natiq Jalil, Luke McDonnell, Winston Blakely, Stan Weaver, Jr., Wanye Parker and Paul Davey.

Griots made its official debut last month at Onyx Con 3, one of the largest conventions of multi-cultural speculative fiction in the US. and is available on Amazon. I can't wait to pick up a copy and I hope you will too!

Also check out the Black Science Fiction Society, great people there too.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Things I know at 30

Me at 20
I turned 30 nearly a year ago, capping off what had been a tumultuous couple of years. Despite the crying fits and occasional bouts of suicidal depression, I realized that I had learned a lot in my more than a quarter decade of life. In particular, I was inspired by this piece on RealSimple.com.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers and there are still so many things I need to learn and experience, but I wanted to share some of the insights that have come to me the hard way. Hopefully, you’ll get something out of it too.

1. Pay attention to the warning signs and don’t try to talk yourself out of a gut feeling. Trust your judgement because chances are, your spirit is trying to tell you something important.

2. You’re smarter, prettier and far more capable than you give yourself credit for. Yeah, go ahead and wear that little red mini-skirt.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want; the worst they can say is no.

4. You will mess up and you will fail – sometimes epically – but it’s not your failure that will define you. It’s how you deal with it.

5. Don’t doubt your desires because they seem mundane or impossible, your dreams are always within reach.

6. You can’t change your parents, only how you react to them. Part of growing up is learning how to stop using their standards to judge your life. You’ll never feel true satisfaction until you define what success means for you.

7. Don’t let the fear of being single keep you in a relationship that isn’t working (or isn’t going to work). Heartbreak is painful, but it won’t kill you.

8. Stop comparing yourself to others or to the imagined ideal in your head. The quest for perfection can drive you for a while, but sooner or later you’re going to have to find your motivation within yourself.

9. Happiness isn’t something that will come once you’ve ticked all the boxes. It’s a choice you have to make every day. Like working out, you have to make the effort and commit to it.

10. Karma is one seriously mean bitch. She never forgets and in this life or the next she’ll make you pay. So stay on her good side.

11. You’ll be treated with the respect you command, not the respect you demand. So when appropriate, dress like a grownup, speak articulately, stand up straight and always look at the people you're talking to.

12. For most of us, the struggle to truly know ourselves is lifelong, but rest assured that you know more about your desires, your limits and your motivations than you did 10 years ago.

13. You know when he’s lying. It’s not logical, it’s not rational, but you know. What you choose to do with that knowledge is up to you.

14. Don’t be afraid to feel your emotions fully and deeply. Be aware of them at all times and work to head off bad moods as they begin. You're emotions are far more powerful than you think and feeling good about yourself is the essence of true success.

15. Take every opportunity to travel. It’ll be the one thing that you truly regret when you look back.

16. Anything that wearies your spirit is never right - that goes for jobs or people, and even places. Life is too short to settle for or put up with anything that drains you of your joy.

17. Get it done. Every day you put off doing what you need to do out of fear is another day in your fading youth that you will never get back.

18. Sex can be many things: damaging or liberating, exhilarating or dull, comforting or experimental, but it is never, ever casual.


How about you? What advice would you give your 20-year-old self? What do you wish you had known 20 years ago that you know now? Please don’t hesitate to add your piece of advice.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

On Madness and Creativity


We all know the clich├ęs, that there’s a thin line between love and hate, pain and pleasure, madness and creativity. Well, I suppose they’re all true. In particular, I feel that being a self-proclaimed “creative,” means one walks the line between madness and genius far too closely.

Today, I watched two TED videos that brought home this idea for me. In one, Joshua Walters a performer and stand up comic talked about what it was like to live with manic depression and the effect it had on his creative life. In another, JD Schramm talked about what it was like to have survived a suicide attempt. The two topics were not wholly unrelated.

When Walters was first diagnosed with the condition, he was committed to a psych ward for a time. There, he realized that many of his fellow patients were no different from performers rehearsing for a role. His point was that there was a spectrum between madness and genius and that more space should be made in society for people further along on the madness spectrum.

What he didn’t mention is that the other side of the mania is the crash. The depression that can take over one’s life and colour everything in it a darker shade of blue. While depression can happen to anyone, I would not be surprised if it turned out that more people who are dubbed creative or sensitive have higher rates of suicide and suicidal attempts. And I suppose that’s where the other video comes in.

JD Schramm was advocating that more resources be available to those who have attempted to take their own lives and failed. Himself a suicide survivor, JD noted that the silence that greets most suicide survivors is likely to make them try again. And 37% of those who attempt to kill themselves again will succeed.

Here in Nigeria, creatives must work much harder to stay true to their art. Many of them are already dealing with pressure from families and society to find “real jobs” or give up their “hobbies.” Many make painful financial and emotional sacrifices to do what they do. I’m not saying that creative people in Nigeria are more prone to suicide. What I’m saying is that those who are already fragile must walk the line between life and death after already having to struggle to practice their craft and in the culturally enforced silence that surrounds the subject of suicide.

We often hear that Nigerians don’t commit suicide. Like homosexuality, it doesn’t seem to exist. Well, we all know that isn’t true. What is true is that we don’t talk about it. When we do hear stories of suicide, the victims are portrayed as wicked or selfish, or worse, weak. There are few resources to help those struggling with suicidal impulses and little incentive for those who need it to seek it out.

Now, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to advocate for more emotional support for those in the creative arts. I realize I might be pandering to stereotypes, but for someone who lives more in the darkness that is depression than the light of mania, I know it can be tough going. Every time a suicide survivor makes it through a difficult day without giving in to the urge to end it all – no matter how fleeting the urge – is something to celebrate.  And whether our society privileges it or not, creative people bring a lot to the table, enriching our culture in ways we may never fully appreciate. So it’s in all our best interest if we can take advantage of the unique energy that comes with the mania while at the same time controlling the dark spiral that comes with the depression. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

NPR picks the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books

In a welcome nod to speculative fiction, National Public Radio (NPR) had its readers nominate and vote on the top 100 science-fiction and fantasy books of all time. Over 60,000 people voted and it turns out that the Lord of the Rings series came out on top. Though I didn't like the books (I could never get past the first few chapters of the first book), I was glad that some of my other favourites did make the cut.

However, like a similar poll on Tor.com, I noticed there were very few women on the list. And come to think of it, I'm not sure there were any minorities of any gender at all. I realize that what we choose to revere is entire subjective. In a recent article on slate.com several writers, editors and bloggers challenged the legitimacy of even classic works. However, when readers, whom I assume come from all races, ethnicities and genders, seem to privilege the works of white men over all others, I have to start wondering what's going on.

Are we internalizing a certain bias towards the written works of one group of people over all others? Or are there just not enough minorities and women writing speculative fiction? If it's the former, then we all need to examine ourselves and our unconscious preferences. Go out and pick up a book by Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, Nalo Hopkinson or any of the numerous speculative writers of colour and begin opening your minds. But if it's the latter, then I and my fellow fantasy writers of colour need to get to work.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Most awesome thing ever...

I apologize for not keeping up with updates for the last few months. A combination of factors (work, lack of internet access at home, etc.) have conspired to keep me from my blogging duties.

However I came across this announcement and I knew I just needed to share:

Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction To Be Published Online, With Text Available Free
The third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the definitive reference work in the field, will be released online later this year by the newly-formed ESF, Ltd, in association with Victor Gollancz, the SF & Fantasy imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, whose support will enable the text to be available free to all users. This initial "beta" version, containing about three-quarters of the total projected content, will be unveiled in conjunction with Gollancz's celebrations of its 50th anniversary as a science fiction publisher.

The first edition of the Encylopedia, whose founder and general editor was Peter Nicholls, appeared in 1979, and contained over 700,000 words. A second edition, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, appeared in 1993 and contained over 1.3 million words. Both editions won the Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Convention, in addition to numerous other honours.

The beta version of the third edition will contain some 3 million words, including about 12,000 entries and well over 100,000 internal links. The entries cover every area of science fiction, including authors, illustrators, movies, music, games, and fanzines. The text will be completed, through monthly updates, by the end of 2012.

The third edition has been produced by editors John Clute and David Langford, Editor Emeritus Peter Nicholls, and Managing Editor Graham Sleight. Contributing Editors for the third edition include Mike Ashley on magazines, Paul Barnett on artists and illustrators, Jonathan Clements on all aspects of Japanese and Chinese SF, Nick Lowe on movies, Abigail Nussbaum on television, John Platt on comics, and Adam Roberts on music. During the Encyclopedia's development, the project has been supported by Clare Coney as Technical Editor, Roger Robinson as Research Editor, John Lifton-Zoline, and Pamela Lifton-Zoline. Robert Kirby of United Agents, The Bookseller's Literary Agent of the Year 2011, represents the Encyclopedia.

On behalf of Gollancz, Orion Deputy CEO and Group Publisher Malcolm Edwards commented: "We're delighted to have been able to facilitate the online publication of this monumental and definitive work – more than ever the single, reliable reference source which anyone interested in SF needs. As a contributing editor to that long-ago first edition, it's a particular pleasure to me to have been able to play a part in making this happen."

Anyone interested in signing up for the latest news on the project can do so at www.sf-encyclopedia.com. The Encyclopedia is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sf-Encyclopedia/138995776178949 and on Twitter at @SFEncyclopedia.

For general enquiries, please contact grahamsleight@gmail.com

For rights enquiries, please contact Charlotte Knee at United Agents, cknee@unitedagents.co.uk

For Gollancz enquiries, please contact jonathan.weir@orionbooks.co.uk

First of all, who knew there was an entire encyclopedia on Science Fiction? Is that awesome or what? I'll keep you all posted on how things go with the project.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Building a better person

Can becoming a better person make you a better writer? I sincerely hope so.

Building character takes patience, discipline, introspection and independence of thought. I believe that these same behaviours and attitudes are also required to move a writer beyond mere talent.

Patience is the ability to wait for results that can only be had after a long difficult period of effort, and it is required if one wants to be a good writer and an effective person. Patience is essential to the craft of writing. It can take a long time for a character to emerge, for plotlines to come together and for a setting to take firm shape in one’s head. It also takes a lot of time to refine and polish a work to its highest quality. And it may take a long time – sometimes a lifetime – to find the right audience for one’s work. If a writer does not acquire the ability to absorb a great deal of trouble without losing self-control, when things cock up – as they inevitably will – they can easily give in to despair. The most successful people understand patience, they don’t lose hope or blow up or cave in, when things didn’t go according to plan.

Discipline is the acquired habit of expending energy, of forgoing lesser pleasures of the now for the greater good of the future. It is required to move forward in any endeavour. Studies show that children who can delay gratification, who can keep from eating the sweet in front of them if they know that by waiting they can get two more, are more successful. They get better grades in school, have more successful careers and healthier relationships. Discipline is also the bedrock of the craft of writing. It’s not easy to sit down in front of a blank screen every day, but if you don’t write, you can’t call yourself a writer. It’s really that simple.

Introspection is the ability to look inside oneself in order to understand one’s purpose and values. This is not easy, that is why most of us avoid it when we can. The risks of finding things we do not like are too great. However, the most well-rounded people are those who understand and accept themselves; those who are comfortable in their own skin. They know who they are and what they stand for, and it makes them stronger. The craft of writing also requires introspection. One has to be able to accurately map out one’s inner terrain so that it can be mined for stories and characters. Introspection taken too far can lead to brooding melancholia, but understanding one’s impulses is essential if one is to write good characters. Because how can you write others when you cannot write yourself?

Independence of thought, letting go of the fear of what others will think, is both the trickiest and the most important part of building character. It is the beginning of freedom. In Nigeria, our culture assigns an inordinate amount of value to material success -- even over ethical integrity. In many ways, it is less important how you made your money, only that you have it. But character requires that you put your values above the vagaries of other’s expectations. That you take the time to do your own thinking and come up with your own standards. There will be no shortage of people who will try to tell you what to do, what is important and who to be. The challenge of a successful character is blocking out those voices to find what is important to you, then marshalling the courage to do what you feel is right. Because the craft of writing is so rarely commercially successful, those who choose it as their primary profession, have to be prepared to walk against the tide of public opinion – especially in a culture as materialistic as our own. But every writer at some point, made the conscious decision to dedicate themselves to their craft. There is no other way.

I haven’t had internet access at home for the last month, and it gave me time to do a lot of thinking, though perhaps not a great deal of sustained thinking. Now, the rains have started and the world has been washed of its layers of dry season dust, and I’ve come to realize that seeking to develop good character will give me the perspective I need to put my craft at the forefront of my life. No more procrastinating on the important things. Understanding my values can come learning from the wisdom of the ancients, which means reading what they have passed down. More reading can only make one a better writer. Finally, freeing myself of the anxiety of other’s perceptions will allow me to submit my stories to journals and readers more often. I will now be able to hear the constructive feedback without the sound of my worrisome inner voice.

But it all begins with the willingness to do the hard work in the here and now. And while I don’t believe I will ever be able to wake up and declare my work is over, I do hope that as I get older, I will have given myself the tools to become a better, more competent person. Because having a good character is more important than anything else and is the ultimate arbiter of one’s success.
When I go, I want to be able to say that I made a difference in the lives of others. It’s really all that matters, in the end.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The problem with patriarchy

I want to apologize for not posting as much as I should lately. My internet access has been a little limited over the last month. However, I have been doing some reading, some writing and generally expanding my brain. This post is based on a thought that popped into my head a few weeks ago in the course of my readings.
The problem with patriarchy is that it’s like beach sand; it gets in everywhere – particularly in the unexamined crevices of the mind. Even the most dedicated feminists can find themselves dancing to the patriarchal tune without even realizing their feet are moving.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I was going through some materials from the 2010 African Feminist Forum. The forums have been held annually in different countries for at least the last 3 years. They bring feminists from across the continent together to discuss what it means to be a feminist in Africa and how to overcome issues facing the movement. While African feminism faces a lot of issues, one that struck me was the problem of poor leadership.

Like government and other patriarchal structures across the continent, feminist organisations were suffering from rigid, hierarchical power systems, incompetence, poor accountability and corruption. Patriarchal systems thrive on rigid hierarchies where those at the bottom are completely beholden to those above them. These caste systems can be enforced on the basis of class, age, race and of course, gender. Between individuals, that means that there is always a master-servant dynamic. Someone has to be in charge.

The goal of feminism is the goal justice and equality for all, with an emphasis on ending oppression based on gender. Thus “feminist spaces are created to empower and uplift women. At no time should we allow our institutional spaces to degenerate into sites of oppression and undermining of other women.”

Yet a pamphlet from the 2008 Uganda Feminist Forum noted that “some sisters have used their leader ship poditions and authority to undermine and suppress other women. Some have refused to relinquish their positions...The managing of organisations like personal chattels has run them down.”

Because the feminist movement is fighting against some very deeply ingrained prejudices (there are very few societies on earth that do not practice some form of gender discrimination) those who commit themselves to it must always be on their guard. In the 60s and 70s when the movement began to gain traction, there was a saying that “the personal is political.” It meant that feminists – and those who fight injustice of any kind – have to realize that they live within complex social systems that privilege certain ways of acting and thinking.

To fight these often unconscious biases, one has to examine everything one does - right down to the most mundane and the most personal - to make sure that they are in line with one's chosen principles. Those who don’t risk being labelled as hypocrites should they act outside of the boundaries of their professed values. 

Thus, when I write I have to be careful that my characters don’t blithely act out gender stereotypes. When I structure my worlds, I have to pay attention to how women are treated without resorting to lazy assumptions of superiority and domination. That is not to say all my characters, settings and plots are feminist (there are wide ranges of thought even within the movement), but it is to say that if they aren’t, I can tell you why.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Feminist Action-Adventure Movies

So there's a lot of noise about Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch," an action adventure about a young girl's attempt to escape from a mental hospital. I saw the trailer and it looks amazing: dragons, Nazi's and samurai swords - does it really get better than that? And to top it off, you've got five young women kicking ass and taking names (granted, they're in fishnets and school uniforms, but still). Now, while I'm excited about the movie, I'm not sure I'm going to enjoy it, and here's why:

First of all, I love action adventure movies, but I've long given up on seeing any strong female characters who don't have to be rescued by the hero at some point in the movie, no matter how ass-kicky she is at first. Second, it's directed by Zack Snyder, the man who gave us the ab-tastic, but essentially plotless "300." Third, it's gotten mixed reviews. Those who liked it, really, really liked it. And those who didn't, thought it was the end of the world. Not good.

So, in case you see and find that it offends your feminist sensibilities, here are some action-adventure movies with (truly) strong female leads that will wash its taste out of your mouth.

1. The Quick and the Dead (1995): A mysterious female gunslinger enters an elimination tournament for the best gunslingers in the West in order to get to the town's sadistic mayor, the man who murdered her father.  Saw this the other night and it reminded me why I love Sharon Stone. She may be famous for that one scene in that one movie (you know what I'm talking about), but this is her at her best. Also featuring a young Leonardo DiCaprio, Gene Hackman and Russell Crowe.

2. Cutthroat Island (1995): Geena Davis is a crafty female pirate going up against the boys and holding her own in this madcap race to find hidden treasure. At lot more buckle for your swash than "Pirates of the Caribbean," and on a much cheaper budget.

3. Alien (1979): In this sci-fi classic, a mining crew responding to an SOS discovers some of the scariest creatures ever to pop out of Hollywood's imagination. Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, a woman caught in a situation far bigger than herself who still manages to come out swinging.

4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): An impetuous young martial arts prodigy wreaks havoc when she steals a special sword. Two legendary warriors set off in pursuit, but they must also contend with the thief's former lover who also wants her back. The fight scenes are amazing and the Zhang Ziyi, who plays the lead role, is both infuriating and mesmerizing all at once.


Ok, I've spent an inordinate amount of time on this post. There are a bunch of movies that have strong female characters, but because they lacked compassion for other women (these women were just as dismissive and contemptuous of other women as male action leads often are) they were disqualified as "Chicks with Guns." so if anyone has other suggestions for great, feminist action movies, please let me know. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tu Books Wants you ... well, your work anyay

There aren't a lot of markets specifically targeting writers of speculative fiction who feature people of color. There are plenty of support spaces where you can get advice, inspiration and just meet cool people who love and produce this stuff. But not a lot of places actively looking for submissions.

So I was pretty chuffed (love that word!) to find this call for submissions on the Writers Afrika site. Here's what they are looking for:


TU BOOKS, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS, publishes speculative fiction for children and young adults featuring diverse characters and settings. Our focus is on well-told, exciting, adventurous fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels featuring people of color set in worlds inspired by non-Western folklore or culture.


We are looking specifically for stories for both middle grade (ages 8-12) and young adult (ages 12-18) readers. (We are not looking for picture books, chapter books, or short stories at this time. Please do not send submissions in these formats.)


Manuscript Submissions:
* Manuscripts should be typed doubled-spaced.
* Manuscripts should be accompanied by a cover letter that includes a brief biography of the author, including publishing history. The letter should also state if the manuscript is a simultaneous or an exclusive submission.
* Please include a synopsis and first three chapters of the novel. Do not send the complete manuscript.
* We're looking for middle grade (ages 8-12) and young adult (ages 12 and up) books. We are not looking for chapter books (ages 6 to 9) at this time.
* Be sure to include full contact information on the cover letter and first page of the manuscript. Page numbers and your last name/title of the book should appear on subsequent pages.


Only submissions sent through regular post will be considered. We cannot accept submissions through email or fax.


We will respond to a submission only if we are interested in the manuscript. We are not able to return manuscripts or give a personal response to each submission, so please do not include a self-addressed stamped envelope or a delivery confirmation postcard, or call or email about the status of your submission. If you do not hear from us within six months, you may assume that your work does not fit our needs.


PLEASE SEND ALL SUBMISSIONS TO
Submissions Editor, Tu Books, 95 Madison Avenue, Suite 1205, New York, NY 10016. If you require confirmation of delivery, please send the submission with a U.S. Postal Service Return Receipt.


Resources for Writers:
For examples of the kinds of novels we're looking for, check out this list of multicultural science fiction and fantasy novels. Note that there is a gamut of historical, contemporary, futuristic, alternate-world, and other kinds of speculative fiction.


For guidance on word counts and other requirements for middle grade and young adult novels, check out the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators, which should lead you to more information. Also keep an eye on the LEE & LOW blog and Tu Editorial Director Stacy Whitman's blog, because these experts have great advice for writers.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Fear (and Loathing) of Writing


For a long time, I’ve been struggling with an inability to write. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I don’t know how to say it and I was afraid I would say it wrong.

At the beginning of this month I resolved to block off three hours (from 9pm to midnight) every night to write without distraction. At first I promised myself those hours would be dedicated to my novel, but then I expanded it to my personal writing – any fiction, short stories, articles, blog entries, whatever. But what most often happens is that I sit down at my system and stare blankly at an empty screen for a few minutes, getting worked up to a panic, then I wander off to “think,” get something to eat, then I come back end up surfing the net. My favourite sites seem to be: Facebook, Slate.com, Tor.com, io9.com and its feminist sister site Jezebel.com.

Not too long ago, I broke out in a cold sweat at the thought of having to write an article for work. I had been given more than enough time and resources to research it, but I still found myself paralyzed in front of a blank screen wishing I could be struck by lightning – anything to get me out of putting words to paper.

I realized that what I have is a real, legitimate fear of writing. Writing isn’t just typing words to paper (though it ultimately comes down to that). It’s having new experiences, it’s reading, researching, revising, submitting, and marketing yourself.

It sucks. And it’s starting to cost me.

I’ve been struggling with this for years. I’ve let down quite a few people because of it and it has really taken a toll on my sense of self. I know part of it is my need for perfection. I am not satisfied with just throwing words together; I want every sentence to sing. I’m also impatient. I don’t want to go through the gruelling tempering period it takes to make a great writer. I don’t want to have scads of manuscripts lying around, I want my first one to be gold and I’ll endlessly write and rewrite it – setting the goal posts ever farther away, to get that.

It would be easy to say that I’m lazy and that I lack discipline, though I’m sure that’s a big part of it. Without a deadline, I’ll dick around forever on a task. It would also be easy to say that that I don’t want it enough. I want to live the writer’s life – chuck it all and just become a freelancer, moving from country to country soaking up life and living by the products of my pen - but my writing has never felt truly legitimate. A part of me feels that being a writer is for chic bohemian types who wear dashikis and live in New York or Paris – it’s a lifestyle, not a job. All these would be true, but that wouldn’t be the whole story.

The heart of the matter is, I’m scared that I’m actually one of those self-deluded writers who think they are the next William Shakespeare, when in truth they couldn’t string a coherent sentence together. I’m scared that I’m a fraud and the minute anyone sees my writing I will be exposed. I’m scared that I won’t ever be able to make a living on my writing. I’m scared of going out of my comfort zone and exposing myself to the world – which is what separates the great writers from the hacks. I’m scared that I’m a hack.

I know many writers who say they don’t feel quite as alive as when they are writing. Others say that while they find the process difficult, they do it because they feel compelled to it. I don’t. In fact, there is so much anxiety for me around writing that I try to avoid it as much as possible.

Unfortunately, writing is just about the only thing I do well, so when I don’t do it, I feel guilty that I’m wasting my talent. At the same time, when I do try to write I feel guilty that I’m indulging in a frivolous pastime and that I would be better off doing something useful – like cleaning the bathroom.

So writing isn’t fun for me. It’s nerve-wracking, dispiriting and has driven me to the edge of suicide on more than one occasion. I tried giving my writing an aura of legitimacy by doing it under the cover of journalism, but it turns out that reporters are not necessarily writers. They both write, but they have completely different motivations. I’m now trying publishing with an eye toward academia down the line.

I don’t hold out much hope, though. I should probably learn a new trade (dressmaking has always fascinated me) but, with my lack of common sense and people skills, I doubt I’d be any good at that either.

Friday, February 25, 2011

All about Superman

Superman is probably my favourite superhero. I know, I know, not very imaginative, but there is something about his all-round super-ness mixed with his empathy and yearning to be fully human, that really appeals to me. This is a guy who could be anything he wants - a god among men - and yet, all he really wants is to date the popular girl and keep everyone happy and safe. You gotta love that.

In the comics, Superman can come off as a bit of a boy scout, a little flat and unrelentingly - unappealingly - good. But in the hands of a good writer, this character takes on more nuance.

For instance, I just read a really funny story by Nathan Pensky called "Lois Lane’s New Boyfriend Rubs It In After Beating Superman At Ping Pong At a Family Barbecue." It's title really says it all. Then there is "Man not Superman," a story by Jonathan Goldstien. Also told from the point of view of Lois's new, human boyfriend, it explores the dichotomy between Superman's hero persona and his alter ego Clark Kent.

My absolute favorite literary retelling of the Superman story has to be "It's Superman," by Tom De Haven. The book is set in the 1920s and 30s and explores Clark Kent's early life as he navigates family, friends, growing up and his place in society. It reimagines him as plodding farmboy of average intelligence and a deep ambivalence about his powers. For the first time, readers start to understand the man behind the cape - reminding us why his story appeals to us over and over again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sci-fi on the cheap

If you're like me, you probably don't have a whole lot of cash to spend on books. They are a great addiction, but if you have to choose getting to work for the week and buying Orson Scott Card's latest offering, you'd have to choose work, right? Right?

So, it thrilled me to find this link on Publisher's Weekly Genreville blog. It's got a pretty thorough run-down of places where you can read great sci-fi, fantasy and other speculative fiction for free. And it's all legal!

Score!

BTW, if you know of any other places, especially to find Speculative fiction by and about Africans, please let me know. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A round-up of some cool web finds

In my limited wandering around the web, I stumble across interesting finds, which make me go "hmm... I should write about that." But because I'm the lazy sod that I am, I'm just going to share the links with you.

In honour of the upcoming Valentine's Day weekend, I want to point you to this great article by film critic Daniel M. Kimmel. He looks at romance in Sci-fi movies and shows that the inspiration that love provides in great storytelling doesn't end with rom-coms or literary fiction. 

Speaking of literary fiction, there is a spirited debate in the UK about whether speculative fiction will be left out of the Man Booker Prize - again. The genre is reaching a new golden age, and its British writers  like Neil Gaiman and China Mieville are at the forefront of the trend. It might be that the argument is a moot point. Despite the debate, writers like Kazuo Ishiguro in his latest work, "Never Let Me Go," are blurring the lines between genres and still writing good stories, whether the Booker Prize committee is taking notice or not. 

And if you want to read some of the coolest speculative fiction that aren't quite making it past the publishers inboxes? Check out Slushpilereader.com. Admittedly, some of these stories could use a little professional editing, but they are enthusiastic, fresh and vibrant voices that, for some reason, are flying under the radar. 


Finally, I want to say thank you to some Facebook commenters who pointed me to Maurice Broaddus, during a spirited debate about race and fantasy fiction. Mr. Broaddus is an African-American speculative fiction writer who's doing some cool stuff with the genre. I haven't read his series "Knights of Breton Court" yet, but dude, I really want to. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nnedi Okorafor gets it on with Tor.com

Nnedi Okorafor, author of "Zahara the Windseeker," "Who Fears Death" and "Akata Witch," has just had one of her short stories published on Tor.com.

Nnedi is an amazing writer of speculative fiction that uses African themes and is frequently set in Nigeria. The story is preceeded by an informative round-up of sci-fi and fantasy set in Africa. It includes the works of H. Rider Haggard, which I would not personally recommend because of his often questionable depictions of Africans, and it doesn't seem to include works by any actual Africans, but it's still a pretty useful list.

Two of my favorite things just got together and here is what they produced: http://www.tor.com/stories/2011/02/the-go-slow

Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mirror, mirror


The wizard stared at the mirror’s warped surface in disbelief. What had happened was not possible. He had planned everything so carefully, overseen every step of the process. What had gone wrong?



The mirror’s edges were still glowing with that awful bluish light – a light so... so wrong that it made him ill to see it. Faint wisps of smoke were still curling languidly from the surface. If he looked closely enough, his practised eyes could just make out the girl trapped inside, like a life-like paper doll encased in a thick block of ice. And when the light hit the mirror at just the right angle, he could see that she was still screaming.
*****
                
At first glance, there was nothing special about the room. Four walls, two windows opposite each other and a small built-in closet. It was one of those boy’s quarter affairs where the shared bathroom was located at one end of the building with the kitchen at the other, both connected by a broad verandah that ran past two rooms.
                
Nothing special, but it was everything I wanted: ridiculously cheap, roomy, clean, and most importantly, quiet. Well, there was that mirror on the outside of the door, but I resolved to change that as soon as I could.
                
It was my need for quiet that had drove me from my parent’s house in Lagos. I had returned to Nigeria to work on my book, but it had been two months and I had made little progress. If it wasn’t my mother shouting at the maid at 6 a.m. every morning, it was the screams of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, the cries of the hawkers, the near constant hum of traffic, or the diesel-soaked gargle of the generator at night.

I had been to Abuja as a kid, and I still remember how quiet it had seemed to me. How green and peaceful. My father’s friend, an old general whom he had served under during the war, had built a lovely house on the outskirts of the city when he retired. I persuaded them to let me stay in there for the rest of my yearlong sabbatical.
              
I had covered the floor with a lovely wine-colored carpet.  I had a bookshelf that held my research volumes, some knick knacks and picture frames, and a small radio/CD player.  A white two-seater couch that folded out to a bed sat under one window. Next to the closet, I had a set of two plastic chairs, a table and a small fridge.  

I never did get around to changing that mirror, though. Every time I walked up to my door, I felt a frisson of irritation. Catching sight of my reflection as I approached always made me think there was someone standing at my door waiting for me. But as soon as I entered the room and closed the door, it was as if I had entered my own little world.

I had never thought to ask why this room, with all its advantages, had remained empty for so long. My neighbor, an up-and-coming young marketing executive named Oniye, told me no one had lived in there in the nearly seven months since she had moved into the compound, but she was reluctant to say more. The other neighbors, those who lived in the main house, would not even speak about the room.
                
Only David, the guard, ever asked me about the room. About a week after I moved in, I was returning home with a load of groceries. He came out to meet me at the compound’s gate and helped me carry the heaviest bags inside.
                
“Auntie, abeg, make you tell your visitor not to dey shout so,” he said after loading the bags on the verandah in front of my door. “Madam say she no fit sleep for house.”
                
“I don’t have any visitors,” I said. He looked at me strangely, as if he had just remembered something terribly important. For a moment, he seemed frightened.
                
“Maybe I left the radio on.”
                
“Ok, yes. Na so, na so,” he nodded quickly. He was suddenly eager to be away, not even waiting for his customary 20 naira tip. I watched him hurry back to the front gate, bemused. My people are a superstitious lot, given to exaggeration. It was not the first time I had been warned away by tales of witchcraft and sorcery, men turning into goats, women who could fly. I was a professor of African religions and philosophy, believe me, I had heard them all.
                
One evening, about a month later, I returned home late. The conference had gone on too long.  The chairman had insisted on giving one long rambling speech after another before every event on the itinerary. What was slated to be a dinner engagement produced no food. By the time I arrived home, I was hungry, tired and very irritated.
                
So, I dismissed what I saw as a product of my overactive imagination. Only after I had eaten and was drifting off to sleep, did I remember. Coming up to my room, I had seen a woman reflected in the mirror on my door. And it wasn’t me.
*****
                
Some time that night I awoke. The power had gone out and the room was stifling. The digital alarm clock on the bookshelf was blinking at 12:00, as if the outage had shorted it out – though it was battery operated. A strange blue light was leaking from under the front door. It seemed as if someone had lit a hundred florescent lamps in the shared hallway.
                
But I knew there was nothing out there except a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.  The cold hand of fear gripped my throat. My skin erupted in goosebumps. I burrowed under my blankets, hoping perversely that if I ignored it, the strange light would go away.
                
BANG, BANG, BANG! A knock on my door. I bit my lip to suppress a scream. I didn’t believe in the diabolical. I was too rational for that. There were no such things as witches, spirits or ghosts. But there was someone or something knocking on my door in the middle of the night, amid a light that should not be, and I was afraid.

I suddenly realized that I was all alone out here. I could call the police, but this was Nigeria. There was a good chance they wouldn’t come on time – if they came at all. My neighbors were all single women like me, and not likely to try to take on intruders on their own.
                
Suddenly, it was quiet. I waited for the knocks to continue, but nothing came. Cautiously, I peeked out from under the covers. The light was gone. I closed my eyes as waves of relief washed over me.
                
The next morning, I got up as usual. I fished my bathing bucket from out of the closet and headed out to fetch the water I would heat for my bath. I opened the door and stepped out.

******
                My name is Marcel. It is April, 1925, in Paris. I live in a shabby flat above a bakery in the Student’s Quarter on the Siene. People see me as a well-dressed man about town, slim, dark-haired, pencil-thin moustache. But they do not know the dark desires that drive me. The things I have done in the heart of the night. They do not know of the sighs, the screams, the pleas. They do not know…

******
                Ma name’s Ella Mae Brown. It is 1944, August in Savannah, Georgia.  The heat is almost alive, a thing onto itself. ‘Been singin’ at a spot in the negro part of town. It don’t bring in much, but I make it up in other ways.  Pekoe been askin’ me why am still in this dump. Says with ma voice I could be playin’ the Cotton Club in New York or sumpin’, but I knowed I ain’t that good. Don’t know how to tell him, but bein’ up on that stage’s the only time I feel alive. Don’t get to feelin’ like that noplace else. Not even with him…

******
You can call me Lel. My true name doesn’t matter. I have been running for so long, I don’t remember what it was like before. I don’t even remember my crime. I have escaped them in every way, but still they come. I have stabbed them with knives, burned them with brands, drowned them, ripped them limb from limb and still they come. I am beginning to think that they will never give up, that it does not matter whether I run or stay and fight. But I will escape. I must. They will not drag me down with them. They will not win…
******
                
A wordless, keening scream filled with more agony than any human can endure. As if all the grief of every age and time were contained in it.  It continues without respite, without end.
******

The door slammed shut and I was standing in front of the mirror. I had dropped my bucket, but I don’t remember doing that. I am shaking. The voices are still echoing in my head. I can still feel the detritus of their lives, the smells, the tastes. I look at my reflection and it as if I have aged decades. My hair has turned completely white; there is something haunted about my eyes. My hands are still my own, though.
                
“Anne!” Oniye calls out my name. I turn, startled. She is shocked by my appearance. “Ah! What happened? Anne?”
                
I try to tell her what happened, but my voice is gone. Stolen by the lives inside me. I walk up to her, she shrinks away.  They tell me that I started running and that they found me half-naked in Garki three days later. But I don’t remember that and I’m not sure I believe them.
                
I’m back in the States now. In a nice room here. Very quiet. They say I’m not allowed to go outside and I laugh. Because I can go out anytime I want. Paris, Georgia, New York, even places that have no name yet. Because in my room, anywhere is possible.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Books that have influenced me


I was inspired by a Facebook meme which asks users to list 20 authors and poets who have had the most influence on them. The catch was that it had to be the first 20 writers they could recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

Here's my list. Those authors without titles are people whose work I admire as a whole:

1.  Stephen King
2.  Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
3.  Robert Jordan
4.  George R.R. Martin
5.  Anne LaMott – Bird By Bird
6.  William Shakespeare
7.  Oscar Wilde
8.  Charles Dickens
9.  Mark Twain – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
10. Edgar Allen Poe
11. Ben Okri – The Famished Road
12. Anne Rice – Interview with a Vampire, Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned
13. Margret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
14. Mariama Ba – So long a letter
15. Ray Bradbury
16. Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
17. Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon
18. Ursula K. LeGuin – Left Hand of Darkness
19. Victor Hugo – Hunchback of Notre Dame
20. Stephen R. Donaldson – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, The Mirror of Her Dreams, A man rides through

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New finds: Webcomics

I want to thank my good friend Bob Voros for introducing me to two great webcomics.

Comiccritics.com is follows a group of comic geeks who work in a bookstore. It also takes a funny look at the business and insider news of the comic book world. It's pretty cool.

The Hero Business is my personal favourite. It's about the people who work in a marketing firm for superheroes. It combines office humour with standard superhero tropes. It's very smart and very funny. Check it out.

It takes me back to one of the first webcomics I discovered in 2009. Snafu comics used an anime-inspired style to combine characters and from some of my favourite Cartoon Network cartoons such as Dexter's Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack and create what I still think are some of the coolest art on the web. Sadly, the site hasn't been updated in nearly a year. You can still see them here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The feminist critique

I recently discovered that there was an arm of academia dedicated to the study of feminisms in science fiction. Now, how cool is that? I have always critiqued what genre fiction I come across along feminist lines – I am always interested in how female characters are portrayed and treated - but I had never thought to make it a formal line of study. To find that it is not only a line of study, but that several scholars have done dedicated research into it, warms my nerdy heart. Because last year, I read a few stories that got me thinking about how female friendships are portrayed in the media.

Friendships have always been fraught. However, in patriarchal societies they come with extra strain. One of the tools of a patriarchy is to pit women against each other. It’s the classic divide-and-conquer strategy. If women are constantly vying against each other for the attention of men, they can never come together to truly challenge the status quo. Another tool of patriarchy is to tie a man's sense of self to very narrow sets of actions. Thus, men must walk a fine line to constantly prove their masculinity.

Thus, in many patriarchal societies, there is a constant fear among men that expressing too much vulnerability in their friendships with other men will make them seem weak or worse, gay. Among women, there is an underlying fear that your friend will steal your man. In popular culture, the anxiety among men is often treated with humour, but that same anxiety in women is often portrayed as more sinister.

We carry our real-world preconceptions and prejudices into our fantasies and three speculative fiction examples, Jennifer’s Body (movie directed by Diablo Cody), Ponies (short story by Kij Johnson), and We Heart Vampires!!!!! (short story by Meghan McCarron), show that the underlying assumptions about friendships among women can remain in place even when all the other rules go out the door.

In the movie "Jennifer’s Body," the friendship between two teens is tested when one of them turns into a succubus and has to devour men to live. In "We Heart Vampires!!!!," a similar teen friendship is strained when one of the girls starts dating a 70-year-old vampire who may not be the mysterious angst-ridden lover he seems to be. In "Ponies," a little girl must decide whether to sacrifice her beloved pet to join a clique of popular girls.

In each of these stories, there is an element of competition. One teen is more attractive than the other. In "Jennifer’s Body," Jennifer is a devastatingly attractive teen who can – and often does – get any man she wants, but all she wants are the men in her friend’s life. Needy is content to lose out to her more popular friend, but things get sticky when the insatiable Jennifer goes after her boyfriend. In "We Heart Vampires!!!!," Bob is far more popular than George. George is resigned to the fact that when  Bob has a new man, she takes second place. But an ill-fated trip to the mall with Sven, Bob’s new vampire boyfriend, exposes the fault lines beneath their relationship and brings some startling conclusions to the forefront. In "Ponies," the question of status – being in the popular crowd – becomes a matter of life or death.

There is no denying that there is an element of competition in friendships among women. Lucinda Rosenfeld’s “I’m So Happy for You,” is a funny, intelligent examination of this issue. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if all these stories are missing something. Yes, being friends is tough, but isn’t the trope of the bitchy alpha female and her clueless/naive subordinate a little limiting?

There is a vast amount of scientific evidence that shows that women have more fulfilling and sustainable friendships than men. Because of the way they are socialized, women are often more comfortable sharing their feelings with each other. They tend to be less hierarchical, relying on horizontal networks rather than a single leader. Friendships between women can be the bedrock of a lifelong journey of mutual support and understanding. A vein of reassurance that can enrich any life.

So while these stories may make for exciting entertainment, I can’t help but feel they may have missed the point. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

10 things I know about Nigeria


In many ways, my life in Nigeria has been more vibrant and challenging than life in the United States ever was. A friend of mine once described living in Nigeria as “life in Technicolor,” and I have to agree. 

Life in the US, has its share of difficulties, but every day, my country surprises me with some nugget of insight into human behaviour and the wild variety of motivations that shape it. It has certainly improved my writing and fired my imagination. And so, with the New Year high still in place,  I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned in 2010:

      1. Never leave your house without looking your very best. You will be judged entirely on your looks.
       
2. Cell phone credit is far too expensive to waste on small talk. Get to the point and don’t bother with goodbyes.

3. Traffic lanes and speed limits are only suggestions. And the biggest car always has right of way.

4. Stand up straight. No matter how broke you are, great posture is free.

5. Patience is not a virtue, it’s a necessity.  But if you have money, it’s for suckers.

6. Everything is negotiable, so don’t hesitate to bargain.

7. Be nice to everyone; you never know when they’ll pop up again.

8. There is no such thing as personal space.

9. A little yelling goes a long way. We call it “halla.”

10. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the wallet is mightier still.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ursula K. Le Guin and the art of building worlds

The first book of the New Year that I read was "City of Illusions," by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a slim volume - not quite 200 pages, but man, does it pack a punch.

Le Guin is one of the icons of classic Sci-fi. To my mind she was the Ginger Rogers of her era, doing everything that the boys were doing, but backwards - and in heels. Her book, "The Left Hand of Darkness," is one of the most engrossing explorations of gender and power I've ever read.

But I think that where Le Guin and others of her generation truly earn my respect is in their ability to create fully-realized worlds within a few sentences. They are like the masters of Japanese ukiyo-e, using small strokes of the pen to create scenes that fire the imagination.

And let's make no mistake, world-building is hard. It requires a massive amount of thought and research. You have to think through everything from weather, to food, clothing, housing and even the cultural attitudes of the people. Those who live in harsher climates may tend more towards aggression than those who do not.

Author Jon Sprunk lists some of the best worlds of science fiction - in his Tor.com blog. He includes two of my favourites: Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" world and George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" world. I would add Jaqueline Carey's Terre D'Ange, and Orson Scott Card's re-imagined America of the "Alvin Maker" series.

The masters make it look easy. They dispense with long-winded explanations or tortured comparisons and they tell it. And the very best of them keep us coming back for more. That's why someone had the good sense to invent sequels - and trilogies.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A new year review

Happy New Year everyone!

I know I'm a little late to the game, but I wanted to open up the first blog entry of 2011 by drawing your attention to a poll currently going on at Tor.com.

They're tallying the best science fiction and fantasy books of the last decade - according to readers. It's still open so check it out and place your votes here.

My choices (in no particular order) were:

All the books in the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Kushiel's Dart by Jaqueline Carey
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
Dusk by Tim Lebbon
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson