Sunday, December 26, 2010

My week in Jos

I wrote this article for NEXT newspaper last year after a rattling trip to Jos. I’ve republished it here following the recent reports of several bomb blasts in the city a few days ago.

My parents and I arrived in Jos on a Sunday evening in January. Just as we entered the city limits, we were stopped at a police checkpoint.  

“Oga, go softly,” the officer said. “Jos is hot o.”

“What happened?” my father asked.

“Na crisis,” was the man’s reply as he waved us on.

We were silent at that. This is not the first violent upheaval the city has known. The plateau is cool and peaceful; a lush landscape dotted with breathtaking rock formations. But since the early 2000’s it has been ripped apart by violence. Relations between the indigenous people, who are mainly Christian, and the mostly Muslim Hausa have never been very good and in 2001, those tensions erupted into a violent outbreak that left hundreds dead and even more homeless. Since then, the situation has only grown worse, with crises breaking out every few years.

Our first night was uneventful. My parents rose early Monday morning so that my father could take a taxi back to Abuja. When my mother returned, we went to the orthopaedic hospital, which was her main reason for coming to town. After the hospital, we headed to Bukuru market to pick up some groceries. We had not been to our home in the suburbs of the city in months, and beyond a few tubers of yam and some non-perishables, we did not have much food.

However, we noticed that the market was unusually empty for a Monday morning. None of the traders we usually shopped from had opened their stalls. Just as we found a parking spot, we saw a cloud of dust in the distance. Suddenly, the streets were choked with people running in all directions. Young men on motorcycles, taxis and commercial buses were vying with each other on the narrow road.

“They’re coming!” someone shouted. “They’re coming!”

My mother and I did not wait to find out who “they” were. We got back into the car and manoeuvred through the throng back to the house. We did stop at a nearby grocery store to pick up a few provisions. We were sure it was just people panicking; we would go back for our main goods tomorrow.

That night, Bukuru market burned. We did not know this when we awoke. My mother had another appointment at the hospital and we went straight there first thing that morning. While my mother was in the theatre room preparing for her treatment, I noticed the crowd in the waiting room was growing restless. Many were gathered in clusters talking excitedly. That was when I learned of the damage to the market. A group of young men – no one knew for certain if they were Christians or Muslims – had rampaged through. They would break into locked stores, loot them then set them ablaze.

As we talked, tall man in an impeccable suit swooped in. He was the hospital’s director. A 24-hour curfew had just been imposed, he informed us, and all his non-essential staff were to return home immediately. Patients were to leave as soon as their procedures were completed. The hospital was going on lockdown. Someone switched on a radio and we huddled around it hoping for some useful news. But, it seemed as if every radio station had been transported to the Soviet Union circa 1960. All they could offer were bland statements from the governor’s office “exhorting citizens to diligently follow the curfew to ensure the safety of lives and property.” No word as to what was happening, who was responsible, nor what was being done to fix the situation.

My mother came out of the theatre room. Her doctor had told her of the curfew, so we returned home. Our intention to visit the market was now a lost cause. At home we surveyed our stores. Three tubers of yam, four packets of instant noodles, a bag of cous-cous, some tomatoes and peppers we had bought on our way into town, some acha – a local grain, a packet of spaghetti, two loaves of bread, a box of tea and a jar of coffee. If we ate sparingly: a light breakfast, a small lunch and dinner, our haul would last us four or five days. But of course, it would not come to that. Jos had had crises before, we were sure this would all blow over in a day or so. All we had to do was sit tight and wait it out.

That afternoon, I watched in silent horror as the sky blackened with smoke and the sounds of gunfire filled the air. When the wind blew just so, we could hear shouting and screaming from Bukuru town just beyond our walls. Every now and then, we heard helicopters thunder past, headed for town. My mother was glued to her phone, calling friends and family to hear the latest news. And the worst part was, the man my father hired to be our security guard in the house turned out an utter failure.

L______ is a small man with a mouth full of rotting teeth. He cannot be more than 25 years, but poor hygiene and a persistent drinking habit has left him looking decades older. When we first arrived Sunday evening, we found our front gate hanging open and no sign of the security guard. My father tried to call the man and failed to reach him. So, he locked the gate and went to bed. Sometime towards nightfall, we heard a knock on the back door. It was L_______. He had scaled the back wall to enter the compound – something our tenants had reported he did often, but he had vehemently denied. When my father confronted him, he could only smile vapidly and offer vague excuses. His brother was sick, he told us, all the while reeking of alcohol.

Tuesday afternoon as the world shook with the sounds of small explosions, L_______ came to us asking for permission to go to the junction at the end of the road “to get something.” My father had confiscated his set of keys so that he could not leave without our knowledge. My mother turned him down. He spent the rest of the evening quivering with fear with every shot that rang out and pacing like a caged animal.

On Wednesday we woke to reports that death squads of men dressed as soldiers were going from house to house in Bukuru, killing anyone who opened their doors to them. A friend of my mother’s reported seeing one of these men caught at an army checkpoint. He was found out only because his uniform was out of date and he was wearing sneakers – which soldiers never do. Throughout that day, every time someone knocked on our gate, my heart leapt to my throat. Knowing L______, he would probably open the door, then scale the wall and leave us to our fate. That night, as we heard reports of widespread looting of abandoned homes. The guards from all the houses in our neighbourhood formed a security detail to patrol our street. They lit a bonfire at the junction and took turns keeping vigil all through the night.

Thursday morning, we could still hear staccato bursts of gunfire – this time we were told it was the soldiers. The government had sent out the army in full force to quell the violence, and I did not doubt they were doing just as much damage as the rampaging youths. Many of my mother’s friends – including our next door neighbor had sought refuge at a nearby police barracks. There, they endured cold nights with little food or water.

By now, Jos city had lost its allure and we wanted nothing better than to start up the geriatric Benz and have this trip be a memory fading behind us. My uncle, my father’s younger brother, had offered to drive us back to Abuja, but he cautioned us to wait one more day. We still had no reliable reports as to where the worst violence was. No use running out only to be caught in the crossfire.

Friday morning, with the curfew scaled back to an eight-hour window, we set out. This was the first time we had left the compound in nearly a week. The town was unrecognizable. People clutching their meagre possessions lined the road desperately seeking any form of transportation they could find. The burned-out hulks of cars and trucks littered the roads. We passed shops and houses gutted by fire. At every corner, stone-faced soldiers wielding Kalashnikov rifles had set up makeshift checkpoints and were searching every vehicle on the road. At one checkpoint, an irate soldier had us empty the contents of every item we carried onto the roadside. Police officers rode about on motorcycles looking a little out of their element. The only fuel station in town had been set ablaze when someone drove a truck into its main building. The smell of ash hung thick in the air.

In the days since our return, I have learned that nearly 200 people were killed in the conflict. A prominent Igbo businessman was cut down along with his two sons when he tried to keep looters from invading his home. Many of my mother’s friends have decided to leave the town. Several of them lost their homes and businesses. Meanwhile, the government has made the usual noises about looking into the causes of the conflict and bringing all the perpetrators to book. I doubt it is more than just talk. When an uneasy peace returns once again to the plateau, everyone will go about their business as if nothing happened. As if such clashes are a plague of locusts – appearing without cause and disappearing into the ether. Until next time. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Superhero Next Door

Rangesi, Real Life Superhero Project
All of us have dreamed of being superheroes at some point. And if you're like me, you've also decided your superhero name, designed your outfit, and figured out your lair (don't judge).

That's why I let out a little squeal of excitement when I stumbled across the Real Life Superhero Project. However, I was supremely disappointed that they had only one woman and no persons of colour (though one can't necessarily tell behind some of those masks).

Also, if I'm going to be roaming the streets of Abuja fighting crime in my sensible combat boots (I told you I've thought this through), I'll probably need to know some of the laws I'll be subject to. That's where the Law and the Multiverse blog comes in.

Now I have to start thinking about my poster.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The trap of "supposed to be"

Most people spend their lives trying to be who they think they should be, instead of who they are. 
Dan Gottlieb, quadriplegic.

We go through much of our lives being told what to do. Our parents, our teachers, our bosses all give us instructions on what is expected of us in any given situation. A lot of these instructions teach us self-control and empathy, and are vital for us to function successfully in society. But a lot of times, these instructions go beyond teaching us how to be to try to tell us who to be as well. It gets to the point where the definition of success is so narrow that only very few can actually achieve it without sacrificing something of their genuine selves.

I think the problem is particularly acute in Nigerian society, where children are discouraged from even asking questions to satisfy their curiosity let alone questioning the larger direction of their lives. Much more than in other places where I have lived, there is a very clear definition in Nigeria of who one is supposed to be. The hierarchies are clearly established, one’s place is boldly marked out and the sign of adulthood is defined by putting away childish enthusiasms and settling down into the persona that has been created for you.

But I think the true mark of adulthood is in resisting expectations and stripping oneself of the layers of who you are supposed to be until you find who you are. I believe that only until you discover that thing which moves your heart, will your true life begin. Everything else is just rehearsal.

That is why fantasy is so important for me. The act of wild creation that allows an artist or a writer to create new worlds and dream up rich, vibrant characters is something that can only come when you tap into your most authentic self. It comes from a place of pure, unalloyed passion. The fire that everyone is born with but which is too often buried under layers of parental, societal and even personal expectations.

We all know someone in our lives who has chosen to break free of their expectations to live as they are. We all know that feeling of quiet envy we get when we see these people living as we wish we could – if only we weren’t so frightened. They aren’t all wild and crazy rebels living by the seat of their pants. Most times, it is in the quiet assurance of their stance and the openness of their smiles.

Don’t be under any illusions that this is easy. Finding yourself is a difficult and painful process. You will feel the pull of who you are supposed to be tugging at you with every step. There will be no shortage of people on hand to discourage you and make you feel as if you are a failure. There will even be penalties. You may not make much money and you might not be able to live in luxury. You will always be tempted to compare your life to others and lament what you think you lack. But once you begin, there’s no going back. Someone once said that the mind, once opened, can never return to its original shape. I believe it is the same for the spirit.

Friday, December 3, 2010 It rhymes with awesome (sort of)

I recently discovered that my all-time favourite publishing company has created a blog. Except it is more than a blog, it is the nexus where fantasy collided with fiction and burst into mind-numbing reality, transporting all that we know and all that we can know into some heady space beyond time .... in short, it is really, really cool.

Check it out

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Silent witness

I wrote this following an excursion into the streets of Abuja on the day after former military dictator Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida declared he would run for the presidency.

He could not have been more than twelve. He moved from car to car hawking chewing gum and breath mints. He would scan the faces inside looking for that telltale linger that signalled interest in his wares. Then he would wait by the window or call out to his wares, his gaze already looking for the next potential sale. If the wait proved too long or if he was dismissed by a subtle shake of the head, he would move on.

It seemed he was the one selling bottled groundnuts at the junction by the filling station, or hawking cheap chocolates at the park. He was among the wheelbarrow boys in the market zigzagging through the throngs. He was the conductor hanging out of the commercial bus, whose eyes were too old for his face, shouting himself hoarse. The mechanic’s apprentice rolling a spare car tire across the road and the plumber’s boy who held the tool bag while his master unclogged those pipes.

He was also the sun-darkened schoolboy in a tattered uniform, dirty grey socks and battered Cortina shoes so often repaired, they were falling apart as he walked. He was the goalkeeper in a stained singlet and oversize shorts playing football in the field opposite the police station. He was one of the eternal young men gathered under the mango tree in front of the gate of an elaborate house.

He has been the silent witness to our history and the victim of our every opportunity lost to greed and corruption. Dressed in the castoffs of the West, he was among the crowd of boys who chased after the first white man who came into the village on a bicycle. He came out to admire the town’s first car. He gathered in the village square when the big man brought out that television and allowed everyone to watch under the tree. During the war, he fought in our armies, wearing a uniform too big for his frame and carrying a weapon too heavy for him to bear.

As he wanders among the detritus left behind by the latest political rally, hawking his goods, cleaning car windows, leading you briefly wonder what the future will hold for him.

In a thousand incarnations he enters our lives and after each brief encounter he returns to that blank space in our minds. When he goes, he takes with him his name and his story. He is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s cousin. And tomorrow, he will be someone’s father.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The power and glory of the word

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by words. I would go through the dictionary and find interesting words and repeat them to myself. That’s where I learned the words fervid, turgid and fulgent. When I am tired, my words are the first to go, and when I want to wound, my words cut deeper than any blade.

The problem is that words are a contradiction. On the one hand, they are so powerful, they can change destinies, destroy civilizations even – according to the Bible – wrest creation out of nothingness. On the other, in the mouths of men and women of easy virtue, they are worse than meaningless.

In my world, words are more dangerous than grenades because the shrapnel does more than wound the body. They lodge deep in the psyche, forming never-healing scabs. A barb thrown out in a moment of anger can lodge in a child’s brain like a grain of sand in an oyster and grow until it is the glistening pearl of self-loathing that picks up the razor blade he uses to end his life. The empty promises of today are the seeds of disillusionment that will blossom into the bloody revolution of tomorrow.

Perhaps that is why I am a writer. I love the way a well-crafted sentence can play on the tongue. And when a master like Stephen King can write: “Her voice, warped and distoted, cut through the babble like a dull ax through a calf's brain,” I can only shake my head in bemused wonder. That is why I love fantasy-fiction in particular. I have just finished reading the first two books in the Dark Tower series: “The Gunslinger,” and “The Drawing of the Three.” I had read “The Gunslinger” years ago in middle school and was hooked, but reading it again was breathtaking. It is difficult enough to write the human condition with depth and feeling, but to write it in a world that does not – could not – exist, well that is something else again.

And it is words that make it all possible. Right now, the leaders who run my country use words to underlie their misdeeds like the shredded newspaper used to line a filthy cage. They mouth empty promises about roads, power, education and clean water, throwing words into the air to cloud our minds, while their hands are busy raking in the wealth of the nation. But I believe that such is the power of words that they cannot be used with abandon. If thoughts can create our destiny, how much more powerful are the words that thoughts birth?

I believe that for those for whom words are merely the grease to smooth their sins, there will be a reckoning – if not in this life, certainly in the next. For words, once spoken, cannot be swallowed again. And that which we name will name us in turn.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Six African Authors nominated for 2011 IPAC

On Black Sisters Street by Nigerian author Chika Unigwe and five other books by African writers have been nominated by libraries around the world for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. According to the website it is the largest and most international prize of its kind and is open to books written in any language.

The other authors are:

In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

Black Diamond by Zakes Mda

A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana

Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A little rant...

"Argh" Drawing by Zuzanna Lapies
Something has been bothering me lately. During my time at the BBC’s guest house, I started reading Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa, a fascinating book that traces the history of countries on the continent since independence from colonial rule. Reading the book, one is struck by the immense damage that colonial powers inflicted on their African territories.

European nations wiped out cultures, looted natural resources and in many ways reduced vast numbers of people to little more than orphans and beggars. During their rule, few of the colonial powers made any effort to equip their colonies with knowledgable labour pools. The most educated Africans were often only fit to be clerks and petty staff. Bridges, roads and other infrastructure were only built either to facilitate the movement of goods out of the countries or for the pleasure of the colonial masters. Few of the colonial powers wanted to leave.

Colonialism created a ruling elite that was no better than house boys and maids desperately trying aping their masters. They were lost souls who having been severed of their connection with their own people, only wanted access to their nations’ wealth to give themselves the same benefits that their Western maters enjoyed.

Thus, we ended up with leaders who immediately after independence abandoned their populist promises and proceeded to entrench themselves in power using vast systems of patronage and nepotism that are fundamentally at odds with true democracy.

Western support propped up psychotic dictators who inflicted untold horrors on their people then looked away when rose up to fight for their dignity and survival. In some cases, misguided Western aid exacerbated regional conflicts. And the Western media continues to look down on my continent with a shake of the head – declaring it ungovernable, decrying a “culture of corruption,” pretending that things just magically appeared as they are now, overnight.

What has bothered me so much is the tone so many take when talking about Africa. As if war and disease and bad governance are something uniquely to us. As if the West is not prey to strange diseases, as if no one ever takes to the street to protest injustice, as if no politician ever takes money or has affairs.

Colonialism – like rape, like abuse, like war – had consequences. Just as you can’t expect a battered child to shrug off its destructive upbringing without struggle, one cannot expect battered countries, cultures and people to do the same. It will take time, a long time perhaps, for Africa to break out of the abusive cycle it was forced into. We are still too dependent on our abusers; we are still going back to them for more punishment.

Right now, we have a situation in which it seems that history keeps repeating itself. Fifty years on and, in many ways, we are no better than we were under Western rule. We are still being ruled by small, rapacious elite with no connection to the people. It is easier to travel to England than it is to go to Senegal because all our infrastructure is focused on getting goods out of the continent. Nigeria alone imports up to 75% of everything is uses, from rice to shoe polish. And that suits the West just fine.

But there is hope. It only takes one generation to break the cycle of abuse or poverty and decide that there is another way. I doubt that I am part of that generation, but perhaps my children will be.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The devil in the details

Please forgive my long absence. For the last three weeks I have been participating in a writing residency with the BBC working on their “Story Story” radio drama series. It was a deeply rewarding experience. I learned some invaluable lessons about the creative process and the creative people behind it. However, I think what I am most grateful for, is what I learned about context.

Every story has a setting. We spend our lives immersed in histories, cultures and backgrounds which we are only barely aware of. When writing fiction that is set in the real world, we don’t have to stretch too far to find the culture or the history of our world. There are larger economic and socio-political issues that we can easily draw upon to fill our narrative and influence our character. But those of us who dabble in the speculative must build these contexts from scratch.

The world of “Story Story” is simple in its concept: A marketplace in a lower middle-class community bordered by a motor park. In it, people struggle to make ends meet, find love, hatch schemes and even commit crimes. In this world, a wide variety of characters from different backgrounds come together to form a vibrant community. The setting is so familiar and the characters so interesting, that any writer that stumbles upon this world, will find themselves transported.

“Story Story” benefits from immediately recognisable contexts of ethnicity, gender, religion and even nationality. It is a sketch of a simple outline and the reader fills in the rest. It made me realize that writing a world isn’t so much about filling it with detail, but about filling it with the right details so that the reader can see what you want them to see. Characters should be complex, but their world doesn’t have to be.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A thin line between art and pain

Every writer’s personal life influences their art; some of the greatest writers were tortured, damaged souls who turned their pain into masterpieces of literature. But while the common perception is that one’s private turmoil inevitably leads to beautiful art, I think there are times when it can impede creativity – leaving one stifled and frustrated.
I tread a fine balance between allowing my experiences to illuminate my work and letting them destroy it. Some days I am more successful than others. For me, my art has always been a relief valve; there’s nothing more liberating that writing page after page of angry rants in my diary. But now that I’m beginning to write for public consumption, I have to temper my art with craft. Creative writing requires discipline and focus – and that requires space.

Some might disagree, but I believe every writer needs a creative space where one can do one’s best work. It can be a quiet place in a library, or a dark corner of a coffee shop. The American short story writer, O. Henry, had a bar across the street from his hotel where he would work.

Unfortunately, what a turbulent personal life can do is rob one of creative space. The space does not need to be a physical location, either. Not having a desk in my room is difficult, but what is harder is wresting the freedom to think my own thoughts, free of intrusion and manipulation.

It has been a struggle to discipline myself and allow myself the luxury of space. I find it hard to give myself permission to spend time doing something that is difficult, but which I love. I struggle with feelings of guilt (that I’m wasting my time on something frivolous), inadequacy (that I’m no good at this, so why bother?) and a nameless, rootless fear that I will never live up to the expectations of my friends and mentors, which leads to constant procrastination.

I have come to realize that many of these demons have roots in childhood experiences and the incredibly complex family dynamics that have made me who I am today. Moving back with my parents has forced me to try and do creative work in the midst of generational, cultural and personal conflicts –making an already complicated situation even more complex.

But the alternative – to not be able to write at all – is far, far worse.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Evidence of Things Unseen

I have no intention of publishing this. Just toying around with an idea I had one day. Enjoy!

“Groundnuts!” she called. “Buy your groundnuts!”

The black hijab that covered her head and shoulders was stained with dust and sweat. What could be seen of her simple blouse and wrapper were faded and threadbare. She easily balanced a tray heaped full of nuts on her head as she wove through the market crowd. She looked to be ten or twelve years old, though her kohl-lined eyes and rouged lips gave her and oddly adult look. She appeared no different from the vast numbers of children who choked the dirty roadways between market stalls hawking everything from batteries to vegetables.

She spotted him just as she was about to call out again. He looked like a tourist: tall, with a backpack and white Panama hat. He was standing in front of a stall that sold bright cloth making clumsy attempts to negotiate for a bolt. The stall’s owner was smiling through the friendly banter. It was the smile of a wolf licking its chops before the kill.

She marked him as she passed him. She had to make sure she was right before alerting her sisters. They could not afford another mistake.

Once out of sight, she put down the tray, sliding it under a nearby stall. There would be no more sales today. The man concluded his purchase and moved off into the crowd. She adjusted her wrapper and followed him, making sure to keep hidden. At first, he seemed no different from the other foreigners who flocked to the square to get a little taste of “authentic Africa.” He bought the usual wood carvings and stone gewgaws for twice their value, smiled insipidly at the traders and threw pitying looks at the barefoot children who gaped at him. For a moment she thought she might be wrong. Then she saw it.

No more than a flash. A momentary expression that flickered over his face. A casual bystander would have called it an odd anger or a strange melancholy. But she knew. She let him fade into the crowd and called silently to her sisters. Her mark would let them find him again.

All over the marketplace, barefoot girls clad in black hijabs, colorful wrappers or the discarded clothing of a more affluent society, could be seen gathered in small clusters talking. As she passed these groups, one or two of them would put down their trays and fall in behind her. If anyone had been paying attention, they might have noticed a certain purposefulness in their gait. A discipline unusual for little girls. But no one ever paid them any mind.

The sun had begun to set, lengthening the shadows. Vendors were beginning to pack up their wares, wheelbarrow boys were darting about soliciting customers or trying move those they already had. When the girls found him again he was making his way out of the marketplace. He moved awkwardly, unused to the natural rhythm of the crowd. He had not yet learned how to ignore the calls; he declined all offers with a polite smile or a gentle shake of his head. The girls were silent as ghosts behind him.

The market entrance was choked with traffic. The roads leading out were clogged with vehicles honking furiously – each driver trying to edge out the other. Shoppers and sellers alike massed about as they all tried to make their way home. He passed by the banks of taxis, buses and the young men on motorcycles doing a dangerous dance around each other as they vied for passengers. He navigated the throng and continued out into the outskirts of the city. The light was rapidly leeching out of the world. The girls would have to work fast, for the coming of the night would give him power.

They spotted their opportunity when he started to cross the old football field. They fanned out around him, keeping to the shadows, shedding their headgear as they moved. Then, from the folds of their wrappers, they brought out their swords.

At first, he tried to pretend surprise, but he could not maintain the fa├žade. The twelve warriors of light ringed him in a wide circle and waited for him to show his true face.

As they watched, his flesh began to ripple as if a great heat were being applied to it from the inside. His skin began to run like melted candlewax distorting his features into a hideous caricature. His fingernails lengthened into daggered points. When he laughed, it was like the scream of a thousand tortured children.

The battle was quick. He parried, lunged, spun and kicked, but he was no match for them. They cut him to pieces and watched as the body melted into a blackened pool and sizzled to nothing.

Every age had its own name for him. Some called him the Lord of Chaos, others called him Unmaker, but most knew him as The Destroyer. She did not know why he had chosen this body, this flesh, to clothe himself. Whatever damage he had intended might already be done, but that was beyond her mandate. She gave a silent prayer of thanks as she wiped the blood from her sword. She slipped it back into its hiding place and went to find her things.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Old Gods Are Yet With Us

“Storm at Sea,” by Radcliffe Bailey.
About a week ago protesters rallied at the Ogun State House of Assembly and pelted the building with eggs. They then placed clay pots containing traditional charms and fetishes around the premises vowing terrible curses on the honourable representatives if they did not approve a key piece of legislation. The group of esteemed men and women - all avowed Muslims and Christians - immediately packed up and closed for the day. None of them returned to the House until the items were removed.

To me, this just goes to show that despite the veneer of imported religions like Christianity and Islam, our hearts still belong to the old gods. A perfect example of this is in oath taking. Many Nigerians can and do lie without issue on a Bible or a Koran, but very, very few will even take an oath on a traditional fetish - let alone lie on it. They will claim that such items are devilish and diabolical, and that to associate with them is against the religion they currently practice, but I am convinced that it is because the ancient fears are still with very much with them.

I am convinced that the lawlessness and insecurity we currently experience in Nigeria comes from the fact that we have built our institutions on sand. We have lost our sense of community and responsibility because we lost the indigenous systems that undergirded these institutions in the past. In Nigeria today, it is every man for himself. Those who occupy our positions of authority from the university lecturer to the bank president, do not seem to understand that they work for the masses. They preach service with their mouths, but the evidence is in the work of their hands. And we condone it, because we know we would all do the same if we were in their place.

The situation is accurately reflected in Ngugi Wa’Thiongo’s “Wizard of the Crow,” which I am currently reading. I’m about a third of the way in and I am entralled by the author’s incisive observation on the place of religion in African society. In it, a man who people believe to be a powerful wizard becomes more powerful than the illegitimate government in power or the corrupt institutions that prop it up.

We are rightly considered to be one of the most religious societies in the world, but I wonder if this is only because we protest too much. We loudly proclaim our faith as if volume could compensate for the secret place in our hearts that the new God has not touched.

I know for a fact that if we returned to invoking the old gods in our public spaces, we would have a far more functional society than we do now. A perfect example of this theory in action can be found here. In a community in Edo State, elders who were fed up with rampant kidnapping got together and placed a powerful curse on anyone who practices the act within the community. Almost overnight, it is reported that incidents of kidnapping ceased. Nobody wants to mess with that kind of power, no matter how devout they might seem on Sunday morning or Friday afternoon.

Imagine if our leaders, judges and lawmakers had to swear on the altar of the deity of their hometown when they came to office that they would not steal, lie or engage in any other form of malfeasance. That is not to say there won’t be oath breakers, but at least we would weed out the grossly criminal and ensure that those who enter our scared spaces understand that they work for us, for the gods, and not for themselves.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Literary Life

Last November, I joined the Abuja Writers Forum in my home city and began attending their readings. In the past eight months, I have been priviledged to meet some of the best literay minds in the country.One of the first authors I met was Teju Cole whose book "Every Day for the Thief," caputured my imagination. He was warm, funny and incredibly generous with this fangirl.

In May, I was priviledged to attend a one-day workshop led by Chimamanda Adichie, the award-winning author of "Purple Hibiscus," "Half of a Yellow Sun," and "The Thing Around Your Neck." Though the workshop was far too short, her reading was compelling.

In June, I met Uwem Akpan, the author of the short story collection "Tell Them You're One of Them," when he came for a reading at the Sheraton Hotel. Oprah chose the book for her Book Club last summer. I also got to hang out with the lovely Adaobi Trisha Nwaubani, a colleague of mine whose debut novel "I Do Not Come to You By Chance," won last year's Commonwealth Prize.

And two weekends ago, I got to meet with one of my favorite authors, Helon Habila, when he came to town to read at the Abuja Writer's Forum. Mr. Habila was one of the hosts of a week-long workshop along with Tsitsi Dangaremba, author of "Nervous Conditions" and Canadian writer, Madeleine Thien. I wasn't picked for the workshop - which just about broke my heart - but I was able to have a brief conversation with him about characterisation and setting.

Some of the others I've met include the amazing Lola Shoneyin, poet and author of the novel "The Secret Lives of Baba Seyi's Wives," poet Victoria Kankara, whose collection "Hymns and Hymens" was nominated for the 2004 NLNG prize and upcoming writers Lami Molluma Yakubu, who writes the most deliciously twisted horror stories, and poet Hajjo Isa whose lush imagery is something you have to read to believe.

It has been an absolutely humbling experience meeting and hearing from these authors. It's made me realize just how far I have to go as a writer, but it also gave me hope. So here are a few pictures from my literary life. Hope you enjoy it!
Helon Habila (left) and me at the Abuja Writer's Forum Reading in July.
Poet Lola Shoneyin at Infusion in June.
Adaobi Trisha Nwaubani at her reading in Infusion in June.
UwemAkpan reads at the Sheraton in Abuja.
Chimamanda Adichie at her one-day Abuja workshop in April.
Me and Teju Cole after his reading in Abuja.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing the poor into our stories

I live in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, a place with big beautiful buildings, traffic lights and long stretches of unbroken highway. It is a rich man’s town. To illustrate that, there are few sidewalks or pedestrian crossings, and decent housing in the city centre starts at a quarter of a million Naira a year - in two-year leases. An anecdote has it that one minister of the Federal Capital Territory said “Abuja is not for everyone.”
Whether he said it or not, it is certainly been taken to heart. The new minister has committed himself to restoring the city’s master plan. However, he has done this, not by going after the corrupt yet wealthy men and women who have carved out vast plots of land around the city for their personal use, but by destroying shanty towns on the outskirts of the city and beating up and jailing street hawkers.

There is no justification for this. If we look at sheer numbers alone, the majority of the world’s population are poor. This has been true throughout history and across continents. Most of the people who have and will live have little or no access to clean water, good nourishment, decent housing and decent education. The poor outnumber all of us. They always will.

Yet like Abuja’s government, speculative fiction tends to focus on the middle and upper class. Our earliest stories from Gligamesh to Beouwulf to the Ramayana are about the deeds of gods and kings. Those stories that do feature the poor are either cautionary tales - warnings about the lessons of moderation – or they end in acquisition of riches.

Perhaps it was because literacy was so often the domain of the wealthy. Even in oral traditions, only those with the leisure of time could afford to commit prodigious long-form stories and songs to memory. The griot and the minstrel were supported by the coffers of the rich and powerful.

In the imaginary worlds we create today, we don’t inhabit too many worlds dominated by grinding poverty. Most characters born poor get to move up the income ladder. Still, poverty has inspired some of our greatest literature. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were both born into penury. Their childhood experiences gave them empathy and insight that allowed their writing to soar. It also gave both men a prodigious work ethic. Both Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, display the resilience and beauty that is the human spirit, even in the midst of want.

It is easy to write about luxury; to build cities without sidewalks. I think the challenge for me as a writer is to find the stories underneath. The tales told by the underprivileged. Coming from a middle-class background, this will be difficult. However, I think my work, like my city will be a much richer place if I do.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


This story was published in the 6th edition of Saraba Magazine, which came out this month. However, due to technical issues, they have yet to put the issue on their website. So, I've put it here. It's not speculative fiction, but tell me what you think:

When you look at me and quickly look away, I notice. My mind immediately goes down that well-worn path of self-loathing. I think: “You can’t stand to look at me – this ugly creature like a great squat toad hulking beside you.” I can’t help it. In a quicksilver burst, think it before I even realize it.

It is worse when you smile, because all I can see is canned politeness, as if you bumped into a bag lady on the subway and you’re sorry for the inconvenience.

And when I speak, your eyes wander off. Your speech falters and I am left talking to myself as if at a sad puppet theatre where all the guests have left, but I have to finish the show.


Perhaps you think I deceived you. When we met that summer at your parent’s anniversary party in Michigan, I must have seemed like something liquid and exotic. Perhaps seeing me with your brother, the family rebel, with my tattoos, piercings and fondness for heavy eyeliner you thought me dangerous somehow. What you could not know is that he liberated me.

I was an art student at a privileged school I am too ashamed to name; he was the pizza guy who always had a smile for me. He was so different from all the soft milk-fed boys I’d grown up with. He expected nothing from me and I bloomed under his care. But it was brief summer romance and by the time we took that summer trip to meet your family, it was already a cool bank of dying embers, quickly turning to ash.

You’ve told me that you were drawn to the way I spent all my time with the old folks. That you loved the way I charmed your grandmother and made your dour aunts smile. But I think you were just restless. You had the spectre of layoffs looming over you and needed something to distract you. You saw me as some kind of heady drug promising adventure and life.

I should have known by your touch. You never reach for my hand in the company of others. You don’t brush the hair from my face or reach out to wipe away a stray bit of food or lint. You never touch me when you’re sober.


I am not dangerous or exotic or liberating. I am fragile. A weak, empty thing too easily broken to suit the men I love. I require more care than they are willing – or able – to give.

Now, I have become a burden to you. I am one more responsibility you must fulfil among the endless chores in your life. And I don’t know where to go from here. I know you will not give me what I need; I am a phase whose time has passed. Yet, I cannot stop hoping. Every time I cook a meal for you or clean your apartment, even when I give myself to you, I hope. Perhaps this is the act that will turn your gaze towards me.

Because a part of me lives and dies for your regard. When you whisper to me in the darkness it is prayer, your touch is benediction and when you are inside me it is salvation. This isn’t what you wanted, I know. You wanted someone to idolize, a goddess far above you at whose feet you could worship and when you discovered the truth, you lacked the courage to turn me away.


So here we are: a frozen tableau of unhappiness in a small breakfast place; our meals half-eaten. I stare at you through the dark curtain of my hair, my hands clasped nervously under the table and you look away. Idly playing with your coffee cup, you wonder where the check is.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Repeating our Mistakes

I am, by nature, an introspective person. I constantly analyse my decisions and actions, turning them over in the compost heap of my mind until I turn up something that makes sense. Then I write about it. While I understand that we may not all be the writing kind, what always baffles me is when people and nations can’t seem to look into themselves for understanding before moving forward.

For instance, it makes no sense to me that so many white people in the United States of America seem wholly at a loss when confronted with racism. Each act of racial injustice is treated as if it were a thing without precedence or history or context. An anomaly that exists outside of a larger institutional framework. They seem incapable of looking into history or examining their society’s shortcomings to understand where these acts come from and how to truly balance the scales.

NEXT newspaper ran a powerful editorial about this phenomenon in Nigerian politics. I agree. If there ever was a country that needed to examine itself and its path, it is my own. Yet, Nigerians, on the whole are not a self-reflective people. Those who are prone to caution and deliberation are seen as slow and naive "mugus." Fools who will be left behind as everyone rushes for their slice of the pie.

There is a good reason for this. To survive in Nigeria, you must be the master of the hustle. You must be willing to pound pavement, shake hands and smile broadly. But if we are to stop the downward spiral into chaos, Nigerians must do more than survive. We must sit down and examine ourselves as a nation.

No nation can look inward on its own; it relies on its intellectuals and artists. We have thinkers - people who question and probe and want to know why - but too often, they are drowned out by the voices of fear. They are too busy trying to think of ways to pay the rent. And when it gets too much, they flee to greener shores, leaving behind the venal, the corrupt and the lazy.

Unfortunately, this incapacity for reflection shows up in our art. Nigeria has the fourth largest movie industry in the world – and the largest in Africa. Yet our films are very often like bad stage plays with over-wrought plots and one-dimensional characters. And very often paintings and sculptures are derivative tourist shlock – masks, village scenes, and mothers with babies on their back. Where is the innovation? Where is the imagination?

Our literature suffers in the same way. Far too many of our books and plays read like bad Nollywood dramas and our poems are no better than mish-mashes of impenetrable words cut up into stanzas. Last year, we were unable to award one of our highest literature awards to any home-based writer because the quality of the work submitted was so poor.

Right now, it requires a monumental struggle to be able to resist corruption and craft quality art, but it must be done. It will require having to carve out time that might be better served chasing down the next meal and the work might not have any monetary value. But it must be done.

Those who benefit from injustice rely on our inability to put the pieces together. They know that as long as we keep our heads down, scrabbling from one crisis to another, we cannot muster enough time or energy to fight back. Without taking the time for reflection, we will never realize the full depth of our oppression and rise up against it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Painting the Big Picture

Looking over some of my notes the other day, I realized that I have been “working” on my novel for almost 5 years now. Of course, it didn’t help that I lost good chunk of the second draft three years ago because of a corrupted flash drive, but a big part of the reason it has taken me so long to write this (besides laziness) is because I want to get the details right.

I aspire to write books like “A Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin or “Zahrah the Windseeker” by Nnedi Okarafor, which are filled with exquisite details about clothing, food, flora and fauna. However, what eludes me is how to balance the details with the overall plot. How do you write an epic story without getting bogged down by or glossing over the details?

My story is set in two worlds: The jungles of the Forest Omin and the rocky plains of the kingdom of Argand. However, partway through this current draft, I realized that I had no real, concrete idea what either of these places looked like.

First I had to decide what details were appropriate even to use. Because I had already committed myself to certain things, such as the general setting, the level of technology and the climate, I had to go through real-world examples to figure out how to put them all together. It turned out that 12th-century Spain, when the Muslims ruled much of the peninsula and built beautiful castles among the hills, fit Argand precisely. And the indigenous communities of the Amazon jungle seemed to be the perfect base for the people of the Forest.

While writing, I found myself swinging from one extreme to the other. Sometimes, I spent so much time researching (though every time I moved to somewhere new, much of that research would be misplaced) that I neglected the actual task of writing. Other times I would write these dull stretches that had characters “touching things” and “seeing landscapes.”

I have read plenty of books and stories where a lack of research was clear and I know that frisson of annoyance when the author just doesn’t get it right. I’ve even been on the other side of the aisle; a reader once chastised me because my description of a horse was wildly inaccurate. It did not matter that the last time I had been near one was when I was three years old, I should have done the research. Writer Unboxed has a great article about this here. But I would love to hear what other authors have to say.

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Upcoming Publication

This is a story that will be published next month in Dugwe, the Abuja Writer's Forum annual anthology. Let me know what you think.


When they came, silent on the water, they looked like any of the countless couples I had welcomed. My sight was failing even then and it was not until they reached my shores that I saw that beneath her swollen belly, her hands were bound.

The Goddess would never have allowed them to find this island had they not sought it in the spirit of true love. They would have wandered upon the waters of the lake, their path shrouded in mist and shadow until they gave up and turned back to shore. So, I welcomed them.

He was a warrior from the plains, lithe as a cat with copper-toned skin, thick, black hair and almond-shaped eyes. His hawkish nose curved over a thin mouth. She was a slave from the Western Islands, fair-skinned and slender as snow weed. Her flaxen hair was bleached white, her face creased by years of labor in the sun. But her eyes were as blue as the heart of the lake.

He clutched at her like a hard-won prize, but I pried her from his sweaty grip. In my hut, I removed her bindings and washed her bleeding wrists with water and witch-hazel. I bound the wounds with clean cloth. I fed them some thick spinach stew, which they ate greedily, and I bade her to sleep in my bed.

Outside, the other residents of the island gathered in the courtyard of my compound to welcome the new arrivals. They brought gifts of palm wine, bananas and roasted yam, for they too had sought its sanctuary after fleeing the capricious strictures of their societies. Though they pressed him, he would not say what brought the two of them to our shores. Only later as she slept and we nursed warm bowls of tea beside the dying embers of the hearth fire, did he tell his story.

Her name was Zahra, which meant ‘fierce.’ It was not her true name. She had been given a tribal name when they bought her as a child. His name was Allul, a desert bird of prey. He had loved her since he first saw her as a child fighting off those who tried to break her spirit, he told me. But Allul was a warrior of a respected family in his tribe. He could not marry her and she had vowed to kill herself rather than become any one’s bed slave.

So one night, buoyed by drink, he lured her out into the scrubs and took her. Against the laws of his tribe, against her will, he took her. Then, fearing the harsh justice of his people, which would have condemned them both to death, he bound her and fled.

For a time, they lived off the custom of hospitality that exists among the tribes of the plains. Among them, any visitor is welcomed without questions or complaint for a given time. A day, for some, a week – even a full moon among others. However, as the evidence of his crime blossomed within her, he sought a more permanent refuge.

Now, I cannot tell you where this island is. It sits in the middle of a great lake, but everyone who has found the lake has come by different means. Some climbed mountains, others crossed deserts, one couple fell into the lake after they jumped from a cliff. Allul and Zahra crested a hill one day and saw the lake nestled in the center of a valley filled with snow weeds – the island winking at them through the haze of mist.

As he finished his tale, my mind was wild with questions. I could not understand it. I had been tending this island for time out of mind and I had welcomed people from all over the Land. They were men and women who had loved the wrong family, the wrong class, the wrong nation – even the wrong sex. But this, this was not love. This was base and selfish - a cruel parody of every story I had ever heard. Why would the Goddess bring this man to my shores?

Just then, I heard a cry from the corner of the hut where Zahara was sleeping. She had awoken in the throes of labor. Now, I have birthed more babies than I can remember, but none so fraught as this. Their time as nomads among the plainspeople had taken their toll on her. She was in poor health and I could not hear the child’s heartbeat. I called up help from the other residents and even drafted Allul. When the child was finally born, his face was covered in a thin caul. I ripped it away and kept it to fashion a protection charm for him later. He was a tiny thing, but he drew a great lungful of breath and cried with a volume that belied his size.

It was when Zahra held her son that I understood. It was not Allul’s love for Zahra that had brought them here. It was her love for her child, though he was the fruit of his father’s crime. In all the time they wandered, she could have fled into the harsh landscape. But she knew no tribesman would have extended the custom of hospitality to a lowly slave who had fled her master, so she had remained at her rapist’s side.

Now, she could be held prisoner no longer. She bid me care for her son and by morning, she was dead. Allul went mad from grief, though I am inclined to say it was rage. The anger of a spoiled child denied its favorite plaything. He walked into the lake and began to swim for the far shore, but he never got there. His body washed ashore a few days later.

Even as I write this, I can hear Behn rooting about among my herbs and potions on the other side of the hut. He looks like his father, dark haired and hawk-nosed. He even has a touch of the man’s melancholy nature. But his spirit, like his blue-blue eyes, are his mother’s. I know when he leaves here – as he surely will, for my world is too small for his ranging mind – he will be the flame that sets the world afire.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Talking with Tylor

After reading a review of his book online, I became intrigued by debut author Temitayo 'Tylor' Ilori. He has just published a fantasy-fiction novel called “Doom’s Wing: The Legend of Tellam.” While I have yet to read the book myself, I conducted an email interview with him to find out just what makes this young man tick.

Here’s what he had to say:

1. What inspired you to write this novel?

-The inspiration to write Doom’s Wing came after I finished a long manuscript of another book entirely. It came with the phrase that started it all, “If you dare ride on Doom’s Wing to achieve a means, you will definitely get to an end called destruction.” I wanted to write the story of fun, love, justice, liberation and adventure and it turned out to be just that though not as planned initially. I would therefore say Doom’s Wing was a prophetic statement for this generation and those to come. A revelation of some sorts.

2. Who would you say are your literary biggest influences?

I fell in love with Rene Brabazon Raymond’s books (James Hadely Chase’s Series) as a teenager but before then I had loved the writings of King Solomon in some of his works like Sirach, Proverbs and Songs of Solomon. Growing up, I became entranced with the works of Greek philosopher like Homer and Roman poet, Publius Ovidius Naso, known as a Ovid, especially his work Metamorphosis. I had an encounter with The Burning Grass of Cyprian Ekwensi and it changed my perspective of storytelling. But in all these, the biggest influence is God, the way he designs and writes the stories of our lives is amazing. It amazes me how stars shine and moon glitters and beggars become kings and kings fall into misery.

3. What were your biggest challenges in writing this novel?

-The major challenge I had was unstable power supply as I don’t write my manuscript with pen and paper, I type directly into the computer. Also, in the quest of writing, after I wrote Doom’s Wing to chapter 3, about 60 pages, I wanted to upgrade the operating system on my computer and the person that did the upgrade for me thought he had my files copied into a flash drive, but it was a false backup; empty folder. I almost lost my sanity. For two weeks, I asked myself what was more important, is it to start over again or to give up. But I said to myself, I can always start all over again and I can only write better. And it amazed me how the book later came out, better than the first attempt. The bottom line is if you can’t start again if you lose something, you are not worth starting it at all.

4. How can readers get a hold of your work?

We are still working at a major marketing plan that will make it available on everybody’s shelf. But for now, you can get it in Silverbird Galleria, V.I., Lagos, Media Hub, Palms shopping Mall, Lekki or Ebeano Store, Ikota VGC or call 08033501037 or 07041314110

5. What do you think is the future of Fantasy-fiction in Nigerian literature?

-The ground has been broken already. Story-telling is getting boring in the African continent already, we need a new flavor and it has come to stay. I have been challenged for using the of names I used and asked why I didn’t use common Nigerian names but my answer has been "I wrote a fantasy and I have the liberty to create a world that does not particularly exist and also create the people". Africans must break off from this pattern of “as an African you must be write about Africa or something related”. Writing is more than that. We must be able to express ourselves beyond what is familiar and common. Even the foreign writers like J.J.R Tolkien, J.K Rowling and (filmmaker) James Cameron used characters, names and even languages that are not indigenous to their nationality, tribe or race. Example is the Avatar movie, the latest work of James Cameron where he created used names like Neytiri, eywa, and Eytucan and created the people and language Na’vi. It added beauty to storytelling and that is quite therapeutic when you can be drawn into a world you are not familiar with. Fantasy has come to stay, it has been with us in Africa, especially in our tales by moonlight.

6. What do you hope to contribute to the literary landscape in Nigeria?

Like you have seen, I have come to revolutionize the African literary world and to challenge this “racist thing” that African writers hold on to. I have come to lead a new generation of writers who can and will write in virtually any genre they wish without the fear of criticism. A generation that will break away from the chains of limitations that African writers have wound around themselves. Creativity knows no bound, it knows no culture and it knows no race, when it wants to express itself, it takes the form that best suits it. We can and must choose to write in a relatively uncommon genre.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Trouble with Fantasyland

Being a black woman I have always been drawn to worlds that I could see myself in. I adored Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, but I could never finish any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books. Jordan’s world was rich with a diversity of human races - whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics - while the only non-whites in Tolkein’s world weren’t even human.

Few fictional worlds have histories of racial segregation and oppression such as slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow or Apartheid, yet often their characters and situations play out as if they did. The trouble with fantasyland for me is that there are just some places that I, as a black woman, cannot go – not even in my imagination.

One can argue, and many will, that conceptions of race in speculative fiction have come a long way. But I would argue that the more things have changed, the more they have stubbornly stayed the same.

Let us take the fantasy show “True Blood” on HBO. I discovered it this spring and I loved it. It was an intelligent twist on the standard vampire-falls-for-human story with complicated characters and a rocking good storyline. At least it was at first. By the second season, much of the subtlety of the show is lost amid the sturm-und-drang of witchcraft, sorcery, Gods and monsters that enters the storyline. And all pretence to racial complexity is abandoned as characters become more stereotypical: angry black girl Tara becomes even angrier and more spiteful; her alcoholic mother is no more than an ignorant bible-thumper. And the most vibrant character in the show, the flamboyant Lafayette, is brutally tortured for several episodes for a minor infraction. Throughout, I could not help feeling as if he were being punished for the crime of being an expressive black man. By the way, the white character who commits an even greater crime is never punished.

I suppose it is only to be expected that we bring our prejudices into the worlds we create. After all, many writers of speculative fiction write because we want to bring the inner worlds of our dreams and nightmares to life. However, I think more writers need to think critically about their creations.

I think we need to have more conversations about how we deal with issues of race in fantasyland. For instance, there is an implicit assumption in too many books that unless the color of a character’s skin is directly referenced, the character is white. Another example is having characters of African descent with straightened hair in a world where relaxers and weaves do not exist. Whiteness is the blank paper upon which other races are written.

Because this is a genre in which non-white writers are not well-represented, challenging these issues will be difficult. And it will be even more so for African writers of speculative fiction who are already dealing with issues of “authenticity” from audiences who feel we are inappropriately mimicking Western culture. Yet this is a conversation we need to join. As African writing moves onto the international arena, we must understand the field on which we will be playing. And we must be prepared to wade into the battle.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imagining the End of Patriarchy

Since the global recession began in late 2008, I’ve heard a lot of reports about how much harder it is on men than on women. According to Foreign Policy magazine, more than 80 percent of the job losses in the United States and Europe have disproportionately fallen on men, adding up to about 7 million more unemployed men than before the recession. The losses have mostly come from traditionally macho industries such as construction and high finance.

Many have taken this to sound the death knell for patriarchy. One article said it was the death of Macho – a certain kind of masculinity that prized dominance, reckless risk-taking, and aggressiveness. Hannah Rosin’s article in the Atlantic last month went a step further and proclaimed the beginning of a new era of woman. However, writing in the midst of what is undoubtedly a very male-dominated society, I fear that reports of patriarchy’s death may be greatly exaggerated.

I do agree that as the world becomes more globalized, more and more societies are going to have to shift to accommodate the contributions of women in the public sphere. The agrarian societies that required a gender-based division of labour and in which physical prowess was a main arbiter of power are disappearing – and they are not coming back. However, the societal shifts that are helping to liberate women are not happening everywhere.

In the West, which was far more affected by the global recession, the rise of female power is only accelerating an ongoing trend. Women have been steadily moving into the public sphere in American and European societies for the last 30 years. In Nigeria, feminism has only barely started to take hold – and only among certain classes in certain parts of the country. We are still outraged by the story of an aging senator whose fourth wife was a 13-year-old girl and the revered traditional monarch who brought armed thugs with him when he went to beat his wife in her own home. And many Nigerian women still expect to marry men who will “take care” of them financially.

But whether we like it or not, the world is changing and in the new global system, patriarchy simply does not work. The idea of a single powerful male single-handedly providing for a passive and dependant spouse is impossible when few men earn enough even to care for themselves. Our clinging to a system which even our ancestors did not practice in a bid to maintain a false sense of tradition, is doing us a disservice. It is placing men under an increasingly unrealistic burden of responsibility while keeping women out of a system that increasingly needs their input.

Western feminism may not mesh with aspects of African culture. A tradition which holds that a person’s most important legacy is leaving behind children who will remember them, cannot agree with Simone De Beauvoir’s view of marriage as a soul-crushing prison. So, we have to find a version of feminism that works for us.

Before colonialism, many Nigerian societies had their own avenues for female power. Among the Igbo, for instance, there were ways for women to become chiefs and own land in their own right. But the richness and complexity of these traditions were stripped away and we have been left with concepts that are poor, denuded versions of what they were.

And this is where imagination comes in. I think too often we writers fail to adequately tackle the issue of female empowerment. And when we do, it tends to come across as moralistic and trite. Plus, the burden is left solely to women, as if they are the only ones who have a stake in changing the system. For instance, Richard Ali’s review of Ahmed Maiwada’s new novel “Musdoki,” celebrated it as a tribute to traditional masculinity. Mr. Ali speaks so glowingly about the novel’s themes of male dominance and the fear of female emasculation that one would have almost thought the book was set in the 16th century, not modern times. People, we can do better.

As patriarchy becomes increasingly untenable, our society will need to find a new system. No one is advocating all-out female domination. I am of the opinion that matriarchy could ultimately be as destructive to men as patriarchy is to women. Instead, I think our future lies in devising a true equitable partnership between men and women.

What is needed is a society in which men and women are free to choose their paths without preconceptions of gender to box them in. A world in which men can be caring and nurturing without being a called weak and women can be assertive and powerful without being called domineering.

Writers, especially writers of speculative fiction, have an important role to play in this discovery. It is up to us to imagine the new order that we want to see. We can inspire the world to change, but before it can be, someone has to dream it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stranger than fiction

Recently, the Nigerian National Assembly began agitating for a raise in their allowances, the money allocated to them - quite apart from their salaries – for cars, housing, and other expenses. The raise they want will amount to nearly 100 percent of their current allotment.

On Monday, Business Day newspaper ran as its front page story an analysis of the lawmakers’ current salaries – comparing what they earn to their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom. It turns out that Nigerian senators and representatives are some of the best paid lawmakers in the world, even though they do the least amount of work. In three years, the Nigerian National Assembly has only managed to pass 16 bills.

These men and women feel perfectly entitled to make such outrageous demands in a country where most of the population (70 percent) lives on less than $1 a day. Where malnutrition and preventable diseases still kill off the weak and most vulnerable. It boggles the mind.

I live in a country where a greedy, corrupt and incompetent ruling class with access to futuristic technologies lives like gods amid a deprived populace crammed into squalid cities or isolated in villages no better off than they were in the middle ages. Magic is everywhere. Here, healers have the power to cure, old women can turn into animals, young girls can trap a man’s soul by feeding him succulent dishes and a child’s curse can kill. It sounds like something out of a dystopian science-fiction plotline.

Yet, it is the reality of much of the African experience. So the question is: How do you craft fantasy, science fiction and horror stories when the truth can be so much richer than the most fantastic tale?

Perhaps this is why conventional science fiction does not appeal to many Africans. In a world where running water and constant electricity is a luxury, it is hard to frighten people with tales of out-of-control robots. Nnedi Okarafor’s essay about African science fiction talks about this. I agree with her conclusion that there is a need to redefine speculative fiction as a genre in order to make room for our unique worldview.

It isn’t enough to have a brown-skinned Conan the Barbarian, or a spaceship captained by Nwachukwu instead of Picard; or falling back on positive reimaginings of a country where streetlights work and government functions. I think there is a richer, deeper world out there for our speculative fiction.

I’m re-reading Ben Okri’s 1991 novel, “The Famished Road.” In it, he takes on a child’s wondering voice, describing the activities of spirit beings with the same matter-of-fact calm as he does the poverty of the main characters.

Though Okri’s work is considered literary fiction, I think such magical realism is a step towards the innovative, genre work I would like to see. I am eager to find and read more such examples.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The wound that will not heal

Months ago, I read a fascinating article by Ngugi Wa Thion’go on slavery and its effects on the African psyche. Wa Thion’go says that Africans and the West have buried the trauma of slavery in a collective “psychic tomb, acting as if it never happened.” The result is a sense that African lives, ideas and experiences don’t matter – or at least they don’t matter as much.

For instance, the genocide committed against European Jews under Nazi Germany is rightly invoked as a reminder of man’s monstrous inhumanity. Yet, slavery, which Wa Thion’go calls “genocide, holocaust [and] displacement of unprecedented historical and geographic magnitude,” is often dismissed as something we should get over. To invoke it as a possible reason for the economic dominance of the West and the dismal state of the continent and communities in Diaspora is considered in bad taste.

Mr. Wa Thion’go puts it best:

"The economic consequences are obvious: the most developed countries in the West are largely those whose modernity is rooted in the Transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery. The African body was a commodity; and manpower, a cheap resource. Note that this was continued in the colonial era where, once again, African human and natural resources were cheap for the colonialist European buyer who determined the price and worth of that which he was buying. Don't we see echoes of that today in the unequal trade practices where the West still determines the price and worth of what it gets from Africa while also determining the price and worth of what it sells to Africa?

"It is not a strange coincidence that the victims of slave trade and slavery on the African continent and abroad are collectively the ones experiencing underdevelopment."

We refuse to see what lies before us. We much prefer the story line that Africa’s leaders are primarily responsible for the continent’s problems with the benevolent West looking helplessly on. While it is true to a great extent, it is not the whole story.

Through slavery and its little sister colonialism, we were stripped of our memories – our history, our religion and our identities. The indigenous solutions that we built for ourselves over millennia of living were destroyed. Many African nations are constantly holding themselves in comparison against an illusionary ideal. Wondering why they cannot seem to enjoy the peace and prosperity of Western nations while forgetting that every aspect of their lives is dominated by an unequal relationship with those nations.

I believe one way to rebuild our identities is through imagination. We are surrounded by thoughtful, intelligent minds dreaming up new ways to be African and new solutions to African problems. Granted, many of them are stifled or driven into exile by corrupt systems built from rusty colonialist models, but those minds do exist. What we need to do is to stop limiting ourselves by drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about what it “Authentically African.”

I find such conversations distracting. They seem to come from a narrow, often Western, interpretation of what it means to be African. Sometimes, I fear that we are spending so much time worrying about whether a work is “African” enough, that we have ceased to write truly innovative fiction. It is not in our best interest to ape the West, scrabbling to create poor copies of technologies we do not understand and cannot effectively use. It is not in our best interest to tell stories circumscribed to fit some narrow definition of what is African – stories designed for the consumption of Western minds. Africa is a very big continent and I believe there is more than enough space in it for all kinds of stories.

We have to gain respect for our own voices, for our own solutions, for the power of our own imaginations. And we must start by acknowledging our past. If we can admit that we were wronged - and that it affects us still - we can see the exploitative web in which we are enmeshed and find ways of untangling ourselves.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Twist in the Tale

At this time last year, I was working as an editor in a prestigious newspaper in the United States. I lived in a nice apartment, I had a car and I enjoyed the company of a warm circle of friends. Then, I lost my job, I lost my work permit and I moved back home to live with my parents.

How had it come to this? I mean it had all seemed so much clearer when I was young.

My father was a diplomat with the Nigerian Foreign Service. Growing up, we lived in seven different countries. Books were my anchor in a sea of constant goodbyes. From my mother’s African Writers series to my father’s Great Books of Western Literature collection, I devoured them all.

Though the decision to study English language and literature in college seemed as natural as breathing, the hard part was figuring out what I wanted to do afterwards.

I had always tinkered with stories — I began working on my first novel when I was thirteen — but my writing never felt entirely legitimate. My parents worked their way from poverty to the middle class and they wanted to assurances that their dreamy daughter would not starve. When I entered college as an English major, it was with the implicit understanding that I would become a college professor. But I was not yet ready for academia.

I knew I wanted to be a writer and I figured the best way to make a living as a one was to become a journalist. I got an M.A. in journalism and I fell into the newspaper business in the U.S. working as a Web editor. It was a good living, but all the while I was plagued by a quiet feeling of stagnation.

Oddly enough, losing my job has returned me my clarity of vision. I realize now that while I enjoyed meeting people and telling their stories, I had been neglecting my own. I have a new job (still a newspaper editor), a new circle of wonderful friends, and most importantly, I recently rediscovered my interest in speculative fiction - science fiction, fantasy and horror - from Africa and the African Diaspora.

I think that many African writers are moving beyond the activist literature that chronicled our struggle for independence. Modern writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Helen Oyeyemi and Nalo Hopkinson are using issues of gender, migration, culture and religion to expand the perspectives of the genre.

So I’ve started this blog to explore these issues and how African and Diaspora writers of speculative fiction are doing some of the amazing things they’re doing. I’ll take some detours, but I know it’s going to be a fascinating journey and I’m finally ready to take it. I’d be glad if you joined me; I wouldn’t mind the company.