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.