Nnedi Okorafor - The Writer

A Q&A with multi-award winning author and creator, Nnedi Okorafor. She is best known for Binti, Who Fears Death, Zahrah the Windseeker, Akata Witch, and Lagoon.

Nnedi Okorafor – The Writer


Define your art and tell us what inspires you as an artist?

It wasn’t something where I thought I wanted to write this kind of thing. I was writing it and the definitions came after.

Africanfuturism is a term that I coined as a sub-category of science fiction. My subset of fantasy is called Africanjujuism. Africanjujuism respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.

From a very young age my parents were taking us back to Nigeria to meet and visit our family and learn about our heritage. Growing up for me has been a truly Nigerian-American experience. Once I started writing, those experiences really came forth. I wanted to discuss culture and identity, and I’m very imaginative so when I wrote about experiences in Nigeria, it all came out in a way that was steeped in the uncanny. It was this weird mashup between the modern and the ancient, the mystical and the mundane.

In a lot of science fiction literature, I saw Africa being portrayed as a place of the past, a place foreigners visited and had adventures in, a place without its own point of view, a monolithic country, a place people left behind. I wanted to read about the type of Africa that I was seeing whenever I visited it (specifically Nigeria), which was a place that was full of old and new tradition yet scifi as heck. I couldn’t find anyone writing what I wanted to read, I so I started writing it myself. 

How long have you been in Flossmoor?

I’ve lived in this area most of my life. Both of my parents are immigrants from Nigeria but I grew up mainly in South Holland (starting when I was about 7 years old) until we moved to Olympia Fields when I was about 12. Then later on, in my 30s, I moved to Flossmoor.

I travel a lot but my base, the place I come home to, is still Flossmoor. My family is all still in this area.   

How do you share your art?

The way that I started writing paved the way for the way that I share my stories. I went from being a mega-athlete (I played semi-pro tennis and was a track star) to being in a hospital bed and paralyzed from a the waist down after a rare complication from spinal surgery to correct my severe scoliosis. I wrote about this in-depth in my brief memoir Broken Places & Outer Spaces. 

In those first few days in the hospital, I was in a very dark place in that hospital bed. A friend had brought me a copy of the science fiction book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, but I was in too much pain to read it, so I started writing stories on the edges. It wasn’t escapism, it was more like going toward, into the pain through story. It was in those stories that I found what I needed.

I wrote for eight years without even thinking of getting published. It wasn’t about an audience, I just wanted to write my stories. I enjoyed it. It was very gradual. I wrote about five novels before a professor told me I should try to get something published. I shrugged and said, “I guess” and submitted a short story to a journal. And that was the beginning. No novel that I’ve had published ever went through the normal route, however. I understood from the start that my path was not going to be typical. I knew the usual routes wouldn’t work for me because I was writing things that were...very unusual.

As an artist, what is your proudest contribution to the culture of black history?

I wouldn’t say it’s a specific work, I think it’s really the body of it all. I feel like I speak a voice of a very specific American experience. The experience of the children of immigrants and the struggle with identity. These are things that I share in my stories.

Being born and raised in the U.S. to Nigerian immigrant parents who maintained a strong connection to where they came from and seamlessly incorporating that into a new kind of American identity, I have an interesting perspective. I see things both globally and locally simultaneously. Home has a complex meaning. The questions of, where am I? What am I? Where am I from? I have two lands (I even have two passports) but at the same time, I don’t have a land at all. Because of that outside and inside-ness, I can be a bridge. Bridges are neither here nor there and here and there; yet they connect one place to another. One thing I hope that I bring is that bridging and opening up that conversation. What is clear to me, from my strange perspective on black people of the world, is that we are all part of the same story, though we have different threads.

My perspective is useful even when some people see it as divisive. I hope that I bring some contextualization and clarity… and complexity, too. I’m proud that I’ve opened up those conversations by exploring them and being open to listening and conversing when things get a little heated.

What has history taught you that could help someone else who is interested in pursuing the arts?

I’m a doer. If I have a story idea, no matter how outlandish, rare, controversial, volatile, I may be afraid to explore it, but I’ll still explore it. My attitude is always: Let’s do it and see what happens. I don’t let fear and those problems I know I’ll encounter stop me from doing what I want.

You cannot let what other people think of you, guide you. The fire inside of you is what should drive you. It’s that fire, that vision that should guide you, as opposed to the outside things. That inner fire is the strongest and longest lasting, and it’s yours.

Don’t be afraid to tell your story. There’s always someone who wants to or needs to hear it.

As it relates to your art, what is your favorite quote or saying?

“A tiger does not proclaim his tigertude, he pounces” – Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winning Nigerian playwright, poet and essayist

As it relates to Black History Month, what is your favorite quote, moment or memory?=

My view of Black History Month is that it’s year round, it’s added momentum to something that should already be in motion. I do appreciate the reminders, though. And I apricate when I learn things I didn’t know about or more details about something I thought I knew inside out. It does present a good opportunity to remember.