Pushing Frontiers In African Speculative And Fantasy Fiction: A Dialogue With Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian author of fantasy, science fiction and horror inspired by his West-African origins. He is the author of the forthcoming The Nameless Republic fantasy trilogy (Orbit, 2021) and the highly-anticipated godpunk novel David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019), hailed by WIRED as “the subgenre’s platonic deific ideal.” His shorter fiction and essays have appeared internationally in periodicals like Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Fireside, Podcastle, The Dark and anthologies like Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (Saga, 2020), A World of Horror (Dark Moon Books, 2018) and People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction (Lightspeed/John Joseph Adams, 2017). He lives between Lagos, Nigeria and Tucson, Arizona where he teaches undergraduate writing while completing his MFA in Creative Writing. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies everywhere else.
BY BARAKAT AKINSIKU
This conversation took place between the city of Lagos and Tucson, Arizona USA.
Barakat: Thank you for joining me Suyi. Your godpunk urban fantasy, David Mogo: Godhunter is a delightful read not only because of the fantastic world building in the book but also because of the lead character and high gods (the orishas). It happens that each time I watch Thor on screen, I often think to myself how lovely it would be to have Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder depicted in a similar fashion. Your book does just that by bringing various orishas into live action, and with vivid descriptions, placed side by side with humans. Good job! I noticed you focused mostly on the deities of the Yoruba pantheon. Was this because the book was set in Lagos?
Suyi: Exactly that reason, yes. David Mogo, at its core, is a Lagos story. To place any other pantheon at the centre of the book would have been disingenuous.So yes, it was of the Yoruba pantheon for that reason. Also, Yoruba cosmology is that which is closest to Benin cosmology, where I’m from, and having lived in Lagos for up to five years already, it was an easy side-step to that.
Barakat: That certainly makes sense and I think the Yoruba pantheon with its diverse array of gods provides a good fodder for an interesting tale. Which other pantheons fascinate and resonate with you?
Suyi: Pretty much everything I’ve encountered on the African continent. In Nigeria, though, I’m particularly fascinated by the complexity of Igbo ontology, and how the deities and existences within it are intricately woven. There are others: Ijaw, Urhobo, and Edo, all of which are of the southern region where I’m from. These fascinate me to no end.
Barakat: Interesting. Tell me about your journey into the SFF genre and interest in African mythology.
Suyi: I don’t even know if I consider these beliefs I base my speculative fiction on “mythology.” I think of them as cosmologies, systems of beliefs indigenous to the African people in the way Christianity or Islam is to their original believers. I might as well have been writing speculative fiction about any other belief system. And I guess that is what pulls me to African cosmologies: how connected they are to our history, who we used to be before, and why. Writing these stories raises questions, for me and for readers, about the reason these systems came forth, and what they did for those who believed in them. I feel that in examining this through speculative art, we are bringing back who we used to be, and interweaving that with who we are now, so that we no longer bear the title of our postcolonial selves, but become completely new beings ─the past and present co-existing in one body.
As for my journey, I’ve simply always been fascinated with the stretching of what we perceive as reality. Generally, the sense of wonder and questions raised, the “What If?” and “If This Goes On…” that bring about new futures, rewrite pasts, and create new planes of existence ─both on the page and in minds. So, when I took to writing, it was only fitting that I told stories this way. I’ve written more realist work in the past, but at its core, fiction itself is speculative, asking, “What would happen if…?” Speculative fiction offers that opportunity to expand that question into zones that are not a part of our current material reality, and in doing so, expand our minds into those spaces, allowing us to perceive the matters being discussed and challenged and commented on in new light. It is what fascinates me, and that’s why I write across the speculative spectrum.
“I feel that in examining this through speculative art, we are bringing back who we used to be, and interweaving that with who we are now, so that we no longer bear the title of our postcolonial selves, but become completely new beings ─the past and present co-existing in one body.“
Barakat: Most creation myths are based on a belief system, so I see where you are coming from with the cosmology theory. As regards to your affinity for the speculative genre, I couldn’t agree more and I think that’s the beauty of the genre ─ the endless possibilities it provides and the liberty it grants authors to stretch their imagination and think up alternative futures or outcomes. Like you rightly said, fiction at its core is speculative since all fiction is unreal and based on an author’s imagination to a large extent. The speculative genre simply grants writers the license to stretch this even further.
Going back to the book, we’re introduced to David Mogo as a brooding, sometimes blunt demigod who detests being called orisha daji by Kehinde, one of the twin high gods. By the end of the book, he seemed to have accepted being made for chaos as the next god of war. Would you say he grew in character through the course of the book and what was the inspiration behind his character?
Suyi: I would hope he did (lol), otherwise that would be a disaster. But yes, I believe everyone starts out rejecting the parts of them that the world rejects, and it takes a lot of time, experience and the help of a village to start to see that maybe the thing about oneself that is being stamped upon is one’s superpower after all. That is what happens to David, and in the end, he accepts himself for who he is.
Inspiration-wise, I wouldn’t say I had anything/anyone specific in mind when I began. I only knew three things: he was a demigod, born and raised in Lagos but was not from Lagos, and that he was in his defining decade (20-30). Everything else sort of grew from there. His brooding and acerbic nature sort of grew out of the fact that he’s what I like to think of as a “middle person,” since he straddles so many lines: god/human, insider/outsider (in Lagos), growing up in a nontraditional home, in a highly traditional society, etc. As a person who has straddled a number of cultural lines in my own life, there’s a tendency to adopt a standoffish approach to society’s constant demand for living within neatly drawn boxes. As someone who doesn’t fit into almost anywhere, David is forced to draw his own box, which is a tough ask of anyone. Especially when there is a war coming and his box suddenly becomes irrelevant, because everyone expects him to choose a side, even though he is both sides at once.
Barakat: Yes, it was very easy to grow sympathetic with him. I particularly loved the camaraderie between him and Pa Udi, and also the code-switching and use of Nigerian pidgin. By saying you’ve also been straddled with many cultural lines, do you mean that you see some parts of yourself in David Mogo?
Suyi: I would say partially, yes. Less explicitly so ─I’m not the child of parents from different races or even different ethnic regions, for instance ─but in a more cultural sense. Benin City, where I was born and raised, for instance, is a city that has a specific kind of outlook for its inhabitants, a different set of expectations from many other places in the world I would say fit my preferred manner of existence more naturally. To exist in Benin City as I am now would be a disaster, because I would constantly be at odds with myself. Yet, I am both a Bini man and not a Bini man at the same time. That’s just one way, amongst others, but it’s what I kept thinking of while writing about David. In-betweenness, or middleness, is a constant theme in all of my work, recurring in one way or another in pretty much everything I write.
Barakat: I see. I can imagine the struggles of trying to meet societal expectations whilst staying true to one’s self. It definitely can’t be easy and I hope somehow you’re able to work through it.
Your descriptions of the warding ritual, charmcasting and nsibidi script were all fascinating. I was also fascinated by Ajala’s listening charm placed on Fatoumata and its subsequent reversal and magnification by Pa Udi. Did you research extensively on African ritual practices prior to writing this book?
Suyi: If by research extensively, you’re wondering if they exist, my answer is as good as yours, haha. The listening charm was something I made up, for instance, and the conversion by Papa Udi was just a rational follow-through. Most of the things in the book, I made up, but they were all rooted in the fundamental principles of rituals within or outside Yoruba practices. I did research a few things, especially the symbolic ones: circles as enclosures of power, hence the ward circles; the ceremonial knives David uses and their significance; the alchemical potions used to permeate spiritual barriers, etc. I borrowed a lot from elemental magic and Wicca practices, but these are already present in many African traditional practices I’m familiar with anyway, so it was an easy mix-and-match.
Barakat: It was nicely done. Let’s talk about the book’s setting and world-building, and I think this was well-executed because I can’t quite look at Lagos the same way again after visualizing the book’s dystopic depiction of parts of Isale Eko, the Sura shopping complex and Marina. And of course, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport was not left out. What’s your world building process like?
Suyi: I build my settings through extrapolation, by changing a couple of little things in the existent world and considering what changes they would spark in the larger world, then working from there. I think of it as building from the inside out. In David Mogo, Godhunter, I started with the question of the Falling: What if thousands of gods suddenly rained down on this already overpopulated and decaying city? I considered all the ramifications of such an event: socioeconomic, political, security, etc and just worked from there. Every now and then, I would have to make something up that didn’t already exist, but mostly it was me simply thinking through the consequences of that singular action, and how it would affect the world and the characters in it.
Barakat: You did give off a beautiful depiction of what a post-apocalyptic Isale Eko would look like. Talking about the gods, Eshu was the quintessential trickster and his antics amusing to read. I also quite liked the twin orishas while Aganju was the formidable villain. Which of the orishas did you enjoy writing about the most?
Suyi: Can I say all of them? Haha. Truth is, each god offered a unique writing challenge, because I wasn’t just thinking about them as characters, but also as symbolisms for themselves and the people of the world of the book, as well as for us in the real world here, especially for current devotees to these gods. So I strived for specificity with each, and I enjoyed doing that most. The choices I made with gods like Olokun, Ogun, Aziza, Oya, Oba, and Osun were all markedly specific, even with slight changes to what we know and believe about them. I loved writing about Sango’s antics, as well as Oba’s waterworks, Osun’s twisted use of fertility and bearing, Olokun’s constant flickering, Aziza’s windstick (he’s the only non-orisha in the book), amongst other things. Even the gods who weren’t present, like Obatala, I loved thinking about, considering how their past actions brought about the present world.
Barakat: There were some badass female officers in the story. With Fatoumata playing a pivotal role in the book and the presence of some high profile female gods, would you say you were able to effectively do away with gender stereotypes in the book?
Suyi: I don’t know about do away. In writing my stories in general, I pay acute attention to the gender discrepancies that could arise because of being raised as a man in a patriarchal society. For me, if a character could be of any gender, I usually go for casting them as non-male, because male ─especially in a position of power and agency is the default bias of the world I grew up in. So I try, but I think it’s only a small step. It would take a lot more to completely do away with the institutional gender gaps that exist in our world and make their way into our literature.
One of the earliest writing lessons I learned was to treat every character as a person first, then let other attributes ─gender included─ come after. (Sure, to think gender would not affect a person’s existence is naive, but that’s something to consider in relation to the story’s society after gender is applied, not before.) In placing female and nonbinary characters in positions of agency, I was giving them agency as people first. For instance, Femi Onipede was simply just “Head of LASPAC” in the beginning, and it was only much later I decided she was a woman. Likewise, Shonuga and a couple of others. There were only a few characters I was determined to keep as they were: Olokun, Fatoumata, Kehinde, and Ogun. But I have personally chosen to default to non-male whenever I can, because I’m yet to see a book that readers complain has too few men or a poor representation of men.
Barakat: Yes, and I think a lot more conscious effort has been put into having strong female characters in literature and films these days as against the powerlessness and sexual objectification that characterize characters of the past. To wrap this up, where do you find African SFF in the future, and are you currently working on something else?
Suyi: I think African SFF is the past, present and the future. Most literature in the SFF genre feature stories from dominant global groups and African-based stories ─especially speculative ones─ are among the most undocumented and under-appreciated, despite their prevalence for centuries. But we’re participating in a cultural moment now, where stories like Black Panther are taking the global stage and forcing everyone to look, opening doors for similarly under-appreciated stories to come forth. The ripple effect would be that we get to hear voices from within the continent and without, from this underrepresented group and others like it, all coming through that tiny crack in the door. And the more they come forth, the wider the door opens. The hope is that one day that door will swing open all the way, and our stories will no longer be African SFF, but just SFF.
As for what I’m working on, Orbit recently announced my forthcoming fantasy trilogy, The Nameless Republic, so there’s that. We’re currently in revision stages, and the first novel should be out in Summer 2021. I’m also currently writing the script for the first issue of the reboot of Mytek The Mighty, a comic by 2000AD about a solar-powered robot gorilla with origins on the African continent. That one will be out sometime in May this year. On the side, I have another project or two going, but that’s all under wraps for now.
Barakat: That’s a whole lot and I can see you’ve been busy! I also share in your enthusiasm that African SFF would one day go mainstream. This has certainly been an insightful conversation, thank you for joining me in this dialogue.
Suyi: Glad to have the chat. It was a pleasure.
Barakat Akinsiku is a writer and author based in Lagos, Nigeria. She writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Fair Observer Journal, the Truth and various other publications while her creative non-fiction piece Growing Pains was included in Freedom Magazine’s ‘Burn’ anthology. When she’s not writing her own stories, Barakat edits work for others. She also doubles as narrative designer for Lagos based indie game developer, Gbrossoft. Barakat is the author of a novel The Surrogacy Deal and her favorite past-times are relaxing with a good book and watching documentaries.