Traditional Beliefs and Dystopic Futures: A Dialogue with Ekpeki Donald Oghenechovwe
Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald is a Nigerian writer and editor. He studied law at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. The Nommo Awards, hosted by the African Speculative Fiction Society, which recognizes works of speculative fiction by Africans, awarded him their Best Short Story Prize for his short story ‘The Witching Hour.’ He has also been recognized by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, which awarded him two Honourable Mentions. His award winning short story “The Witching Hour,” published in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, made the Tangent Online recommended reading list for 2018 with two stars. He has been published in Dwart online, Anotherealm, African Writer, Strange Horizons and the Selene Quarterly. He is co-editor of Dominion, an Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. And he has a novella forthcoming. He is a member of the African Speculative Fiction Society, Codex and the SFWA, and a first reader in SFF mags, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and Strange Horizons. You can find him on twitter @penprince_nsa
BY BARAKAT AKINSIKU
This conversation took place in the scenic city of Lagos via email.
Barakat: Thank you for joining me Ekpeki, and congratulations on winning the 2019 Nommo award for the Best Speculative Short Story. You got the award for your short story ‘The Witching Hour’, which is a well-crafted tale about witches and haunts. You had all the elements associated with witchcraft in Nigerian traditional belief such as shape shifting, initiation and night haunts imbued in the story. It isn’t uncommon to find on blogs and other sources stories about birds, snakes and wild cats caught on electric power lines or trapped in other places, transforming into human forms and subsequently tagged witches and/or wizards. Did real life or supposed ‘real life’ incidences such as these inspire your writing?
Ekpeki: Yes, well, real life incidences or supposed real life incidences definitely influenced my writing of ‘The Witching Hour’. I grew up in a very traditional and extended Nigerian family. It was not unusual for siblings to accuse their siblings of witchcraft. My grandmother and parents back then were ATR practitioners so it was not unusual to discuss and practice methods of discovering and curbing witchcraft. I remember some of those methods. For example, the discharge from a dog’s eyes was said to open one’s inner eyes to the spirit world─that when applied to the human eyes, one could see spirits floating around in different misshapen forms, mostly upside down and headless. We were warned as kids never to eat food from strangers, as this was the foremost method of initiation. There were charms, and sacrifices to be wary of too. And of course there were the regular stories of people─usually old, poor women─found on the roofs of houses, on electric poles and wires, in animal or human form, supposedly trapped by daytime, mid transformation.
Barakat: I can just imagine what growing up in a traditional household was like for you. I think, to a large extent, the belief in supernatural beings and witchcraft is ingrained, not only by traditional practitioners but also by our locally made movies and passed down folklore. I remember watching movies that had scenes of characters picking naira notes from the ground and turning into statues or the like. That of receiving things from strangers and being initiated in the process was also a common trope.
You described the phenomenon of ‘sleep paralysis’ in the story in an intriguing way. Using ‘pressed,’ the colloquial term widely associated with the disorder in Nigeria, you describe it as Ejiro throwing a shroud on the sleeping inhabitants of a house to prevent them from waking up while her master went through with releasing spirit forms of other initiates. What informed this line of thought and can you expound more on the concept of ‘sendings’ as used in the story?
Ekpeki: Well, sleep paralysis happened to everyone, I think. Almost everyone. It’s fairly common anyway, and amongst my peers we usually discussed how we had been “pressed” so and so night. The usual explanation was that witches were holding you down while plaguing you with nightmares and draining your spirit energy. People who were found dead in the mornings whether formerly ill or not were said to have been pressed by witches at night when they slept and had their spirit energy drained until their heart gave out. Witches were also said to eat organs. I just remembered this. Sigh. I’m never going to feel good about being called sweetheart now. *Holds chest*
Then about the sendings, sleep paralysis usually came with nightmares. Or sometimes people had dreams, or visions if you will, and saw events which corresponded uncannily with real life ones. Whether coincidences or not, these happened. They were said to be from witches ─either friendly ancestors or spirits or malevolent and powerful witches. They could be warnings, valuable information, or just thoughts that evoked powerful emotions. This was where the idea for sendings in my story came from.
“Yes, well, real life incidences or supposed real life incidences definitely influenced my writing of ‘The Witching Hour’. I grew up in a very traditional and extended Nigerian family. It was not unusual for siblings to accuse their siblings of witchcraft. My grandmother and parents back then were ATR practitioners so it was not unusual to discuss and practice methods of discovering and curbing witchcraft.“
Barakat: It certainly makes sense, and that was a funny take on the heart being fed on. How easy was writing a story about witches and witchcraft considering the superstitious and religious nature of the Nigerian society?
Ekpeki: Not easy at all. We are a superstitious lot you know. Especially in this age where people hide to practice their traditional beliefs. I was victimized by a few of my teachers until I had to switch secondary schools for reading Stephen King’s The Talisman. The name was indicative of evil charms you see. These teachers were unimaginative and took things too literally. I think I might have let that slip, along with a few other colourful statements, after they confiscated my books, results and kept punishing and chasing me all over the place. Needless to say, they weren’t very happy with my assessment. My mother and some of my family don’t approve of me writing fantasy either, as has been made clear to me several times. I’ve even had some of my fantasy novels burnt. Literally. But hey, this is my life. My life >>>> your approval.
Barakat: I can imagine. The way you describe it shows you had it tough growing up and sticking to your fondness for the fantasy genre. But the good thing is, you are now making a mark and carving an identity for yourself in the genre.
Ekpeki: Oh, it was and still is. Writing is usually time consuming and difficult, being a mental activity. It is a work that comes out of you, takes from you. So when you are already nearly depleted from all these battles, there’s little to give. Hence, I am not as prolific as I would like. One has to make thrice the effort: survive, fight for the right to write, and then actually write. And sometimes what’s left after the first two is just not enough. So I end up publishing what, one short story a year? Last year, I wrote my said novella, and won the Nommo award while I was in Law School where we had classes daily from 9-5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and even 10 once. As to making my mark and identity in the genre, amen to that.
Barakat: Yes, and I hope somehow you’ve been able to create the appropriate amount of time for writing. Let’s talk about another short story of yours, “Ife-Iyoku,” which would be adapted into a novella in the forthcoming anthology, Dominion: An Anthology of Black Speculative Fiction. You are incidentally also a co-editor for this anthology and were recently on a fund-raising drive for it. Can you tell me more about the project and how well you were able to achieve your fund-raising objectives?
Ekpeki: I was invited to the anthology by the founder of Aurelia Leo, Zelda Knight ─her pen name. This was last year, while I was in Law school. I was already slush reading for three pro-mags at this time along with the school workload and trying to manage my BP which was hitting 170 every now and then and I was being hospitalized. She asked me to either contribute or co-edit. And I said why choose? I can do both. So, I have my story on it and I am a co-editor. It’s an anthology of black speculative fiction and has some of the finest writers on the continent and the African diaspora on it. It’s up for pre-order here, and will be released soon. We did a fund raising drive to raise money for it. We raised the money we needed in a month. And by the end of the run, we were about 300% funded, having raised about $10k, with almost 500 backers. My story in the anthology is based on Yoruba lore. It is a post apocalyptic, Africanfuturistic, fantasy, sci-fi short story set in Ile-Ife, the spiritual capital of the ancient Oyo Empire and birthplace of all life. The story follows the aftermath of a nuclear war in which nearly all life on the African continent is wiped out and the survivors evolve and develop powers to survive. The short story version of it, which I sold and published, last year can be found here.
Barakat: I think it’s superb that you met your funding goal for the anthology and even overshot it by about 200 percent. I have no doubt you have stories from some of the finest writers included in the collection. Do you find crowd-funded projects such as this expanding the landscape and growth for African SFF?
Ekpeki: Yes. That’s the very purpose of the anthology; to create a space for African and Black speculative fiction to thrive and center our own marginalized narratives, voices, and audiences.
Barakat: A very notable ideal. I found “Ife-Iyoku” to be a captivating story set in post apocalyptic Africa, as you rightly described it. You make a statement of fact in the story through the observation by Ologbon, the Weaver of Tales who wondered why nations who expressed having no intentions of ever using nuclear weapons kept stockpiling on them. The eventual outcome of this was a nuclear war that brought significant harm to the African continent. Was this theme of Africa suffering the brunt of a nuclear war instigated by others inspired by current world events?
Ekpeki: Yes. It actually goes beyond nuclear war though as Africa has had to bear the brunt of world politics throughout history. Being cherry picked by world leaders in the Berlin conference, our economy is often times determined by the tussle between powerful capitalist and socialist world powers like China and the US. So yes, it was inspired by world events. As most fiction is. And science fiction is supposed to predict the future. It felt almost prophetic recently when the US killed an Iranian general and there were rumblings of war. The nuclear war in my story was sparked by such an event between those two regions too. So, my story and others in the anthology attempt to explore these issues and themes.
Barakat: Indeed, the US-Iran issue did look like what could be the genesis of the story in “Ife-Iyoku.” And Africa has often times been drawn into world conflicts even as an unwilling participant; case in point, the first World War which had Africans drafted in to reinforce European armies. There is also the economic angle you pointed out. Going back to the story, the role Obatala played in preserving Africa and nurturing life by interceding with Olorun after the nuclear catastrophe is almost reminiscent of the Yoruba creation myth. How well do you draw on myths such as this in crafting the book’s plot?
Ekpeki: In a series of books I am currently working on set in the same world, the magic system there draws heavily on IFA religion and Yoruba spirituality. Even in the novella here, I try my best to keep it consistent with Yoruba lore and history.
Barakat: You have a series set in the world too, interesting. Will they feature the same characters?
Ekpeki: Same world, same characters. It’s titled The Orisha Cycle. With the three books in the trilogy titled, “Dawn of Orisha,” “War of Orisha” and “Death of Orisha.”
Barakat: That’s great. It would definitely be nice to read more about Morako and Imade. Are there any specific reason for centering the book’s magic system and lore on the Ifa religion and Yoruba mythology?
Ekpeki: Well, none particularly. It just felt right. This is a story that’s called out to me, if you will, and is the one I most want to tell at this time.
Barakat: And you should certainly tell it. I look forward to reading more about the dystopic realm of “Ife-Iyoku” and thank you for joining me in this dialogue.
Ekpeki: Thanks for having me. Éṣé.
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.