Justin is a Nigerian writer, whose work explores the meanings and methods of life. His works have been listed for various prizes and awards, including the African Writers Award, The Awele Creative Trust Award, the Afritondo Short Story Prize and some others. He’s an alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop, by Chimamanda Adichie, and he’s also the recipient of the 2020 Gulliver Travel Grant awarded by the Speculative Literature Foundation. He also writes for the digital comics company, Comic Republic, and he’s a lover of cats, wolves and owls.
BY CHISOM OKWARA
This conversation took place over the course of a week, between Kigali and Port Harcourt, through voice and text chats.
Chisom: Hi Justin. I’m so glad we’re finally having this conversation. Thank you so much for making time for our dialogue. Congratulations again for making the shortlist for the 2021 Afritondo Prize. How did you feel making the shortlist? Towards the end of last year, you won the Gulliver Travel Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation. How does it feel to be this close to winning another literary award again?
Justin: Hi Chisom. It is nice to meet you. Good to finally have this conversation with you. It feels good to be on the Afritondo shortlist. I am really happy. I expected the story to make the longlist but seeing it on the shortlist showed there was something about the story the judges felt was good enough to have a shot at winning. Knowing that feels good. And yes, it is especially good having won the Gulliver Travel Grant towards the end of 2020. It comes with this really good feeling; It makes me optimistic and I am happy about that.
Chisom: Your entry stood out as speculative fiction, a super genre that I have to admit being a bit of rookie to. What has the journey to finding your place in the world of speculative literature been like? Do you exclusively write speculative works now?
Justin: Yes, speculative fiction is a super genre of sorts, an umbrella term encompassing all kinds of fiction that have elements of the unreal or the surreal – fantasy, dark fantasy, science fiction, steampunk… and others. I don’t only write speculative fiction, I also write traditional, literary fiction from time to time. I have the speculative leaning but some stories come to me and demand to be told the way they are. I had the idea for Human Cities in mind for a while, but it was on seeing the Afritondo call for applications that it resonated as the story. It came mostly fully made. I had the setting before I wrote it down; I knew the kind of speculative phenomenon that the story would portray before I’d set out to write it down.
As kids, a lot of us were told stories of talking animals, of men that ventured into lands of spirits. Speculative fiction has this way of continuing in these story paths trodden in our childhoods. Often these childhood tales had lessons learned, reflecting wisdom and insight. I think the only difference between those and today’s would be the element of printing and publication, of good prose; That is probably the only difference between my grandmother and me.
The way I see it, speculative fiction opens both the writer and the reader to possibility, and that possibility is what I like to present in as many different ways as possible. Seeing the responses to my stories is very encouraging and I am happy for that.
Chisom: I dived into Human Cities with the enthusiasm of a toddler ready for their first magic show. Seeing the opening line, “The gods burned, quietly,” I readied myself for fire and brimstone (laughs). It was only after I’d finished reading the entire piece that the “quiet” to the “burning” registered. The story anchors human memory at the intersection of life and death. I found resonance in the evocation of pain and guilty pleasures from revolts against it. What did you set out to reimagine in Human Cities?
Justin: For me, Human Cities embodied a number of things. Human Cities was made to be a human story, and I hoped that potential readers would see that humanity from a unique or new perspective; Perspective being one of the important things speculative fiction has to offer. In addition to being a speculative story that many people could hopefully relate to, I wanted the story to also portray the different things that people are made up of, and to dissect and leave open the term, identity. I wanted Human Cities to be an interesting story basically. I wanted it to be interesting enough so that someone reading it would want to understand the content and context that the story presents, while staying original with the story.
Chisom: “To dissect and leave open the term, identity…” I must admit that I’d never thought of identity from the perspective of memory. I paused at a point while reading and pondered, “who are we without our memories?” But then there was a more subliminal question that emerged – “what constitutes memory”. In Human Cities, one sees a pattern in the memories that unfold – tinges of guilt, pain, turmoil… Not a lot on the ‘joy’ spectrum. Was this intentional?
Justin: Intentional… In ways, yes. Joy is just one of numerous bright emotions, and I tried to balance the darker memories with a few lighter ones. Also, I think the world is more of a dark place and a lot more people have been defined by darker things than by lighter ones, and I guess it showed in the story too.
Chisom: Indeed. This completely resonates. I’m curious to know what inspired the broad spectrum of memories spotlighted through the characters. Did you, perchance, feel like they had to be ‘representative’ in some way? I took in the memory purges as semi-stories, like subplots, nearly wholesome, quite reverberant even in their transience. What was the weaving of those like?
Justin: Well, for the range of the memories, I had to take into account the diversity of human lives and experiences. Every single person is different from others, maybe in a little way, maybe in a lot of ways. I will say that I wanted the memories to be representative of that human diversity when it comes to life’s experiences.
I understand how you took the memory purges as semi-stories/subplots. In ways, they are. It’s the same way, say, certain body organs come together to form systems. Each organ is defined and whole on its own, and yet each works with the others to form a functioning system. I think it’s the same thing with the story.
Looking at memories, when someone narrates what happened to them at any point in their lives, they’ve told you a story. In that same sense, you could say that life in its entirety is a story continually in motion until death, and memories are parts of this story, but they are the parts that can be told because they’ve occurred and are no longer happening in real time.
Weaving the memories was surprisingly one of the easier parts of writing Human Cities (writing it was the hardest bit). One of the memories is based on a real life event, another is based on a potential outcome of another real life situation, while the other five are fictional and these came to me in about two days. In selecting and developing the memories, I sought for the ones that stood out as human as possible, and as ‘true’ to the degree possible.
“If we don’t have any memory at all of ourselves, how can we be, let alone have an identity? Like you said, who are we without our memories?“
Chisom: I loved the bricolage in Human Cities, and appreciate the sense in which you tried to represent without losing the flair of the spontaneous. And I get it when you say the writing was the hardest bit. Shall we try to zoom a little into the crafting of Human Cities, try to capture your writing of it. What would one see if they watched you transport Human Cities from mind to paper? I’m especially curious about the elements of genetics inherent… Did you just know that stuff? Am I supposed to? (Laughs)
Justin: Human Cities started out as science fiction initially. I had the scenario in my head of people walking and meeting, and being forced to give up an intimate memory of theirs before both can continue on their way. Then, the concept became that of humans that have been made immortal through a DNA-altering serum and are now in this ever walking state as a result of a genetic dysfunction or eventual incompatibility with this alteration. But then, I had a hard time weaving the Wandering and the immortality serum into something cogent enough for the story. I couldn’t see how the serum alone could account for the Wandering effect, especially since such a serum would be subject to rigorous laboratory testing for extended periods of time to observe any long term effects. The loophole around this was a magical element, which is how the gods came into the story. The falling gods sprung out from the concept of another potential story of mine, where thirteen gods that held up the sky fell to earth one by one. That tangential sampling gave me the blueprint for Human Cities.
On genetics, I’m a bit familiar with basic terms, but I did carry out research into some topics under genetics that I felt were related to the story. I think science fiction on some level needs to be more defined, more grounded.
So Human Cities is some parts science fiction, some parts fantasy.
Chisom: Thanks for walking me through your writing process. The scenario which evolved into the story was indeed unconventional and evocative. It’s interesting to see how the falling gods came about. I would love to see how the fuller concept manifests, so looking forward to this potential story of yours.
Another zoom in, this time to the Intimate in Human Cities: People often say there are certain things they will take with them to the grave. It feels to me as if in a paradoxical sense, Human Cities quizzes that trope, bringing back your earlier response about seeing humanity from a new perspective. If we unpacked the “intimate” as depicted in the story, I see not so much a reflection of the secret and confidential (although yes, those were) but more—and in a general sense—the “defining” and transitional. It got me thinking of how our memories seem to have auto-filters outside our control, how sometimes we remember the most random things from ages past, but then there are those things that just seem to stick – the “defining” moments or experiences; the times things swung in new directions. And sometimes these are as random and light and cursory as a meeting with a stranger.
Even if outside the scope of Human Cities, have you ever given thought to the way our memories sometimes blur out whole experiences and keep only a moment or an instant, or how we sometimes remember the extensive details of certain (sometimes non-pivotal or non-defining) experiences in ways that surprise us even. Shouldn’t we be a bit wary of trusting memory….or drawing a line between it and identity per se?
Justin: In the story, Intimates are those defining memories that embody or define a central aspect of each person. The Intimates are intended to be defining, and I think that an event that leaves enough of an impression that would change or define you in some way would be remembered in more detail than memories that are not as principal.
The contents of each Intimate ordinarily may or may not have been ‘secrets’ under regular circumstances. But given the dark situation present in Human Cities, these memories are treated like secrets because speaking them out in this case, removes not only those memories, but everything directly related to those memories, including the emotions involved. From the beginning of the story, we see that Imayinwa is down to her last three Intimates, and it makes sense that the more substantial or defining memories would want to be held on to more strongly by the person until they can’t anymore. This is why Imayinwa’s Intimates are particularly defining about her.
In trusting memory, I suppose that over time, the finer details of events that have occurred would become blurry. It seems like a coping mechanism of sorts, because I imagine that if we as humans could recall every single thing that has happened to us with perfect clarity, even the painful or emotionally damaging parts, then the blessing and likewise the curse of having memory would augment drastically. I can’t imagine how we would function in such a heightened state of mind (maybe we’d need immortality serums of our own).
In ways, you could liken a memory to a tree. It has leaves, branches, and a trunk with roots. Depending on the memory in question, you could forget the number of leaves the tree has; You could forget the number of branches, but it would be much harder to forget the trunk itself, and sometimes that is enough to describe the tree. You may not describe the tree completely, but you could describe it enough to be understood.
I also see humans, generally, as a mix of thought and emotion. Memories could be seen as a nexus between thinking and feeling because we interact with memories by thinking about them, and also by recalling or resonating with the feelings attached to the events of the memory.
Without memory, a person can not know anything, as whatever information registered would be forgotten instantly. If you cannot know anything, even yourself, what would you be?
We think because we know how to think. We feel because we know how to feel. And we know, because we have memory. So mostly, it’s either you trust your memory or you trust the memory of another or you do not trust any memory at all, in which case you would be non-living. A person without any sort of memory is undefined, and this is one of the things I tried to explore with Human Cities. If we don’t have any memory at all of ourselves, how can we be, let alone have an identity? Like you said, who are we without our memories?
Chisom: “If we don’t have any memory at all of ourselves, how can we be, let alone have an identity?” I find it very interesting how different elements of Human Cities speak to broader reimaginations of identity and being. And I do agree with you – the mere thought of our minds being heightened enough to intricately remember everything gives me the jitters. Did the writing of Human Cities spark flames for future works; did it ignite any tangential sampling of its own?
Justin: Actually it kind of did. For one, 5000 words were actually not enough for me to express the complete scope of Human Cities, and it was partly why I favoured the use of the interludes/flashbacks; to give some insight into the depth of the story and the kind of world it takes place in. Human Cities produced some interesting effects and I hope to make good use of them some time.
Chisom: Sounds like we readers have a lot to potentially look forward to! I’m curious to know which writers inspire you? Books or other works you’d say have shaped your writing/literary journey?
Justin: Writers that inspire me – Chimamanda Adichie, J K Rowling, for their accomplishment and legacy. The times I think of them, I am reminded that writing can do things. For books, the most recent ones I can recall to have some kind of effect on my writing are The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin. It is a speculative fiction trilogy with really sublime prose and strong, intricate plots and settings, in addition to other things. Then I’d say Americanah by Chimamanda as well. Till today, it’s one of the few novels I have that I can pick up and begin reading from any page. These books are the ones I can readily recall.
Chisom: Gosh, I pick up Americanah and read randomly too! The opening paragraph is almost like a memory verse: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing…” What would you say is the state of speculative writing on the continent at the moment?
Justin: Ah, another Americanahan. Cheers!
I don’t think I’m in the position to determine its state on the continent, but I do think there’s a significant presence of speculative fiction in contemporary African literature and it’s been expanding in recent times. We also have the African Speculative Fiction Society, and the organisation has come a good way in bringing together writers and creatives in the speculative genre, as well as having, from what I can tell, a good vision for the continent’s speculative fiction scene. The Society already presents the Nommo Awards, for various speculative categories, and with time, we could have a really healthy speculative fiction community here. The possibility is exciting. It’s interesting.
Chisom: (Laughs). Yes, indeed another Americanahan. Cheers too! Glad to hear about the African Speculative Fiction Society. Indeed the possibility is exciting! I hope I get to catch up on the genre now it is expanding on the continent and hits close to home. Thanks for schooling me through this conversation.
One more thing, as we near wrap-up to what has been a teaching and reflective dialogue, I’m curious to know how you combine your work in digital comics and your Electrical Engineering studies with your writing. Do these lend material to your writing, fuel your muse, and/or vice versa?
Justin: I still work in the role of a writer while working with digital comics, so I guess it’s mostly my writing against my studies. It wasn’t easy doing both, and having them at two different ends made it more difficult. It’s still not easy now, but I decided to see them both as one thing: my life, and changing the way I looked at them made it easier to do both. My writing and my studies still don’t mix, but now they coexist, and I’m currently okay with that.
Chisom: This is a great way to look at it. I find it inspiring. To conclude, can I ask what hopes you nurse for your writing and what it does to/for/in your readers?
Justin: Thank you, Chisom.
There are a number of things I hope my writing will be able to achieve. One of them is portrayal. I simply hope it accomplishes what it has been set to do, in the way it has been made to do so.
I’d say that I want people to read my writing and either think or feel or both. It’s a little to expect, and it’s a lot to expect, but then a man can hope.
Chisom: I hope these too for your writing, Justin. It’s been an absolute pleasure having this dialogue with you. Thank you for sharing and teaching and expounding.
Justin: Thank you very much, Chisom. It was a pleasure indeed.
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
Chisom Okwara is a Nigerian writer and interviewer. She writes essays and travelogues (with publications in the Question Marker, Thrive Global and Popula) and hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. She participated in British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference for young student journalists in 2019. Currently, she is a full-time Project Coordinator at SoCha LLC.