The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.
Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer of Igbo-descent and a professor at Chicago State University. Her work ranges from whimsical, smart YA, to a Disney fairy novel, to the hard-hitting and provocative magical realism novel, Who Fears Death.
She’s racked up a host of prizes, including the World Fantasy prize for best novel, the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, the CBS Parallax Award and the Wole Soyinka Prize, not including all the short-lists she’s made.
She’s also incredibly nice and brimming with wonderfully insane ideas for stories, as I found out when I interviewed her in Chicago for a BBC World Service radio documentary on Science Fiction in Africa.
Here’s Nnedi on what set off her new collection of short stories:
The Spark for Kabu Kabu:
In Nigeria, unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis are called kabu kabu. My most memorable kabu kabu ride was years ago when I was with my siblings and cousins in Abuja, Nigeria. My cousins were showing my siblings and me around and we’d walked very far. We didn’t want to walk back, so my cousins decided to hail a kabu kabu.
We were outside an open-air market and it didn’t take long for a kabu kabu to stop. It was a rickety ancient-looking silver thing, no yellow paint or taxi logo on the outside. My sisters and I hesitated, skeptical of the car that seemed to hold itself together by using sheer will. However, when our cousins got inside, we piled in behind them. Before either of my cousins could tell the driver where we wanted to go, six more guys squeezed in with us. Three pushed in from one side and three from the other.
I remember trying to kick the guys out and my cousins shouting at them in a mixture of English, Pidgin English and Igbo. The guys were young and laughing. Eventually, they got the hell out and we quickly drove off. The ride back to my cousins’ house took about five minutes. For the entire journey, I stared down at the road because I could see it right through a huge hole where the car’s floor should have been. We all coughed and coughed (including the driver) from the exhaust that plumed through the floor hole.
When Prime Books publisher and editor Sean Wallace asked me if I wanted to do a book of short stories, that questionable yet functional vehicle immediately popped into my mind. That was the spark that grew into a fire. Kabu Kabu is a collection of stories that do not need a license to drive on the literary highway. They take you where they feel you need to go.
Included in the collection is a novella I co-write with author Alan Dean Foster also titled “Kabu Kabu”. We wrote it back in 2007. We’d tried getting it published in the Science Fiction and Fantasy market but the rejections kept citing that it was too “literary”. Nevertheless, I loved the story and I knew that if I ever did a collection of short stories, this story would be in it. For me, the novella is about the first generation Nigerian-American experience, Nigerian immigrant adaptation and cultural connection. Technology and magic also get along in this story in a very African way, a theme I love exploring in my stories.
The Kabu Kabu collection is possibly the most thorough sampling of my “storyview”. You have mystical dreadlocks, masquerades, Biafra, Nigeria in the future, my idea of an alien invasion and first contact, good, bad and neutral juju, monsters, flying people (NOT from Zahrah the Windseeker), baboons, mythology grown from disability/deformity, nonfiction turned science fiction, spiders, girls who go to war. It’s a book where (because of the short story collection medium) I get to do something that I have never done within one book: Shape shift as much as I want.
One story whose “spark” I’d like to explain is “The Black Stain”. This is a story that is from my novel Who Fears Death. I wrote “The Black Stain” last year after a conversation with Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, who was attached to the Who Fears Death film option as the director. The questions she asked forced me to dig deeper into the mythology of the novel’s world. The title and the inspiration for “The Black Stain” came from a few lines in Who Fears Death when Onyesonwu says, “I was trouble from the moment I was conceived. I was a black stain. A poison.” That line had always stuck with me because it made me sad.
“The Black Stain” is a brutal story; it is relentless. When I wrote it, I had to ignore the terrified and disturbed voice in my head that was telling me, “Ugh, don’t write that; It’s too horrific. Who would enjoy reading that?” It’s a story about how incidents in history become stories and the resulting stories are often laced with magic that can bend time, space, memory and the future…sometimes in horrible ways.
There are two notable consistencies in Kabu Kabu: Africa and female protagonists. These were not themes I forced on my writing. I wrote these stories at different times of my life. Between the years of 1993 and 2012. However, it’s clear where my heart resides and the gaps I believe need filling. Aside from these two themes, I’m all over the place. Most of the stories are adult, but one or two are young adult. Some are stories that happen within novels and some are standalones. There is fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, horror. There is a novella and there is a story that is closer to flash fiction. Stories are set in the past, the future, the present and elsewhere.
The one thing I wish I could have included in the collection was the nonfiction. One of the nonfiction stories was about an incident in the 80s where my sisters and I outran a group of racist high school students when we were 8, 9 and 10 years old (I’m the youngest). The other was about how I fought a group of boys in grade school while I imagined I was Zula from Conan the Destroyer. Maybe I’ll slip those in next time.
Twitter Handle: @Nnedi
Twitter Link: https://twitter.com/Nnedi