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How Marvel tapped me to write ‘Black Panther’ – Nnedi Okorafor

Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, Nnedi Okorafor is known for weaving African culture into her stories. Her works include the bestselling ‘Binti’ series, ‘Lagoon’, and ‘Who Fears Death’ (which is in production as a new HBO series produced by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin). The award-winning Africanfuturist is currently writing ‘Shuri’ for Marvel Comics, after a well-received ‘Black Panther’ series. She spoke to Weekend Magazine in Lagos, when she attended the 2018 Aké Festival. Excerpts:

Weekend Magazine: Your Marvel comic book ‘Shuri’ came out recently. Anything to do with the Black Panther is red-hot, so how did you land the project?

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Nnedi Okorafor: Marvel came to me. and I wrote several different things before ‘Shuri’. I wrote the shorts first, ‘Blessing in Disguise’, then I did ‘Long Live the King’, and then I did the ‘Wakanda Forever’ one which featured the Dora Milaje. For each of these, they came to me. They came to me for the first one, and were like, ‘Okay, what would you like to do?’ and we ended up beginning with the Venom/Ngozi short that I did. Then when I got near the end of that, they were like ‘Oh, would you be interested in writing Black Panther?’ So I ended up doing that, but after a lot of thought. It wasn’t instant. Then near the end, they did the same thing again with the Dora Milaje, and also with Shuri.

I was almost done with the ‘Wakanda Forever’ limited series, and then they asked if I was interested in writing ‘Shuri’. At the time I was tired, because Marvel deadlines are very tough, and I was like, ‘I need a break from this, it’s too much’. But when they said it was Shuri, I was like ‘Oh, God, they got me!’ I couldn’t say no to that. She’s a technological genius, and princess of Wakanda, which is a part of Africa, although it’s fictional. It was just too perfect to pass up, so that’s how it happened.

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WM: How different was it doing a monthly Marvel comic book as opposed to regular books?

Okorafor: It’s very different. I can’t say it’s harder, because writing novels is a different kind of difficult, longer and more solitary. But doing a monthly comic book has been tough because like I said, the deadlines are relentless and they don’t stop. It’s continuous and you can’t miss your deadlines. I just naturally don’t like missing deadlines, and if I say I’m going to do something at a time, then it has a to be done at that time. It’s also the pressure that I put on myself, and one thing that I’ve learnt is that with novels, you kind of let it wash over you. Sometimes you push, but most of the time it comes to you, and you have the space to let it come to you.

With comics, you don’t have the space for inspiration. I hate to say that, but you don’t. So you have to learn how to push it and make the inspiration happen. And that was something I didn’t know how to do before Marvel, but now it’s something I definitely do. So, I’d say it’s a new skill.

WM: What spoke to you most about Shuri while working on the story?

Okorafor: She’s a technological genius, and I like writing girls and women who are scientists. My character Binti is a mathematical genius and that’s something that’s very interesting. The film Shuri and the comic Shuri are different, and there was a challenge in bringing them together. I had no idea what they wanted. I was like do they want the comic Shuri or the film Shuri? They’re completely different. So we had to discuss that.

But I like the idea that there was that dissonance. I also like that even though some has been written on Shuri, her story doesn’t go that far and it seems like almost a blank slate for a major Marvel character. So I like that. Writing a character that’s fully established comes with baggage that I sometimes find confining. Like writing T’Challa: he’s a character that I really like, and it’s one of things that brought me through. I like his conflict, who he is. But there’s a lot of baggage. With Shuri, not so much so. So I really enjoyed that, and her being such a strong, black female character who is from the continent. There was Storm, but so much has been done on her too, that there would be a lot for me to shift around with her. But I like her, too, and would definitely like to play in that sandbox.

WM: Do you think that somehow, you write parts of yourself into Shuri?

Okorafor: Yes, but those parts are kind of there already. Like there’s a defiance in her, she’s very ambitious and she challenges tradition and that’s something I’ve always naturally done. She unabashedly challenges tradition. For an African girl, that’s very powerful and I think that’s really what I relate to the most, and it was already there before I wrote her. So I could either just amp it up or just let it be.

Of course, there are other things, like how she names her tech. She has these clever names for her tech. I didn’t have to write that, but it appealed to me as well.

WM: Speaking of tech, you designed new stuff for her in the comic book. Just how much weird/cool/awesome gadgets should fans expect?

Okorafor: If I’m writing it, then there’s probably going to a jellyfish in there at a point. There’s already a grasshopper in issue three. You’ll see it and say that’s definitely Nnedi doing that. So there will be a lot of tech because I love that stuff and it’s something she does and I enjoy, so it will be a tenfold.

WM: What did you read for research for Shuri, and how did it all gel together into the story we have today?

Okorafor: I read books with Reggie Hudlin’s Shuri in them specifically, and I really enjoyed them. I also read a lot of the Black Panther stuff, including ‘World of Wakanda’. But I was already reading that stuff before, as well as some of the Storm stuff, as well.

WM: Now, you’re developing a TV series for HBO, with ‘Game of Thrones’ creator George R.R Martin shepherding it. How is it like working with him?

Okorafor: I love working with him, because he very much understands my vision and understands what it is I do, what it is I intend on doing. With the ‘Who Fears Death’ project, he’ll be the first person to say, ‘look, we need to have a black female writer on this’. He understands that it’s important, he understands the point of view that I’m coming from and he understands when to step back, when not to insert himself into a conversation. He knows when to push me forward, and when to step back. That is a rarity of someone of that clout.

[Martin] really is all about just helping me realize my vision, and so working with him has been really great. And he has so much knowledge, done so much, and so many different kinds of writing. He’s experienced so many types of failures, so he can speak to that. He can speak to what it’s like getting a TV show made, and what to expect. So everything I’m dealing with, he’s already dealt with it, so he’s like, ‘okay, here’s what to expect, here’s what you need to do, here’s when you need to shut up and here’s when you need to talk’. So working with him has been really great. He’s good people.

WM: At the last Emmys, fans got very excited when they saw you both on the red carpet…

Okorafor: It was George. He really wanted me to step into that limelight that was already around him. Like, ‘this is what you’re going to be dealing with, so you need to get used to that, you need to get a taste of it and know how to navigate it’. It was great to attend something like that with him, because as we were going through it, he was telling me all the things that I needed to know. He was teaching me what I needed to do in that environment. And one thing about George is that he’s very eloquent. He can do all these interviews in a row, and answer with such eloquence. So just shadowing him, and watching him, I learnt so much. It was amazing!

WM: Is there anything that you can share with us about ‘Who Fears Death’ so far?

Okorafor: Right now, we’re working. So the main focus right now is on the pilot. And the thing is that this kind of narrative has never been done before, especially with a big network. So there’s nothing to fall back on, to say ‘let’s do it like this’. So there’s that, and there’s also the pushback, because nothing like that has ever been done. Some want to fall back on old ways, which don’t apply to what I’m doing. And whatever comes after ‘Who Fears Death’ is going to have a much easier time. Pioneering is not easy.

 


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