Why speculative fiction? What about this genre of literature excites you that you decided to set up an e-magazine for it?
My mother loves telling stories and some of my earliest memories were about sitting with her in her father’s house listening to her folk tales. I was very young then, maybe three-years-old. Not long after, I went to Kaduna to live with my dad and as a child longing for his mother (I was her last born then) those stories were what my mind ran to when the longing pangs hit. In primary school, I think primary two; I met Abije Stephens, who introduced me to comics. The stories of flying men, shooting bolts from their eyes and altering reality at will didn’t read otherworldly to a boy who was already immersed in wonder world of Ana Mmuo (the land of the spirits) where a hero went to battle with the spirits, wining match after match until he met his chi. In the stories my mother told me, there were forces of good and forces of evil, something that was replicated in the comics by heroes and villains. Comic books led to dabbling into drawing and later into speculative fiction and writing.
Indeed. Amos Tutola’s ‘The Palmwine Drinkard’ was published in 1952 and has strong elements of speculative fiction. Yet despite this long history, you are very focused on Afrocentric spec-fiction. Is this because you feel the literary scene on the continent hasn’t been stretched enough?
We are Afrocentric for two main reasons: one is the simple fact that world Speculative Fiction is very westward leaning. The stories, the writers, the recognition and the award bodies are majorly situated in the west and show a very westerly bias, perhaps this is not conscious. So when we thought about what we wanted to do, it was easy to say, ‘the world has not actually heard much about this continent and its writers of the speculative, let’s show them something different, something from us.’
The second reason ties to the first, we really haven’t been mining the extensive speculative fiction material in this environment. Why? One reason is the fact that our writers may not even be thinking about these materials. May not even know they exist. Take for example, when I was in primary school, there were like two or three instances when we had to run home, wild-eyed with fear, because a rumour spread that gbomo gbomo is on the way. What is gbomo gbomo? Has any Nigerian writer written a story about gbomo gbomo? There are so many of these type of stories and we do believe that they will enrich our literature so ‘Omenana’ is looking out for them and we are happy that people are now writing them and that we are publishing them and the world is reading.
Then there is that other reason I am personally keyed to - the preservation of our culture for the future generation. Speculative fiction is a very good way to transfer our folklore into writing and we particularly look for stories that throw a light on local deities, beliefs and legends. Wouldn’t you want to one day read a story of someone travelling back in time to the days of Queen Amina or the days of the Long Juju of Aro Chukwu and through their adventures get an accurate description of the time as possible?
Writing is hard enough, writing spec-fic is quite challenging. When you call for submissions, what are the numbers of responses like? Do you think you get enough quality submissions?
I think we are lucky in the sense that there was virtually nothing like our magazine in Africa when we started. Already, there were a lot of writers doing speculative fiction in Africa and having been part of AfroSF, which is the first PAN-African anthology of science fiction, Chinelo Onwualu, my partner, already had a pool of established SF [Science Fiction] writers in our contact list. These writers were gracious enough to send in quality work and getting submissions hasn’t been much of a problem. On average, we get 50 entries and we usually publish about six per edition. Quality is not much of an issue, especially because we’ve published some of the biggest names in African SF. Sadly, we have had to reject some very superb stories, because the quality of the writing isn’t up to par. However, we do have a feedback mechanism, which Chinelo is very much invested in, through which we reach back to these writers and offer suggestions on how to improve on the work. And yes, we have also published some of these stories, after extensive work.
How did the design concept come about, this blending of fiction and art?
You can say I’ve always had this notion that fiction should sail with art. There is my comic book background, but the other story is that my father bought two large sized hard cover short story anthologies when I was a boy. I can’t recall the name but ‘Boys Stories’ echoes in my mind. I recall reading ‘White Fang’ there and the picture of the boys staring up at a looming glacier stayed with me. All the stories in the anthologies had at least one image that depicted a scene from the stories. I also read a lot of science fiction and fantasy anthologies and one thing that they shared in common was pictures that depict scenes. Years later, Ayo Arigbabu published ‘A Fist Full Of Tales’ and each story had a picture, drawn by the talented artist David Motutu. Yeah, David Motutu was on hand to illustrate the first edition of ‘Omenana.’
Most magazines simply hire someone to do the art that go with the stories. You chose to invite submissions from artists.
What idea informed that decision?
We wanted to promote the artist. Even though I’ve not drawn anything in more than a decade, I am still that boy who gained fame in my neighbourhood because I could draw. I still have my drawings, saved in a waterproof folder, so I sort of still consider myself an artist. As such, this is a way to give a platform to my comrades and see them get paid for the work they do, which they mostly do because of a very deep love for drawing. I know that love and how true it is.
And in the years that you have been running this magazine, what have been the challenges?
Money, time, money, and time again. Both Chinelo and I are incredibly busy. I am the Managing Editor of olisa.tv, an entertainment, lifestyle and news website. My working day usually starts at 3am and it’s work, work and more work until 10pm, Monday to Sunday. The demand means I find it increasingly hard to pull away and work on ‘Omenana’. Chinelo is an editor and a very good one, so she is in demand. I think she is even busier than I am [laughs]. We’ve talked about getting people on board, but since we both feel strongly about paying people for the work they do, we are reluctant, and that reluctance is winning.
‘Omenana’ will be two in August. So for two years we’ve basically been running this out of our pocket. This means we pay writers, artists and graphic designers from our personal account. Last year Goethe Institut covered the cost for a special flash fiction edition and that was so so helpful. Yes, we’ve had offers support, but we are yet to take another one. We do want support, but we primarily want to be able to retain control and keep Omenana free. I spoke about love before. I think we do this because we love it, and we want it to remain free, even if it means we will keep spending our money to keep it free.
Who knows, we may get all the money we need and then start doing the time I know we both would love very much, which is work full time on Omenana and promoting SF in Africa and the world. We may also get some others who share our vision for the site and the chorus will stop being time, time, money, time, money.
When you sit down with your editing partner, Chinelo, what are the things that influence the choices of stories you select to go into the collection?
When we started, I really thought story choices would be an issue, but we both read the entries and draw lists of the stories we felt strongly about, when we compared, we found out that we basically picked the same stories. This kept happening for every edition, so we have now taken it as a given.
I think I was extremely lucky to have met Chinelo and also having the added luck that she shares much of my vision for the site. However, where I am likely to have an ‘make we dey push on any how abi’ reaction after several drafts to a story, Chinelo is more thorough and keeps us on as much straight and narrow as we can get. But, we hardly ever over-debate a story, because most times, the same stories are not working for us both.
Still, there are things like women empowerment and the depiction of women in fiction that Chinelo is very conscious of, which I’ve had no sense of until we started working together. I see myself unconsciously looking out for this when I read a story. And then, there is my bias towards stories that try to accurately capture a culture or deities from that culture. So if you write a story and start off telling me how Ekwensu is the devil without the right context, that’s a ‘no.’ If you threat you female characters like ornaments that can be easily be discarded, that’s a ‘no.’ If you basically have no sense of the world your story is set in, it doesn’t feel real, or true, that’s a ‘no.’
If you are to recommend five writers of speculative fiction, for the uninitiated, who would they be and why?
This will be hard, because taste differs, and I am an omnivore.
Neil Gaiman…Because of ‘American Gods’ and everything that man ever put on paper. J R Tolkien… ‘Lord of the Ring’ books are classics. The story of how he wrote them is another classic, especially for us writer types.
Nnedi Okorafor…For her ability to mine African material and create award winning books from it. The fact that her proficiency shows that she must have been blessed by agwu, the god of crazily talented artistic people.
Frank Herbert…because I think the Dune books rank among the most important science fiction books ever written. The world building is wow.
Stephen King…no comment
I won’t not name my contemporaries here: Tade Thompson is one brilliant writer, as is Chikodili Emelumadu, Wole Talabi, Chinelo and a host of others from Nigeria who are pushing the envelope.
If you are happy to be contacted by a Daily Trust journalist please leave a telephone
number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will
be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state
otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures,
video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others,
take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the
terms and conditions.