An Interview with Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Chicago-area author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s new novel The Shadow Speaker takes the reader to a magical world called Ginen, where buildings are grown from seeds and Earth’s pollution is seeping in and causing trouble. We found out what the author has to say about Ginen, young adult books and plants that don’t grow into buildings.
In an interview with Locus Online, you say you think of yourself as an adult novelist. Do you prefer writing for adults or young adults? Why?
I enjoy both. I started out writing for adults. One day, I started writing a story about a girl named Zahrah who could fly. She happened to be 13 years old. I didn’t set out to purposely write a YA novel. The story simply had a young main character. Since then, about 50 percent of my stories have been for young adults and 50 percent have been for adults, at least according to my editors. I don’t think about categories when I write.
I also don’t think about categories when I read. I raid the YA section as much as the adult section when I go to the library or bookstore. Even before I started writing, I was like that. I just like a good story.
Do you think you’ll continue to write about people and creatures in Ginen and the worlds surrounding it?
Definitely. That world has a ton of untold stories that are begging to see the bookshelf.
No plans right now, but it has crossed my mind. What I’m not sure about is if the two characters live during the same time. In other words, I have a feeling that if they do meet, they may be of significantly different ages. But then again, maybe not.
How did you come to create Ginen? How much of the details of Ginen’s and flora and fauna did you have to create before you could write about it? Did you have to add a lot of detail about the worlds merging before you could write The Shadow Speaker?
Ginen came to me when I wrote a fantasy novel titled Ginen. This novel will probably never be published, and that’s fine. Sometimes a writer needs to work things out by working. This novel was over 500 pages long. In it was where I met the Ooni Kingdom with its advanced flora-based technology, the chief of Ooni, the elgort and other creatures. I wrote this book back in ’98 or ’99. I wrote Zahrah the Windseeker some years later. By this time, I’d written a little fact book for myself of Ginen creatures (which I’ve posted on my website at www.nnedi.com/ginen.html. I had to draw a map, too).
It’s a similar story with The Shadow Speaker. I’d actually written a prequel to this book first. An adult novel called Aïr Mountain (this one I hope to publish some day, just not yet). This novel details the time before the Great Change and how the Great Change happened. Most importantly, it introduced me to the character of Jaa the Red Queen (she was one of the main characters of this book, too).When I finished Aïr Mountain, I thought, “Man, I want to know what eventually happened to Jaa.” So I kept writing, leading me to write The Shadow Speaker.
Do you view the technologies of Earth and Ginen to be parallel, or is one world’s meant to be significantly more advanced?
Ginen is significantly more advanced than Earth, at least technology-wise. This is what I love about Ginen, it’s both advanced and ancient. This has been my experience of Africa, particularly Nigeria.
Is Ginen’s lush environment meant to sharply contrast the majority of The Shadow Speaker’s desert climate?
The funny thing is that I totally didn’t mean to do that. My favorite places to write about are jungles and forests. Places full of trees, insects, beasts and heat. Places you can smell, hear and touch. But something about the Sahara Desert intrigued me. Something about how it looked dead but was really alive… just in a way you didn’t expect. So I found myself writing about the desert.
Nonetheless, I think there is some sort of reason for the contrast. As you say, it’s such a sharp contrast. That reason must be buried deep in my subconscious. :-)
What inspires you to write the most – words or images?
Both. For example, I came across a Nigerian newspaper article about the Niger Delta (the oil rich portion of the country). The ecosystem there is in serious trouble due to oil drilling and gas flaring (when natural gases are released from the earth and burned into the atmosphere through a huge huge noisy flame).
A photo that was featured with the article showed a gas flare shooting hundreds of feet in the air. For some reason there were two hawk-like birds circling it. My first thought when I saw this was “Dragons.” My second thought was that I’d soon be writing a new short story about dragons and Nigeria’s oil industry.
I’m also inspired by things I read. Newspaper articles, other novels, etc. I wrote a whole novel after reading a newspaper article about a specific atrocity that happened in the Sudan. That 200 words caused me to produced a hundred thousand of them.
Last, but not least, do you have a favorite flower and/or plant?
Orchids. They are strange looking, like little aliens. Picky like my daughter. Colorful and delicate like butterflies. And they have a dark side…they are parasites (or at least epiphytes). :-)