Ndown Okorafor goes to the gym to rest. Not to fill up or slim down, not to seek strength or flexibility. Okorafor, an award-winning science fiction writer, works daily to stop his driving mind. And what a mind it is – her brain has produced 18 works of fiction, including novels for children and adults, a short memoir and five comics. Soon, her storytelling will shift to the screen: HBO is developing its post-apocalyptic novel Who fears death into a drama series, with Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin as executive producer. Hulu is adapting Okorafors’ growing short story in outer space Binti.
Her latest work, Akata woman, the third book in the Nsibidi Scripts series, is coming to the shelves this month. The YA series follows a 12-year-old Nigerian-American girl who discovers that she has magical powers and embarks on high-mission missions with her friends. It comes just two months after the release of the popular author’s latest adult title, Noor, about a woman in Nigeria in the near future whose body is extensively expanded with biotechnology.
Nigeria is the setting for most of Okorafors’ novels. (She defines her work as African futurism, not to be confused with Afro-futurism. The former is science fiction rooted in Africa; the latter focuses on African-Americans.) The American-born child of Nigerian immigrants who never lost sight of their legacy, Okorafor grew up in the suburbs of South Holland and Olympia Fields, but her family visited Nigeria annually.
While West Africa has always occupied her heart and imagination, the authorship came later. At the age of 20, Okorafor underwent surgery to correct severe scoliosis. The operation temporarily paralyzed her from the waist down. At the hospital, she took a pen and wrote a story. She never stopped.
I spoke to Okorafor, 47, over the phone about her writing process, her hopes for the future of science fiction, the book that transformed her, and, yes, the fitness center.
How is your process? Your output is amazing.
I love to write. I’ve loved it since I discovered it in the hospital. I enjoy it. It does not suffer for me. It’s a release, it’s a joy. It’s work, but it’s good work and very, very satisfying. I have written so much that many things are intuitive now, like writing a novel. I do not have to think about structure, because it will take care of itself. I do not sketch, I do not plot. I only write when it comes. My process is really chaotic. It’s organized chaos. Lately I have been meditating in the morning. I use apps like Headspace and Calm. Then maybe I’m working on a chapter or a scene. And then I go on social media and mess around, making some trouble. I go down there to decompress when I feel too much pressure. Then I end that scene.
I do not need deadlines because I am tougher on myself than any deadline can be. I would like to see the finished work. If I look back at all the deadlines for my novels, I hit them all early, probably a month before. I kill deadlines. They have no chance against me because I have the internal pressure. I really want to know what’s going on with the characters, and I do not know until I have written it. I also like to finish things. It’s very addictive.
When do you rest?
Rest? What is it? That’s why I go to the gym. [Laughs.] Rest is the gym. It really is. I watch movies there. I’m listening to music. I love the atmosphere. Many people go to the gym for cosmetic purposes. For me, it’s mental. I need to learn to rest better. I do.
Which of your books was the hardest to write?
Who fears death. I hope no one expects me to write something like this again. I was in a very dark place. The book was inspired by my father’s passing, which was extremely traumatic. My father was a cardiovascular surgeon – top in his class, top athlete, just like my mother. My father was an operations manager on the South Side of Chicago [St. Bernard Hospital]. Then he got Parkinson’s disease and debilitating diabetes. Parkinson’s makes your hands shake – a heart surgeon with shaking hands, are you kidding? He eventually died of congestive heart failure, after spending his life repairing the hearts of others. I was very, very angry. The night of his waking, I wrote the beginning of Who fears death. The first scene is basically autobiographical – before the mysterious aspect comes in.
In your 2017 TED speech, you said, “Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing. It’s all about the question ‘What if?’ “What is ‘What if?’ Do you want readers to consider when engaging in your work?
What if black women were really powerful? I’ve read a lot of African literature, especially when I went to post-secondary school in Michigan State. I found the African literature section at the library and read everything on the shelf. I came away feeling like I wanted to see black African women be powerful, I wanted to see them win. In so many of these books, they did not win. I read realism. I thought, what if they won? And what if they were so powerful that they sometimes ruined shit? What if they used their valid anger, and what if it was not in the most acceptable way? I wanted to see that. I wanted to liquidate the patriarchy. But my writing is not just about race and gender. I love creatures. I love immersive worlds. I love living in those worlds. The women’s stories are big, but the worlds are big too.
Your novels are about the future. What do you hope the future of science fiction as a genre looks like?
It’s cheesy, but I hope diversity becomes the norm so we do not even have to say “diversity” anymore. I do not want to be called a “diverse writer.” Just call me a writer. I hope there will be no white men writers or stories about white men. I want stories of them, but I also want stories of other people. I want it to be easy to find the type of story you want to read.
What are some of your favorite books?
The wizard from the crow [by Ngugi wa Thiong’o], The Talisman by Stephen King [and Peter Straub], Pi’s Liv [by Yann Martel], and Ben Okri’s The starving road, which is like a dream, so psychedelic. It’s probably the most influential book for me. It’s about a young boy who was born with spiritual friends, but it’s an adult novel. He views the world in such a way that the mysterious and the mundane coexist. It is taking place in Nigeria in a very politically tumultuous time. Akata woman, my new book, shelves The starving road. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate. This guy I was dating had gotten it for an African studio and I just stole it from him. He did not care. He did not even read it. For me, it changed everything.
In 2011, you became the first black person to win the World Fantasy Award. The trophy was modeled after the famous horror and fantasy author HP Lovecraft from the 20th century. You later learned about the extent of his racism and wrote a blog post that eventually led to the trophy’s design being changed. But you also said that you do not just want to erase the ugly story. What are your thoughts on cancellation culture?
My thoughts are complex. I’m about dialogue. With the Lovecraft statuette, I did not demand that they change it. If I just made that demand – especially back then – that was all the story would be. I wanted there to be a conversation about this racist, anti-Semitic writer being affirmed and supported by many of my favorite writers. They did not talk about his racism; they did not deal with it. None of this gets better if we do not face the problems, the ugly. Facing it is not fun. It’s painful, it gives scars. But in the long run it heals. I’m not about deleting or replacing. I understand cancellation culture. I know there are things that it has solved. But it’s not perfect. We need to have painful conversations, and those conversations involve hearing terrible things. It’s part of the process, unfortunately. There will be more pain before the healing comes.