Wednesday 14 December 2016

Interview with Nick Wood

We are delighted to be joined today by TFF author and friend Nick Wood. We invited him to talk about his stories and, in particular, the dystopian novel “Azanian Bridges” he published this year for NewCon Press. Nick's debut novel has been recommended by the Guardian as one of the best SF story of the year.

Nick Wood is a South African clinical psychologist, with over twenty short stories previously published in Interzone, Infinity Plus, PostScripts, Redstone Science Fiction, Fierce Family and AfroSF V1 and 2 (with Tade Thompson) amongst others. He has a YA speculative fiction book published in South Africa entitled ‘The stone chameleon’ as well as a debut novel ‘AZANIAN BRIDGES’ (NewCon Press: UK). Nick has completed an MA in Creative Writing (SF & Fantasy) through Middlesex University and is currently training clinical psychologists at the University of East London (UEL). He can be found at @nick45wood or

The Future Fire: Your story The Paragon of Knowledge in TFF#33 features a panopticon-like dystopia, disability, race and an almost all-powerful posthuman protagonist who reasonably enough thinks he’s the good guy. Do you think it’s possible to write a story with only one issue? Or even one main issue?

Nick Wood: Well – maybe if it’s a relatively short flash-fic piece – and with a strong unitary focus. Otherwise, with intersectional identities existing in fully formed characters, as well as the complexity of the real world, I think longer stories should reflect at least some thematic density and diversity. The future should have a thick warp and woof, even though we act as if it doesn’t exist.

TFF: In Azanian Bridges, all the characters want to get hold of the incredible empathy box, for different reasons. Would you say that, in the end, no one gets what they were looking for?

NW: Like most ‘real’ life, yes! Even the empathy promised by the Empathy Enhancer ends up being a double-edged sword. As an old Stones song says, ‘you can’t always get what you want.’

TFF: As a psychotherapist, Martin (one of your two protagonists) often tries to use his professional knowledge and training to be in control of critical situations, and mostly fails. Being a psychologist yourself, does this reflect your personal experience at all?

NW: Yes, this reflects my experience as a human being in a world that seems to be unravelling fast. I have managed to get some positive movement in small scenarios, but ‘control’ has its’ downsides too and should not be over-egged, even though arguments have been made that an ‘internal locus of control’ is helpful. (That is, the sense that one is in charge of one’s own ongoing activities and fate.) I prefer control to be opened up and shared, however, to see where that goes, although this may be harder and more anxiety provoking initially. Many African definitions of identity have contextual or relational foci rather than seeing people as individual and controlling islands of identity.

TFF: Martin thinks that empathy has the power to defeat racism; that realising that other people feel exactly as we do would dissolve barriers. Do you think he is an idealist or naive?

NW: I think he is a naïve idealist – he would like us all just to appreciate our common humanity and ‘love one another’. But nothing is that simple, in a world still framed by the benefits and costs of colonisation. Further, in this overpopulated world of disappearing resources, fights between trapped rats on a sinking ship will increase. Unless the shock of rising water on our skins gets us to start co-operating, in order to protect a common but increasingly tenuous future. We humans are pretty good at denial and procrastination, despite our frontal lobes.

TFF: Do you think all white people are “a bit more racist than they think”?

NW: To some extent yes – for a start, most white people aren’t aware of their ‘whiteness’ and will insist on the need to be ‘colour blind’ to avoid racism. They can of course choose to do so – black people are unable to avoid racism and are aware that being ‘colour blind’ is a convenient avoidant excuse, for those privileged enough to be able to use it. So paler persons need to be aware ‘white is a colour too’ (to quote an academic paper by Dr. Nolte) and interrogate their own experience, as it’s so easy to suck in racist attitudes unwittingly from wider societal discourses. In the words of a group at the University of Cape Town, we need to find ways to ‘Disrupt Whiteness,’ in order to move towards real equity.

TFF: If you had the chance, would you actually try the empathy box yourself? And with whom?

NW: I would love to – and I’d do it with another animal, given we are all animals too. There is a dreadful ongoing destruction and killing of our conscious cousins the apes – as well as our other animal relatives, on the back of commodification of their lives. We don’t need to look for aliens elsewhere – they’re all around us, but they are fast being mercilessly exterminated.

TFF: Looking at the news of these past months, how “dystopian” do you think your story really is?

NW: It’s starting to look pretty tame by comparison. See question 10. I actually partly wrote the book to remind people of how close in history apartheid was – and something still so close, but supposedly consigned to ‘history,’ can easily re-emerge in ugly variations.

TFF: There are several foreign, untranslated words in Azanian Bridges. As a reader, I enjoyed them. I believe I even learnt a couple! Why did you decide to use them, and leave them untranslated? What do they add to the narration?

NW: The original attempt was to have the book published in South Africa, where there would have been no problem with the Afrikaans and isiZulu words. Given I ended up going with a UK publisher instead, I tried to ensure meaning was implied through context and these ‘foreign’ words were kept to a sprinkling, so as not to overwhelm the text or the reader. With hindsight, perhaps a glossary may have helped. However, I did write an essay, ‘One Language is Never Enough,’ on the importance of not anglicising everything, something the wonderful writer Rochita Roenen-Luis cued me in to. What other languages add are a crunchiness to the text, they make it harder to gloss over and make assumptions about what you are reading – they do what good SF does, i.e. they remind you this is not a white Anglophone world and that WME (White Minority Ethnic) is actually a more appropriate term in the context of the world than BME.

TFF: What was your reaction when they told you Ursula Le Guin was going to blurb your book? (I think I would have melted!)

NW: Thrilled to bits. She’s a long-standing favourite of mine, since I read her Earthsea books around 14 years of age and moved quickly onto her other ground-breaking works. Her Earthsea opener has a young wizard (Ged) at a school for wizards and written in 1964, long before Harry P. There are six books in the series, taking you through Ged’s lifespan and our relationship with dragons. Gorgeous stuff still.

TFF: You’ve been writing in the world of this novel for a while now. Are you planning a sequel or any other tie-ins, or will your next book be something completely new?

NW: I enjoy shorter fiction too so I’ve written a couple of shorts focusing on the unfolding ecological catastrophe as well as the financial divide between the one and ninety nine percent. I’m also writing a fantasy novella involving a family migrating along the south coast of Africa in post-catastrophic times. After BREXIT and Trump I’ve realised there is plenty of fuel for a British sequel to AZANIAN BRIDGES too – perhaps the break-up of the UK and Farage as English PM, the collapse of BRITANNIC BRIDGES? What a nightmare world we are descending into. Dave Hutchinson’s EUROPE trilogy (perhaps presciently) explores the fragmentation of the EU.

TFF: What is the most spooky or frightening thing that you ever experienced?

NW: Speaking with an archaeologist friend some years ago about an experience he’d had in a hut near a dig he was leading up the southern west coast of South Africa. Tim is a hard-nosed atheist scientist, with a materialist view of reality, but was obviously terrified out of his wits retelling his account of fleeing the hut at night, after an enduring visitation from a malevolent old lady ghost. He said it was either there - or he was losing his sanity. Seeing how grounded and level-headed he is, I was suddenly aware ANYTHING is actually possible. Tim’’s story seems to have been thinly fictionalised subsequently in Peter Merrington’s book Zebra Crossings.

TFF: Would you use a piece of art to tell someone that you love them?

NW: I have already done this on a number of occasions and will readily do so again. As an example, I drew and wrote a comic with a kick-ass heroine lead called ‘Brenda’ – and gave it to my partner ‘Glenda’.

TFF: I’ve seen an article few days ago, advocating the use of virtual reality to enhance empathy and, therefore, dissolve prejudice. You’re probably not surprised to hear that it reminded me of your novel. What do you think about it?

NW: An interesting development indeed and one I thought was probably not too far off when I wrote AZANIAN BRIDGES. I think it’s one way to go, but in and of itself it is unlikely to be enough to substantially change attitudes. As the article points out, you have to entice people into wanting to do engage with this in the first place – I made it into a competitive app game in AB.

Secondly, although the technology is immersive it is not fully immersive, in that you are not privy to their full experiential history, so identification will always remain partial. Thirdly, I’m sure there will be huge individual variation as to how much people identify with the experience of the other, partially based on pre-existing biases and prejudice. Finally, racism is more than a pejorative attitude to another – there is also comfort and privilege afforded to holding on to greater power and access to resources. So people may also actively discount their experiences of the other, in order to keep hold of what they may feel are fragile but ‘equitably earned’ entitlements.

Societal discourses within various institutions may further entrench this positioning. So, just for a start, we need to add another machine – an MM one – the Media Manipulator machine. Yes, I know one already exists in the form of RM, but like the EE machine, this needs to be appropriated by the 99%, to engender alternatives to the Daily Fail of the Sun.

TFF: What other developments would you like to promote?

NW: SIx Key Things (A-F Below):

A. African SFF – the newly launched African Speculative Fiction Society.
Voting is now open for the Nommos, the African SFF Awards. Geoff Ryman has a wonderful unfolding series of ‘100 African Writers of SFF’ at TOR

B. OMENANA – African SFF Magazine:

C. The work of Chinelo Onwualu – Chinelo not only edits Omenana but is also a wonderful writer. She is also co-editing ANATHEMA, a apeculative fiction magazine of work by queer POC, which has just met its Kickstarter goals. There is an extremely interesting podcast interview with her here.

D. ROSEWATER – Tade Thompson – A brilliant re-envisioning of an alien invasion narrative. A textured and gritty immersive world, with evocative words that puts VR technology to shame. This is set in Nigeria, like the Lagos-invasion of Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘LAGOON’, but ROSEWATER also shows how much difference two wonderful writers can bring, to what may look superficially like similar themes and setting.

E. Short African SFF, a selected some DOZEN significant anthologies/persons are:
  1. Hartmann, Ivor (Ed.) ‘AfroSF’, V1 (Short SFF) and V2 (FIVE Novellas);
  2. Arigbabu, Ayodele (Ed.) ‘Lagos 2060’

  3. Dilman Dila ‘A Killing in the Sun’
  4. Nnedi Okorafor: ‘Kabu Kabu’

  5. Lauren Beukes: ‘Slipping’

  6. Nerine Dorman (Ed) ‘Terra Incognita’ (Short Story Day Africa)

  7. Jalada – Afrofuture(s):
  8. Nerine Dorman (Ed.): ‘Bloody Parchments’
  9. Billy Kahora (Ed.) ‘Imagine Africa 500’
  10. Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso: ‘Haunted Graves and Other Stories’
  11. Shadreck Chikoti – writer and key driver for Malawian SFF

  12. Wole Talabi - writer and also keeps a SFF short list at OMENANA. Here is also an overview of his favourite short African SF
  13. For a baker’s dozen, I’m keenly waiting the first African SFF short collection by women writers – Chinelo Onwualu?

F. Comics
  1. I have a round-up of South African comics here: 
SF in SA (28) ‘Is There Such a Thing as South African Comics?’
  2. The Comic Republic:
  3. KWEZI is making giant waves in South Africa right now:
  4. Chimurenga Chronic: The Corpse Exhibition and older graphic stories

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