Tuesday 7 February 2017

Interview with Chinelo Onwualu

Part of a series promoting the Problem Daughters intersectional feminist speculative fiction anthology. Please share the fundraiser and call for submissions.

Today, Problem Daughters editor Rivqa Rafael talks to Chinelo Onwualu about the two magazines she edits, African speculative fiction, and her own writing.

Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and journalist living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion West Writers Workshop, which she attended as the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. She is editor and co-founder of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction. Her writing has appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Strange Horizons, Brittle Paper, Ideomancer and AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers, and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

(As far as I’m aware) you’re the editor of two ambitious speculative fiction magazines. First, I’ll ask about the more established one, Omenana. I love your two-pronged mission here, showcasing African speculative fiction and challenging “normative ideas” – not to mention the gorgeous art and stories. What can you tell us about the magazine and its growth over the years?
Well, the magazine was actually the brainchild of my co-founder Mazi Nwonwu. He’d been thinking of creating a platform for the kinds of speculative fiction that he and a lot of people he knew were writing, but which just weren’t getting any attention from the arbiters of mainstream “African” fiction, a lot of whom are in the US or the UK. I’d expressed an interest in starting some sort of platform as well, so he reached out to me.
It’s been so much fun working on Omenana. I’ve read so much more African sci-fi, fantasy and horror in the past two years and I don’t think I’d have had the opportunity otherwise. The first couple of issues we had to solicit for stories, but by the end of the first year we were getting quite a number of submissions. This last issue we received nearly 50! I had no idea that so many writers were doing such amazing things with the genre.
Every month it’s a bit of a scramble, especially around our art. Plus, we became a paying platform last year – just when the Nigerian economy went into recession and our currency lost more than twice its value – and that hasn’t been easy either because we run it out of our pockets. We’ll be crowdfunding later this year to raise money to keep the whole thing going – so look out for that.
Despite it all, the African speculative fiction continues to grow – even beyond the magazine. Last year, a bunch of us writers, artists and filmmakers formally organised the African Speculative Fiction Society. We’ll be awarding our first prize for novels and short fiction, the Nommos, this year. Members are currently in the nominating process.
As for the magazine, we’re looking to expand our online presence and create more of a hub for African speculative fiction, with news, podcasts, and forums for discussion. Mainstream African stories have always had a speculative element to them, but to see how the boundaries of what is speculative are being pushed has been such an honour to witness, you know?

The first issue of your other magazine, Anathema, is forthcoming this year, and it will exclusively feature queer authors of colour. How did this project come about, and what are you looking forward to seeing in this new magazine?
Full disclosure: I consulted my co-founders and editorial partners, Andrew Wilmot and Michael Matheson, on this, and this response was formulated with both of their inputs. So the first issue of Anathema will actually be out this spring. We’re still in the submissions phase this month. The idea for the magazine really began at a lunch gathering at a friend's place. Andrew and Michael were discussing their frustration at seeing the way academia was co-opting the voices of cultural insiders in a way that felt uncomfortably colonialist. From there, I joined the conversation and we started discussing which underrepresented and marginalized voices we wanted to see more of and how we could help give those voices a chance to speak for themselves, to provide them with a platform. The ideas took on several forms and had several different people involved (at one point we thought about starting a press) before it settled into its current form as a tri-annual magazine.
Basically, we wanted to start something that would allow us to showcase the voices you don’t get to hear very often in the genre in a way that suited our various tastes and personalities. I think it is especially important in the era we live in today where a lot of civil society is being squeezed and human rights are under peril in a lot of parts of the world.
As for what we're looking forward to, we want to further the existing queer-lit conversations in which people of colour are often relegated to the sidelines, providing the exotic line or two as a nod to diversity. Whatever topics they want to speak on, whatever stories they want to tell, we just want to provide the space where they can do so without fear of censure. Already we’ve got some amazing stories and art, and we’re seeking more. We can’t wait to share them with the world.

Much of what I’ve read of your fiction and non-fiction could fit into either of these publications. Is this a conscious decision, or something that's happened naturally?
A bit of both, really. I made a conscious decision to shift my storytelling closer to home, but other than that, the rest has just been my natural inclination. I’ve always been interested in speculative fiction – though I had to struggle with seeing it as a legitimate form of writing. It seemed so frivolous to write about magic and spaceships when there were issues like poverty and abuse all around me. It was complicated by the fact that, until about a decade ago, I’d never read much speculative fiction by non-whites. So when I first started writing, my stories weren’t speculative at all. They were set in Western countries like the US and filled with white characters.
After attending Clarion West in 2014, I realised that there was a niche I could fill by writing about the world I came from and the issues that were important to me while still being true to my love of the speculative. I realised it wasn’t something that just white people did. Since then, I’ve tried to keep my writing true to the things that most inspire me.

Are there any writers you'd like to publish, but haven't yet? Please tell us about their work!
Lesley Nneka Arimah is a Nigerian writer whose speculative story “Who Will Greet You At Home” was published in The New Yorker in 2015. It was such a chilling, well-crafted piece of work that I’ve been eager to hear from her since then. I would love to see one of her stories in Omenana. It would totally make my day.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of representation of African women in Western media, I can still think of tired tropes and stereotypes about them (and about Africa in general, of course). Is there one in particular that you'd like to never see again?
Oh man, I think I would like to see the Strong Black Woman trope die in a fire. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the badass black women in literature, film and TV, but often their toughness is taken for character. Being able to make your way in a hostile world is a quality, not the sum total of who you are. Strong Black Women are often portrayed so one-dimensionally that they can lack basic humanity.
In general, I think the association between black women and violence in the western imagination needs to be broken. Black women in Africa are often portrayed as helpless victims of violence, while black women in the Diaspora are often seen as perpetrators of it. Either we’re mutely suffering some horrible situation and waiting for our white saviours to come, or we’re loud, vulgar, and angry – one moment away from beating someone up. It’s ridiculous.

What else does 2017 hold for you?
https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gifI’m very, very slowly chipping away at a YA novel. It’s set in a future Nigeria and it’s got spirits, goddesses and two wily teenagers trying to stay one step ahead of the chaos. It’s a blast. Of course, a friend recently reminded me I’ve been talking about a novel for over a decade now, so yeah… I’m also hoping to put together an anthology of African women in speculative fiction, to showcase some of the amazing women I’ve come across. So let’s see about that.

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