Teen Writers Bloc member Mary Thompson sent me an email back in the spring and said I had to read this book called Akata Witch, and that I’d love it. She’d heard me droning on in workshop about the dearth of fantasy and fiction featuring kids of color and fantasy worlds not rooted in a European mythos. And she’d found a book that does it — and well!
Nnedi Okorafor took me on a whirlwind and I had to track her down for an interview so I could figure out how she’d done it all. We caught up with Nnedi this summer to discuss African magic, writing discipline, and her life as a writer.
Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer?
What did I do before “officially becoming a writer”? I was a writer and a Ph.D student who’d once been pre-med. I’m a professor, so I don’t need to write to eat. However, I write and produce as much as many who do write to eat. I consider myself a full-time writer. But it’s more a part of me than something I need to do to survive financially. It’s not a job. I didn’t “want” to become a writer; it’s just something I became. It was in me all along but it took certain events in my life to happen in order for this part of me to come forth.
How did you come up with the concept for the book? Can you talk a bit about your process, from conception to publication?
Honestly, I don’t know. I just started writing. I recall thinking it would be cool to write a story where black children of the African Diaspora experienced magic and adventure rooted in real African culture/history/location/beliefs. Also, the summer before I wrote the novel, I’d spent a week with the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. They were visiting from Nigeria. This daughter was nine-years-old and she didn’t want to hang out with her mother. So she hung with my daughter and me for those days. She was an Igbo girl with a strong feisty personality and she also happened to be albino. She was a lot of fun. I knew I wanted to write about her by the time she left. The main character of Akata Witch is based on her.
Once I started writing, it came together organically. Many of those things I researched because they interested me wound up in the novel, as did many of my experiences in Nigeria and with Nigerian culture. Lastly, the theme of cultural complexity was something I’d wanted to write about for a long time. I was born in the United States to two Nigerian Igbo parents. At the same time, my parents started taking me to Nigerian from a young age. So I grew up bi-cultural, identifying with two district cultures — American and Nigerians. I don’t identify as African-American; I indentify as Naijameican. (“Naija” is slang for “Nigerian.”) It’s an interesting position to occupy. It’s one that makes me very aware of the African Diaspora. I wanted to reflect this complexity and need for more dialogue with the Diaspora in this novel.
What’s your writing process?
I write every day. I’m disciplined. However, no day is the same. I have a nine-year-old daughter and I’m a professor; I have to be malleable. But before the day is done, I will have gotten at least two good hours of writing in, many times more than that. I can write at any time. I used to write in the early morning. These days, I find stories beg to be written late at night. I’ll write in the afternoon if I must. My inspiration comes from Africa , and the world as a whole. It also comes from places of energy, amusement, trouble, and action.
Can you talk a bit about world building, especially this African magic? Did you start with Sunny, the magic, or Nigeria? Or a mix of all three?
The magic in Akata Witch is mined from mysticism and beliefs that are part of my culture. These are things I grew up hearing and that are all around me, a part of my life. In the book, I may tweak things here and there or blow some life into things but that’s about it.
As far as world-building, that phrase feels unnatural to me because I don’t purposely “build worlds”. I just write the story and within the story the worlds exist. I can’t say what I started with Sunny because it’s all mixed together. I can say that the first thing I saw in my mind with Akata Witch was the character of Sunny, but once she started moving through her life, it all came with everything- the magic, her Nigerian-American-ness, the setting, etc.
What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
My path to publication was rough, but embedded with luck where it counted. A lot of the more negative aspects I encountered on that path were predictable and expected, though knowing did not make dealing with them any less distasteful. Really, I didn’t have expectations and I’m aware of the isms at work in this country, so I wasn’t surprised very often.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
Author Steve Barnes once said that you have to write a million words before you are any good. There’s no exact word count, of course, but the sentiment is 100 percent correct. You have to write and write and write, far more than you can image to hone your craft. For me, I think I DID have to write over a million words before I was any good. My first published novel was the fourth or fifth novel that I wrote. The ones I wrote before that were practice.
I pass this same advice on to aspiring authors. Write and write a LOT. Hone your craft. Don’t atrophy because you are obscessed with getting published until you are truly ready.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
As a kid I loved Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and The Witches by Raold Dahl. As a teen, I’d have to say it was a tie between Stephan King’s The Talisman and Robert MacCammon Swan Song. Right now I’m reading and absolutely loving Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
Right now I’m finishing up two adult novels. But soon I’m going to start writing Akata Witch 2. I’m also working on another young adult novel and several other writing projects that I can’t talk about just yet. I’ve also written a chapter book in the Disney Fairies line. It’s called Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine. I’m not sure of the release date yet but it should be later this year.
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
I currently don’t belong to any critique groups, though I am a product of university writing workshops. There’s no formula. Whatever works.
Photos courtesy VIKING