I recently had the opportunity to interview Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Joshua Uchenna Omenga, the authors of the forthcoming Between Dystopias: The Road to Afropantheology, a collection of short stories and essays examining the lore and and lived experiences comprising the foundations of African speculative fiction.
Two weeks ago, Publishers Weekly ran the interview with the titled Carriers of Culture: PW Talks with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Joshua Uchenna Omenga. The interview offers some wonderful insight into the authors’ origins and inspiration for collaborating on this collection and coining the term “afropantheology” which introduces a new definition for the distinct genre of speculative literature rooted in African mysticism and religious beliefs.
A deeper dive into the authors’ lived experiences and the influences of local lore unearths Africa’s wealth of wisdom, turbulent history, and fertile imaginations of the continent’s literary cadre.
Why Speculative Fiction?
What drew you to writing in the speculative fiction genres?
My writing is largely influenced by my reading. I was exposed early to literary fiction (although I
had no idea then that it was called anything other than fiction), so my early experiments at writing tended towards literary fiction. During my university days, I was a member of a book club where we discussed books of different genres.
During that time, I also became acquainted with Ekpeki (we were classmates, studying law together which also included some courses in English and literature). His interest was predominantly speculative fiction. As we discussed our interests in literature, we recommended books for each other. Most of his recommended books were in the speculative genre. Those recommendations helped me develop interest in the speculative genre.
I also studied classic speculative fictions for a fuller understanding of the elements of the genre. It took me some learning to become acquainted with writing in the speculative genre. At this time, I started attempting speculative fiction writing.
The Inspiration for this Collaboration
Tell me a bit about the events or encounters that inspired your decision to collaborate on this collection.
There was no specific event or encounter. It was as a result of a long association. We started out in the university book club, discussing literature and writing and reading each other’s writings. I had some experience in magazine editing, so I didn’t simply read Oghenechovwe’s stories but also pointed out areas that needed editing. He would ask me to edit for him and because I understood his writing, it was easy to edit him. After considerable exposure to each other’s writing, we dabbled with the idea of collaborative writing. Our first attempt was sometime in 2014 when we co-wrote a novel (which hasn’t and probably won’t be published in its original state). This set the stage for future collaborations.
You both have very distinct writing styles. What kind of challenges did you experience (and what self-discoveries did you make) while melding your unique styles to co-write “Land of the Awaiting Birth” and “The Pet of Olodumare?”
I was more exposed to speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy, which I introduced Omenga. He had a stronger grasp on the technical aspects of writing. So he’d edit my works from then on. And I’d work with him in developing speculative story ideas, plot, and Execution. We’d eventually write a novel together then, up to a decade ago, which no you can’t see. Too rough because in those early times our styles were still going through the melding process and this showed in the work. Still, it had an almost unbelievably strong core, and I could realize then, even in that failure, that there was something special, beautiful, that resulted from our collaboration. Something that I believe we were more able to show in these newer Works.
I think our styles are complementary, so there really weren’t much challenges in our
collaborations. Plot-wise, Ekpeki likes to sketch while I like to elaborate. During the first draft, Ekpeki leans towards action scenes while I lean towards dialogue and descriptive scenes. At the early stage of our collaborative works, we discuss the ideas together. He sketches an outline. I elaborate on the outline. We iron it out to have a coherent outline. Each writer drafts his area of strength and one of us welds the drafts. The draft is evaluated and further amendments suggested and implemented. Then one person (usually me) edits the draft for coherence and polish.
Though our styles are distinct from each other, I found that our stories have some common factors such as African mysticism. This means that irrespective of our styles, once a story idea is shared, it is easy for us to develop a plot with African mysticism at the center. The danger of disjointed writing is obviated at the editing stage when both styles are blended.
A captivating collection of original stories and essays by award-winning authors that celebrates the richness and complexity of African mysticism.
Release Date: October 24, 2023
Direct from Publisher (Ebook)
Barnes and Noble (Paperback)
Books a Million (Paperback)
Needs Met by Afropantheology
In the interview for Publishers Weekly, you mentioned how coining the term “afropantheology” meets certain cultural and literary needs. Please elaborate.
I believe that names and titles, framings are important. A thing exists before you name it, true. Afrofuturism was Afrofuturism before the term was coined. But giving a thing a name can direct it. It can guide the perspective through which it’s seen.
Names have power and the framings of genre, with terms like fantasy, have been used in ways that frame our stories and religions and cultures in directions that have not always been the best for them. So the term Afropantheology is one of reclamation, of our right to direct our stories carrying our religions and culture as we see fit, instead of as had been done for us for centuries. It reclaims and repositions the heft, meaning and thrust of these stories for what they are, spiritual realities of the non monolithic African people, instead of mere fantasies.
What you name a thing can erase, affect your understanding of its past, its history, subvert and truncate, control or direct its future. The term Afropantheology is recognizing all this and framing that history and religion and culture for what it is, to direct it through that recognition in the way that African people deem fit.
“Afropantheology” was borne out of our desire for literary liberation in writing about African Mysticism. In the Publishers Weekly interview, I mentioned how exposure to mainstream fiction triggered my awareness of the fact that stories are carriers of culture. This realization led to the fact that most of the world I had read was written by African authors centered on the experiences of Africans in contact with their colonizers. It made me hungry for literature that reflected the African cultural experience.Few of these works exist.
Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard is about the adventure of a man who went into the land of the dead in search of his dead palm wine tapster. Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’ tells of a spirit-child sojourning between the land of the living and the dead. When I searched for similar stories, I found only scraps of them.
Now, some of these stories that do exist were inaccessible to me due to language barriers. For example, D. O. Fagunwa’s In the Forest of a Thousand Demons (story of a hunter in the forest of ghosts) was written in Yoruba, a language in which I’m not proficient in. There are, perhaps, also countless examples of these stories that were written in English and aren’t readily available in local bookshops and libraries.
The handful of African experiences to which I had access were like trickles of water on a parched throat demanding an oasis. This made me want to write these kinds of stories for both my own satisfaction and for the satisfaction of those who, like me, yearn to read the African experiences in works of literature.
I started experimenting with writing stories which reflect these experiences. Apart from personal or observed experiences and documented sources, these African cultures are generally still extant in raw form and transmitted through their purveyors such as kings, priests, diviners etc. There is, thus, a wealth of unexplored African cultures and experiences for me to tap from.
Constricting African experiences within the context of Western tropes, simply because Western tropes are viewed as ‘more refined or authentic’ is a kind of literary perversion This has become prevalent among some contemporary writers of African literature who take an aspect of African culture and adapt it to Western style and export it to the world as ‘African mysticism’.
Done as parody, such adulteration becomes an art in itself; but presented as realism, it misrepresents Africa to the world. The danger of such misrepresentation is that anyone who subsequently attempts to present the authentic African experience is anathematised for non-conformity.
Although a new terminology is not necessary to present African mysticism, without a distinct terminology which defines its scope, there is the danger of circumscribing stories of African mysticism to conform to established categorisations. For instance, African spiritism is not, strictly speaking, a magic system.
Categorizing a story based on African mysticism as a fantasy would require the writer to treat African spiritism as a coherent magic system or run afoul of the literary tradition. But with a distinctive label such as Afropantheology, such stories are allowed to develop true to nature, and their merit or otherwise is determined by how well they represent those experiences rather than how well they conform to categorisations coined from disparate experiences.
The essay, “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective,” addresses the disparities between African speculative fiction and what the Western mainstream expects of the speculative fiction genres. In what ways do you think that “Between Dystopias: The Road to Afropantheology” can help bridge the gap?
I find dystopias are an undeniable part of the African reality, with our history of slavery and colonialism, and various resulting, ongoing traumas. We try to represent this reality in our stories. And sometimes consumers in other climes may find it too harsh or strong. But much like our pantheologies, our dystopias are an indelible part of who we were. For good and for ill, they have shaped us and we have a right to represent them as a true part of the story of what it means to be African. These dystopias are many and varied and we all walk them in different ways. Between Dystopias: The Road To Afropantheology is merely one journey through our dystopian paths. We welcome all who wish, to walk with us, while on their own paths, to tell their stories and delight in their own reclamations, to tell as they see fit, their own revelations of Afropantheology.
As I have noted in the previous answer, the aim of Afropantheology is to liberate writers of African mysticism from the shackles of restrictive categorisation and enable them to represent African experiences from the African perspective.
With Afropantheology, a story of African mysticism can present its theme in its natural narrative style (such as communal storytelling style which features multiple voices and music) and express its themes in a setting true to source, without invalidating the verisimilitude of the story. An illustrative example: while mainstream fiction views masquerades as mere masked dancers, in many African communities, cultural/ritual masquerades represent ancestors from the land of the spirits and are regarded as mouthpieces of the clan whose messages come directly from the ancestors.
How does a writer of African mysticism capture the realism of this experience if they are constrained to write it as fantasy or some form of farcical literature? Misrepresentation becomes inevitable.
On another view, the African reality may appear dystopic to a foreign audience. For example, a government ministry in Nigeria once reported that a snake swallowed millions of naira in its custody. How does a writer of African experience represent this African reality without sounding comical to Western audiences? Or, take another instance when a police officer shot a road user for failure to give a bribe equivalent to less than half a dollar. How does the writer present it as a reality without sounding dystopian?
The aim of ‘Between Dystopias’ is to capture these uniquely African experiences and liberate the artist from the need to explicate the obvious.
Want to read more great author interviews?