Nnedi Okorafor, Dragon Con’s Literary Guest of Honor and multiple award-winning author, enchanted fans Saturday at 1pm, Hyatt Regency Ballroom. Interviewed live by NPR’s Rose Scott (Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award winner, WABE 90.1 FM, Atlanta), she smiled while Scott listed Okorafor’s impressive accomplishments, including winning Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus, and Lodestar Awards.
Scott began her questioning by remembering actor Nichelle Nichols, who passed away earlier this year. According to Scott, Nichols was an ambassador and advocate for young girls and showed that representation matters. Okorafor agreed and said that Nichols crossed an important line of no examples before her.
In response to Scott’s query regarding Afrofuturism and Black speculative fiction, Okorafor said that the first time she heard the term was late. She added that she came into genre fiction backwards and did not grow up as part of science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) fandom. Nonetheless, SF&F fans embraced what she was doing from her first published work over two decades ago. She did not hear about Afrofuturism until much later.
Scott said that Okorafor’s writings are good examples of Afrofuturism even if she did not know the term at the time. Okorafor said that “creative genius is good for all Black folks who inhabit this space.” She has previously discussed the difference between “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism,” her own, preferred, term.
Okorafor said that she was not into SF&F as a child but loved to read and spent time in her local library’s science fiction section. She found those books to be very male: “This world did not see me.” She felt connected to aliens and other nonhuman beings.
The core of her work began with visits to her father’s ancestral village and also to her mother’s different village, both in Nigeria. She learned and fought with this culture in short, but very dense, trips. Stories bubbled up, especially ones with spiritual elements. Her research was based on interest. Word of mouth was a primary source. She clarified that the source was important, especially its origin. She was curious and wanted information, remembering that there were lots of secrets.
Okorafor said that her stories all start with character. She can hear her characters speak to her, not always at an opportune time. She recalled a character’s voice and strong story emerging as she stepped out of the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, before finding her next ride. “No, not now,” she recalled lamenting but found a pen and a scrap of paper and started writing.
Scott asked if Okorafor would share an experience that shaped her. She agreed and talked about the importance of athletics in her family, beginning with her parents (father, collegiate hurdles; mother, Olympian in javelin). As a child, Okorafor was chosen first for teams like dodge ball and red rover. She became very competitive in sports.
At age nine, her parents started her and her three sisters in tennis (her brother chose Taekwondo). Okorafor also won twenty-two medals in track and went to state although she had no training in those events.
When she was nineteen years of age and in college, she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. Surgery to put a rod in back left her paralyzed from the waist down. She used her athletic training in physical therapy as she struggled to walk again.
Scott asked how this experience had affected Okorafor. With the support of her family, she eventually walked again, but she started writing while in the hospital. She found it very therapeutic but also imbued her characters with special abilities and understood the potential of understanding magic as part of their repertoire based on her own experience on the tennis courts. She described “treeing” while playing tennis, and that she could see where the ball was going two seconds before it arrived.
She explored creative writing for the first time and pursued literary achievements in her higher education. Following parental advice to get the highest education possible before embarking on a writing career, she earned her master’s and PhD degrees in literature and a master’s degree in journalism. She later used her own challenges in developing characters with goals that conflicted with their family’s preferences.
Okorafor answered questions from fans and discussed, among other topics, her work on films based on her writing and her preferred modes of participation in those upcoming projects.
Read more about Nnedi Okorafor and her work on her website, Nnedi.com.