Sunday, June 16, 2019
Suyi Davies Okungbowa Interview
When I began to read Suyi Davies Okungbowa's Nigerian god-punk fantasy debut, David Mogo, Godhunter (Canada, USA, Europe), I knew I'd need to do an interview with the author. He was kind enough to accept the invitation, so here it is!
- What's the 411 on Suyi Davies Okungbowa? Tell us a bit about your background?
Thanks, Pat! I was born and raised in Benin City, Nigeria. And when I say born and raised, I mean I didn’t live anywhere else until my early twenties. I grew up in the University of Benin, basically having all my education there up to tertiary level. My parents are both academics there, so that’s expected. I studied Civil Engineering for my bachelors, but only worked in the field for a year after. Since then, I’ve worked in professional services, graphic design, marketing communications and digital learning. Now, I teach writing at the University of Arizona, while earning my MFA in Creative Writing.
- Your soon-to-be-released debut is being billed as a Nigerian godpunk novel. Without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the tale that is DAVID MOGO, GODHUNTER?
I’d say DMG is Lagos like you’ve never quite seen it. There are a lot of stories about the city and its tenacity, but nothing stretches this city like the invasion of thousands of supernatural beings. Lagos receives over a hundred thousand migrants every day, so what happens when you suddenly find gods in the mix, and only one guy, who happens to be a demigod, can help ease the frictions that arise? Worse yet, what if his attempts only exacerbate these problems? Find out in the book!
- How well-received has DAVID MOGO, GODHUNTER been thus far?
DMG has received lots of love from press sources like Publishers Weekly and WIRED Magazine, so that’s good! There have been those who’ve messaged me to say how they felt seen by this book, how it represented them, which makes me glad because that was the aim. I mostly wrote this book for Nigerians first, and everyone else after, just like we have always been secondary audiences for most books out there. In the same vein, a bit of discomfort and unfamiliarity with certain approaches from these secondary audiences won’t surprise me.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write DAVID MOGO, GODHUNTER in the first place?
A number of things, actually. I’ve always been fascinated by the gods of the Yoruba cosmology, which is very close to the Edo cosmology (Edo is where I’m from). Then, the characters of David Mogo and Papa Udi have been with me for a while in earlier forms. When I moved to Lagos in 2014, it became clear to me that this was a city about which thousands of stories could be told, and we still wouldn’t have scratched the surface. Throw all of these into the boiling pot that was my subconscious, and DMG was born.
- Nigerian myths and legends are at the heart of DAVID MOGO, GODHUNTER. Was it your intention all along to weave those myths and legends into the story?
Not quite. Sure, I knew there were going to be gods, and David was going to be a freelance godhunter who took on a bad job that sparked major conflict in an already failing city. However, I realised that as the narrative took him further into his journey, he would have to interact more with the nonhuman part of himself, and that required a deeper dive into these myths and legends as the story went on.
- Can you tell us a little more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to finished novel published by Abaddon Books?
Well, I workshopped a small part of the book at Milford SF Writers Workshop in 2017 and got a lot of encouragement to finish it. I was right in the middle of that when Rebellion advertised an open subs period and I submitted a sample and synopsis. I’d already forgotten about it when David Moore called me up in late 2017 and said, “Hey, I’d like to publish this.” The rest, as they say, is history.
- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write DAVID MOGO, GODHUNTER?
Well, for starters, I wanted to paint a portrait of a people who had adjusted to a semi-apocalyptic event without too much fanfare. Some have described The Falling in the book as a gopocalypse, but I like to quickly point out that today’s Lagos isn’t too different from what’s described--there’s still government gentrification, police brutality, housing crisis and segregated real estate matters, et cetera. I also didn’t want to fit into either camp of magic with clear rules or magic with no rules; I wanted something in-between, because I think if magic were a thing, it’d be weird and unpredictable and barely ever neat.
- Cover art has always been a very hot topic. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces your book?
Yoshi Yoshitani did an awesome job in capturing the essence of the book. I think covers are almost as important as the text, if not even from an artistic perspective, then from a completely business one. Covers help sell books, to be frank. To shy away from that fact would be naive. I, in particular, am glad the DMG cover ticks all those boxes.
- You have been a prolific short fiction writer these last few years. Do you have a different approach when you write short stories and novel-length projects?
I usually don’t have a routine for shorter pieces--I tend to chart the narrative, then write in bursts until I feel I’ve gotten to a good place to stop. With longer projects, however, I tend to be less chained to the narrative I start out with. I give myself more room to deviate, but I keep a stricter routine in order to keep up momentum. I keep weekly word counts in a Google Sheet, and put more effort into maintaining a steady rhythm than with shorter work.
- For anyone interested in giving your material a shot, are any of your short stories available online?
Yes! I keep an updated list of everything I’ve written at suyidavies.com/bibliography
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
Haha. Tough one. To be honest, I don’t know much about strengths. I find that I usually pay more attention to areas I believe I could be better at. For instance, I tend to leave out a lot of description in my first drafts, and I find beta readers usually coming back to me with, “Dude, what does this look like?” before I remember, “Oh yeah, I had that in my head but not on the page!”
- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?
Well, just as I said above. Another thing I struggle with is articulating character motives. Where I come from, survival, security and the quest for influence/power/respect are such strong motives that it’s almost ridiculous that anyone does anything for any other reason like, say, self-actualization. Yet I find that most of my characters are usually outliers in this way, so I always have to dig deeper to discover what drives them.
- You are a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society. Can you tell us a bit more about that organization and your role within its ranks?
Oh, a charter member just means I was invited to be one of its founding members--about fifty or so of us. The ASFS aims to support everything within the bracket of speculative work by African-identifying artists, much in the way the BSFA or SFWA operates. Currently, the ASFS organizes the Nommo Awards, which have so far been successful: big names like Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson and Tochi Onyebuchi have won awards and had the stickers appear on their front covers.The 2019 shortlist is currently out. The awards are funded by philanthropists like Tom Ilube and other anonymous donors. The society also supports the community in other ways like maintaining a frequently updated database of speculative work by African authors, hosting a large Facebook group of enthusiasts of African SFF, and Geoff Ryman writes the “100 African Writers of SFF” over on Strange Horizons. Currently, I don’t do anything other than vote and be a part of the community, but I hope to be able to offer more in the near future.
- Are there any African speculative fiction writers that we should be on the lookout for?
Well, I’d eschew the already known names and point out that folks like Tochi Onyebuchi (Beasts Riot Baby, War Girls), Mohale Mashigo (The Yearning, Intruders), Wole Talabi (Incomplete Solutions), Lesley Nneka Arimah (What It Means When a Man Fall From The Sky), Deji Olutokun (Nigerians In Space, After The Flare), Imraan Coovadia (A Spy In Time), etc, are doing stellar work. The ASFS database has a lot more of these, and I think everyone who’s interested in work from the continent ought to take a look.
- Black authors like David Anthony Durham, Nnedi Okorafor, and N. K. Jemisin have been making waves within SFF circles these last few years. And although things seem to have recently taken a turn for the better, it appears that it's still difficult for writers of color to get the sort of recognition that caucasian authors are entitled to. What needs to change in the industry to help level the playing field?
Honest answer? I don’t quite know. There are a lot of factors turning the gears that run the publishing industry, and many of them are not even caused by publishing at all, but the politics and socioeconomics of the world in general. It would be an easy reach to say, “Oh, it’s a race problem” (and to be honest, it is, at its base), but the actual operations are more complicated than that. What I know, however, is that more non-white bodies on ground in the field, in every position, will help along whatever choices are being made to change this.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy/Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
A Hugo/WFA. Because, a New York Times bestseller lasts for as many weeks as it lasts, but a Hugo/WFA sits on the shelf forever.
- What authors make you shake your head in admiration? Many speculative fiction authors don't read much inside the genre. Is it the case with you?
I read (and even write) both within and outside the genre. While I’ve chosen to pitch my tent at the speculative end of things, I’ve read and loved a lot of work outside the genre. For instance, I just read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and found it to be absolutely beautiful writing and a compelling story. Neil Gaiman is one of my all-time faves within the genre, as well as Stephen King, whose mastery of storytelling is simply phenomenal. However, most of my reading of speculative work is with more contemporary authors, and with shorter works. I find myself enjoying a lot of work with Asian influences, like Fonda Lee and Aliette de Boddard, but also work from people like N.K. Jemisin and Rebecca Roanhorse, who bring something completely different to the table. Basically, you could say I’m a chameleon in that way, as I enjoy and admire work from authors from all over in genre, place and time.
- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects or gardeners. Which type of writer are you?
A garditecht, haha. Or, plantser (plotter + pantser) as most people say. I absolutely need a plan to start out, but I make it as loose as possible, susceptible to changes and diversions. I write with what I call a Waypoints Method, where I only plot the big, set-piece points in the narrative, then pants my way between those points.
- What's next for Suyi Davies Okungbowa? Are you under contract for any other projects?
Am I working on seekrit projects? Yes, of course! My newsletter subscribers get snippets of behind-the-scenes work all the time, but that’s as much as I let out. I like to work in silence, on my own terms, but yes, I am working on my next book.
- What comes first for you when it comes time to consider your next novel/short story: themes you wish to explore, a setting you're interested in, or characters you want to write about?
It depends. For shorter work, something as little as an image of a scene, a character, a line, a title: that’s enough to get me going. For longer work, two to three things usually have to come together. Setting plays a big role for me, because I’m very keen on providing specific African(esque) representation based on my own history and experience. But outside of setting, everything is fair game, from characters to themes to what-if concepts.
- Anything else you wish to share with us?
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