An Interview with Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the children’s and YA books Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker (a Tiptree Honor book), Long Juju Man, and Sunny. Her newest book is the mind-blowing novel for adults, Who Fears Death, set in post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa. She has received the Hurston/Wright literary award, the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, the Parallax Award, and the Andre Norton Award, among other honors. Her short stories have been anthologized in Dark Matter II, Strange Horizons, and Writers of the Future.

The Rejectionist: What drew you to writing speculative fiction?

Nnedi Okorafor: I see the world as a magical place. Therefore, it was only natural that magic wafted from my fiction like smoke. It wasn’t something I purposely did. I would try to write “realistic” fiction and someone would fly or there would be a black hole full of demons or a girl who attracted frogs.

TR: Speculative fiction has long been a place for writers outside the dominant culture (like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, and James Tiptree, just to name a tiny handful) to explore possibilities of resistance and envision alternatives to that dominant culture. How do you see your work fitting into that tradition? Did you read those writers growing up, or were you exposed mostly to more “white guy, captain of the universe” kinds of science fiction stories?

NO: I think I fit right in with these “outsiders” (i.e. Delany, Butler, LeGuin, Tiptree, etc). I’m exploring many of the same themes and issues. Nevertheless, I didn’t grow up reading any of these authors. I didn’t know of them. I grew up reading Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Robert McCammon, Isaac Asimov’s nonfiction books, and Roald Dahl. So I guess you can say I was indeed weaned on white guy fantasy and horror novels (not so much SF). I still read these authors, but I’ve since added plenty of others to my repertoire.

TR: Some books you’ve read lately and loved?

NO:Under the Dome by Stephen King; Half World by Hiromi Goto; Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o; and Unknown Soldier Volumes 1 and 2 by Josh Dysart.

TR: Do you think genre fiction, and spec fiction in particular, is more open to writers of color than literary fiction? Can you talk about why or why not?

NO: I think speculative fiction has fewer unspoken prerequisites than literary fiction for writers of color. I believe this is because 1.) Writers of color have a weaker foundation in speculative fiction. We are gradually creating a foundation. Thus, for now, there are few expectations. I think that will change. 2.) The nature of speculative fiction is to speculate, to imagine, to think outside the box. Speculative fiction is by definition better at doing this than literary fiction… not to say that the category of speculative fiction is perfect; it is still quite narrow-minded, but it’s far more open to “others” than literary fiction. Literary fiction seems to have its own idea of what belongs within it and what is expected of writers of color, and those ideas are more rigid and specific.

TR: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

NO: That Africa will be part of the future. That women can be great complex warriors. That people can fly. That sometimes leaves are not leaves. That tradition is alive and some parts of it are dead. That the end is sometimes a beginning. And that stories are powerful juju.

Tomorrow: An interview with Arwen Curry

The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at, where this interview originally appeared.


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