Nnedi Okorafor on Finding the Soul and Shape of Her Feature Film The Camel Racer

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since Disney’s Triggerfish Story Lab announced that Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu’s animated feature film The Camel Racer would be one of the eight recipients for the development program fostering African writers and directors. Recently, about halfway through the 18-month development process—which can extend for years depending on the project—Okorafor shared an update while attending the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.

Chatting with filmmaker Wayne Thornley, Okorafor discussed the difference between writing prose and writing for film, especially where it comes to (respectively) having to cut down her novel Who Fears Death by half and collaborating with Kahiu on The Camel Racer. In fact, their writing process sounds like one of the better ones I’ve heard of for co-writers:

With Wanuri and I, we first sit down and talk extensively about the idea and have long, long conversations. And then one of us will say, okay I’m going to write this thing, whether it’s a treatment or a piece of script, or whatever. And they write a first draft. And once that’s done and nice and typo free, they hand it over to the other person, who then has complete, open, full rein to do whatever they want with it. Then they hand it back, and we go back and forth like that. The end product is so hybrid we can’t tell which thing she wrote and which thing I wrote. It’s one thing. And it’s something that I would never have written by myself.

Importantly, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, and that’s another big change that I have really come to enjoy. That I can give something that I’ve just freshly written to someone else and not have to make that thing perfect. When I’m writing a novel I feel like I can’t show something to someone else unless it’s very much together. But when you’re collaborating it’s like you’re one brain.

It does have to do with chemistry. They way we work together, the honesty, and nine times out of 10 we are in complete agreement. It’s uncanny.

No surprise that the two were named Quartz Africa Innovators for 2016. Her greatest challenge, Okorafor revealed, was in breaking down The Camel Racer into narrative chunks, with the help of Thornley and other members of the Triggerfish team:

During those meetings we’ll take the whole film and break it down into narrative aspects. That’s something I have never done with a novel and it was a part that was difficult for me. I’ve learned a lot. There are times when it feels like we are taking a living creature and dissecting it into pieces until it dies. But when we get to the end of the process, I see what they are trying to get me to see. And when we put it back together, it’s always better. It’s been an eye-opening experience, but it’s painful. But sometimes a little pain is necessary.

The soul of Camel Racer has stayed the same, but it keeps changing shape. The storyteller in me finds that fun, because it’s still storytelling, it’s just finding a way to tell the story in a different way.

Speaking of story, we don’t know much more about The Camel Racer than we did last year, aside from its compelling protagonist: “a stubborn 12-year-old Kenyan girl who defies tradition by racing camels.”

Read the entire writeup from the Sunday Times Books Live to learn more about Okorafor’s experience writing and editing Who Fears Death.

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