Interview with Nigerian speculative fiction writer Osahon Ize-Iyamu.

Nicklas Hållén: Can you tell us a little about your background? Where were you born and where did you study?

Osahon Ize-Iyamu: Certainly. I am a 16 year old Nigerian writer of speculative fiction. I’ve lived in Nigeria for most of my life, particularly in the South, but I don’t currently go to school there. I am currently studying law in the United Kingdom for the next couple of years, so that’s an ongoing process.

What is you first language and have you ever published stories or considered writing stories in any other language than English?

My first language is English. My main language from my tribe, Edo, has been taught to me, at some point, but it’s mostly been forgotten, lost in memory. I do try to incorporate it and Edo characters into my work as frequently as possible. I do plan to learn more of it and about it in order to add and explore it more in my stories, because I do think that is necessary.

What have you published so far, and where? What has your strategy been so far in your career as a writer, in terms of creating an audience and getting your work published? 

I’ve published some stories in The Dark, Clarkesworld, and Omenana. I sold my first story when I was 14, and then I’ve been involved in the SFF short story market ever since. Most of my work, I find, tends to be fantasy, but I do think I’m trying to gravitate towards science fiction as it comes less easy than fantasy and horror, due to the fact that I read it less often than those other two genres. I think in terms of getting my work published, it’s mostly just reading magazines in order to get a sense of where my work fits in, or what vision I’m interested in writing that could possibly fit in those publications. In terms of creating an audience, I do try and use my social media to create a presence for myself, so that I can be interactive with people in the science fiction community, as well as support my own and [boost other people’s] work too. I think my main strategy in writing so far has just been to keep it interesting and different, either with the voice or with the narrative or structure. I think finding things like new [points of view] to try writing with really lets me produce some of my best work.

Sci-fi and speculative fiction are genres that are coming on strong in Nigeria today. What do you think the reason for this is? How did you come to these genres yourself?

I think Nigerian fiction has always had a ‘speculative’ element to it [but in other ways than Western literature]. The difference, today, might be because of the fact that modern-day Nigerian writers have grown up watching or reading more Western books/ Tv shows, which has promoted more overt interpretations or rather more work that is in inspiration of these pieces of Western media, as well as Nigerian folklore and our everyday realities. It’s a really interesting mix, how many ideas in Nigeria can be so easily made to be fantastical or terrifying with just a few words. I think part of what drew me to the idea of speculative fiction is the fact that you can do so much with it; it’s really an endless field of creativity once you decide you can alter or transcend reality or even realistic expectations in a story and just go for it on whatever scale you choose. Like in the beginning I was really interested in secondary world pieces but over the years my favorite pieces of fantasy have very small-scale speculative elements but lots of that dreamy atmosphere, which keeps the story almost ethereal, like anything can happen.

You mention turning everyday experiences into elements in fantasy and horror stories. Do you think this is particular true in the case of Nigerian literature/society?

I do think it’s representative of Nigerian literature and society as a whole. Although I do try to be careful with what I label as speculative in Nigeria’s framework and lifestyle, because a lot of these folklores or tales are actually more complex and nuanced than the terminology provides in the modern day context.

Your short story “For What are Delusions if not Dreams?” is about an Android – called An Operator – whose job it is to make binary decisions to maintain a failing computer system. As I read it, it is a very existential text that asks questions about the consequences of our choices and what makes us human. Could you tell us a little more about this story?

“For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams” was written primarily out of a concept I love, which is that if a character is going through a crisis or a transformation, that change should be reflected in the writing/ structure of the story. I wanted “Delusions” to kind of feel like a story that’s kind of confused as that’s the state of mind I’d imagine between what it feels to be like as both human and  thought of as a machine  for a while. An Operator isn’t a robot—but he’s told he is, or at least he’s thought of as one eventually at the end of the day, because human beings prioritize their humanity first of all—and I think An Operator is pretty much bound to do the same. I think it’s an interesting idea, but I also like how it explores the consequence of more than just the [power of choice], but also not understanding the result that a thing you invented can evolve and change, and in many ways you have to adapt to that. It’s less robots take over the world and more robot wants to be understood in more complex terminology.

So when you are exploring an idea – in this case what it is to be a human as opposed to a machine – you try to come up with a form or a narrative structure that somehow reflects the ideas connected with that idea?

Pretty much. Since all characters differ in stories, the voice of a character can differ from another in story. But I think it adds another layer of experience and also understanding of the protagonist when everything about the story sort of reflects their current psyche or at least moves in accordance to how they’re reacting. It can be as easy as speeding up the pace and changing sentence flow entirely if a character is feeling anxious, or it can be more technical and experimental, such as different storytelling formats, but it all depends on character and story. Some demand smaller changes in structure so as to not distract from the main plot, while some have bigger ideas.

Would you say that sci-fi (or speculative fiction) is a kind of literature that is particularly well suited to explore existential questions?

Yes, I do. I think the idea of a story being set in another reality or even the [future] gets a lot of grounding when it asks these questions. If you’re reading about humans that are so far different from the ones that exist today, the question of what it means to be human in that time would really allow you to connect to the story that’s far away from current reality.

Another thing that comes to my mind when reading the story is the problem of load-shedding in Nigeria and many other African countries. The main character is trying to fix a problem that has caused a complex power system to break down. At one point in the story, a character says to An Operator the first priority “is to get those lights back. We can’t progress without power.” Am I over reading the story or is there an element of political critique there?

I think all my stories hold a certain amount of healthy power critique, because all stories are inherently political, but I don’t think that was my main priority in this case. I did explore this story, and its reactions, through the idea of how I felt a group of Nigerian [electrical company] officials would respond to the situation.

I read that you are working on a novel. Can you say something about what it is about? Do you have a contract with a publisher?

I am, but it’s not a constant process. I did have a manuscript draft once that I was editing, but I ditched that because I did really want to take time to focus on my writing and stories and improve what I’m doing. I do try and work on my novel ideas, but at the same time, I am trying to do the best work on my stories and writing before I start looking at a bigger publishing process. Baby steps.

An Example copy of Omenana

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