“The big idea”: An interview with Wole Talabi

Back in August, Louisa Egbunike caught up with award-winning SFF author Wole Talabi to chat about his work. This interview was first published in Vector 289.

Earlier you mentioned feeling like you were outside of literary circles, and being dragged in. By who? Who’s dragging you?

I don’t know. For a long time, my writing was just about blogging, writing stories from random ideas, and selling to these obscure science fiction magazines. Well, not obscure … but still, I never had any sense of belonging to a generation of writers, you know? The “it” people, or should I say “lit” people right now, are all people I hadn’t met before, hadn’t heard of, and probably hadn’t read much of. Until maybe last year, when I started meeting them after the whole Caine Prize nomination.

So I guess maybe the Caine Prize dragged me into the whole literary circle thing. Before that, I was just like, “I have an interesting idea, there’s some cool robots, and what if the world was like this? Okay, that’s it.” Now, it’s like I have actual fans, and other writers are saying, “There’s all these layers, meanings, and themes in your work.” I was like, “Okay, cool. I mostly thought the robot was cool, but that’s it.”

They see things in your work you didn’t see yourself?

It’s not like I ignore themes or whatever. It’s just, for me, they’re kind of secondary – which is almost the opposite of most writers I know. Most writers I know focus on character and theme. But for me, the idea comes first, and everything else is secondary. A lot of my stories come from just studying things. I see some interesting science thing, and I’m like, “Oh, OK. How would that really work?”

Like what?

When I wanted to write a story about space, for instance, I started with, “How does actual modern space travel work? I want to use that as the core of the story.” And it’s really, really hard. Forget Star Trek, forget Star Wars, forget all this fancy stuff you see on TV, real space travel will be slow and boring. The physics of it is brutal, you can’t go very fast, you can’t go very far. There are so many limitations. It’s cold, it’s difficult, you can’t carry things around with you. The more weight you carry, the slower you have to go. The slower you go, the longer it takes, the more weight you have to carry for supplies. It’s just like … it’s terrible!

But from a storytelling perspective …

Yes, that’s what fascinates me. What are the scientific theories out there that we could use to travel between planets? I start from there. I would study it, do the math. And only then think, “This is a cool technology … now I need a story to tell people about the technology.” Then the characters and themes emerge. The first part is always the scientific question. For example, “What if machines could learn? How would they learn, what kind of systems?” There is a lot of attention given to machine learning these days, but much of it is glorified statistics. What might real machine learning look like? What does “learning” even mean? I get sucked in from the science side, the philosophy side, and then I drift into, “Now I need a character.”

That’s interesting, because that obviously speaks to you being a scientist, being an engineer. But what makes you want to translate the science that you’re interested in into narrative? What makes you take that leap? Why not just engage with the science, learn about it, and take interest in it? Why do you want to translate that into a story?

Hmm, that’s a good question, actually. I think it’s probably because of the way I was raised? So much of what I know about science, and history, and politics, I learned through stories. 

For instance, I read my dad’s entire encyclopaedia collection before I was nine. I didn’t really understand 90% of what I was reading, but I was reading it anyway! He had this one encyclopaedia of science and technology, filled with biographies of scientists and philosophers, from the early Chinese philosophers all the way to modern times. It was called Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology. They’d talk about the theories the scientists came up with, but they would also mention that this guy was a womanizer, he was a gambler, this guy stole this formula, or he won it in a card game. So there was always personality associated with the scientific knowledge for me.

I still enjoy learning most when there’s a story attached to it. Also, I just like stories in general. Once I have an interesting thought, I want to tell a story around it. I guess that’s the way I share my own random ideas.

What has your experience been like in the wake of the Caine Prize? How have things changed for you? 

I’d say the main thing has actually just been getting a better response from people back home. This is a funny thing. I put together a collection of short stories, and I started shopping it around in August 2017. Initially, I wanted it to be published in Africa somewhere. Anywhere, it didn’t matter. So I sent it to a bunch of publishers, and nobody even replied. Nobody. I kept that up for months. A lot of emails bounced. Some of them went through, but nobody replied.

Eventually Luna Press in Scotland accepted it instead. By February 2018, I’d signed all the contracts and everything. I’ve loved working with Luna Press, and they have been extremely kind and accommodating to a first-time author. Even so, I would have preferred to get it published in Africa … for me, it was a sentimental thing. But there was no response.  

And then in April 2018, I found out about the Caine Prize nomination. At the events, and even after that, via email or whatever, all of a sudden, I’m getting replies! I was thinking, “You missed it by three months.”

Was it your Scottish publishers that submitted ‘Wednesday’s Story’ for the Caine Prize?

No, it was a US-based magazine, Lightspeed. I wrote it for them back in 2016.

In terms of where you’re publishing, you have published widely online, but you’ve also published in print editions of magazines and short story collections. Do you see a difference between those spaces?

To be honest, in terms of what goes where, there’s really no difference. I approach all of it the same. I do have a preference for African science fiction and fantasy publishers, so I will always try to submit to AfroSF or Omenana or SSDA any time I get the chance. But it’s more about who’s open, or who has a theme that’s in line with something I’m thinking about.

I have a preference for some magazines, mostly because of the editors. For example, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, they’ve been going since like 1945, but the current editor is quite possibly … I would personally say he’s the best editor I’ve ever worked with. He’s always kind, always detailed. Even when he rejects your story, he’s very clear about what worked, what didn’t work. Or if it’s not that something didn’t work, he’s very clear about what he liked or what he didn’t like. Sometimes I learn more from his rejections than acceptances from other people, because he will say, “It looks like you were trying to do this. Here is what I got from it. This worked, this didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the background, or because you didn’t try that.”

You mentioned that you initially had wanted to publish your collection with an African publisher. You mentioned that you’d like to, if possible, submit your stories for African collections. I’m just wondering, what does that say about who your perceived audience is? Do you have a perceived audience when you write?

If I do, it’s not consistent. It depends on where the story came from and what the idea was. Some of my stories are “big ideas” about humanity in general, or about some cool, interesting piece of tech. For those “big idea” stories, it sounds weird, but I guess my perceived audience is more like the average educated, cosmopolitan person, someone that’s generally interested in the how and why of the world. They could be from anywhere. Take, for example, any middle-class white-collar person from any country.

Then there are some stories that are kind of linked to both an idea and a place. My parents moved around a lot when I was in Nigeria. We lived in Warri, Benin, Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt. Sometimes I have an idea, and it’s kind of linked to a place. “What if this technology existed here?” or “What if this happened in this place?” For a lot of those “place” stories, I guess the perceived audience would tend to be the young Nigerian. I wouldn’t even generalize to African. I tend to use a lot of Nigerian terms.

You spoke of the responses from publishers pre- and post-Caine Prize. I’m wondering if you could give a sense of the response that you’ve had to your writing in Nigeria specifically?

I don’t feel like there was a big difference from readers. From publishers. But from readers, not that I noticed. Possibly because I wasn’t paying enough attention. Maybe I should search more for myself on Twitter, Facebook or whatever, I don’t know!

How about generally? What have the responses been to your work in Nigeria?

It varies. I think a lot of people in Nigeria respond more to my fantasy stories. But I write a lot more science fiction than fantasy. I think the fantasy stories, like ‘Wednesday’s Story,’ have gotten the most attention.

I still even get comments from people about another story I wrote, ‘[I, Shidigi].’ It’s kind of a version of the Yoruba gods, the òrìṣà, but set in modern times where they’re run like a company. So Ṣàngó is the head of the business, he’s the CEO, and he’s pretty ruthless about earning prayers from people. I picked this minor god, Shigidi, who’s like god of nightmares, supposed to be really ugly. My view is Shigidi is like a lower-tier worker in the company just trying to get by. Then he gets caught up in this whole big deal and ends up having to fight Ṣàngó …

I thought it was a cool idea. “What if the gods were run like a company?” All the different gods, all the different pantheons, they had their headquarters in their own countries, like multinationals, and then they try to expand. Obviously, Christianity and Islam are the biggest ones, and then you have all these other ones who have had their territory, or their market share taken, and they’re struggling a bit to get by. That story still gets a lot of people sending comments, like, “Oh, this is not really how the òrìṣà work. But cool idea anyway.”

Why do you think people gravitate to the fantasy?

For me, what I enjoy about the response to science fiction stories is being able to discuss things. Like I mentioned, the story can be an entry point to learning something. But that doesn’t happen enough. Someone might comment like, “OK, cool,” or “I liked the main character.” But I would love it if there were deeper engagement.  “Yes, this is how that technology would really work in Lagos.” “No, it would never really work like that.” “It’s an interesting idea, but have you thought of this?” 

I haven’t yet seen if there is a market for what some people call “hard science fiction” in Nigeria. I know that’s a bit of a controversial statement. A lot of what has been written as science fiction is what I would classify as science fantasy. For example, everyone thinks Star Wars is science fiction. It’s not. It’s science fantasy. The main difference being, you have spaceships, you have robots, it uses the tropes of science fiction … but it doesn’t use the core of science fiction. It doesn’t have the novum, the big idea.

The core of science fiction has always been the idea. If we had this speculative technology, how would humanity react? What would the world look like? Then you extrapolate from there. Stuff like Star Wars is taking elements from the literary tradition of science fiction, and using them to decorate an otherwise normal story. It’s really a literary story or an adventure story that just happens to include robots, spaceships, and all this kind of stuff. There’s no big idea at the center. I wouldn’t say there’s none, but there’s not much.

Who would you say does it well?

A few of Nnedi Okorafor’s short stories have that kind of cool idea at the center. Spider The Artist and The Popular Mechanic come to mind. Tade Thompson’s novel Rosewater is probably the closest example of what I’m getting at. It has that one core really cool idea. There’s not many like it… there’s a lot of fantasy, there’s a lot of science fantasy. Maybe the response  I’m getting, or lack thereof, is just because there isn’t that much of it out yet. I don’t know how people would respond if there was.

So why do you think this is? 

I wouldn’t say it’s just a Nigerian thing? I think it’s a global thing. I think fantasy is generally more accessible and popular than science fiction. Science fiction does well when it’s actually science fantasy. For example, if you compare the box office returns of Star Wars and Star Trek, it’s Star Trek that leans more on the science fiction, big idea, philosophical side. Huge gap. Star Wars is this huge billion-dollar industry. Star Trek is struggling to get the next sequel made.

So I think it’s a global thing. But I think it’s especially true in Nigeria, just because fantasy is familiar to a lot of people. You could even say fantasy is normal. In a lot of places in Africa, talking of things like witchcraft, magic … they’re not fantastical elements, these are normal things. “Of course there’s demons that live in the bush outside, what are you talking about?” There’s no fantasy there. I guess it’s more familiar to people. I don’t know. I haven’t studied it enough, and I don’t have enough of a social background to explain why. 

You mentioned a couple of contemporary writers whose work may be doing something akin to what you’re trying to do in your work. If you were asked to put your writing in conversation with the works of other writers, whose works would you pick? 

I already mentioned Nnedi. That one’s a bit of an obvious one.

I feel like a lot of what I write, it’s closer to Philip K. Dick. Just because he was a crazy person, and he had all these random ideas just floating around, and he wrote so many short stories. It was partly because he was broke a lot of the time, and he was selling stories just to pay rent. I feel like that manic approach to pumping out stories with lots of wild ideas – the quality varying wildly, but lots of interesting ideas in there – that’s how my brain works as well. “Oh, I see this, that’s a cool idea, write something.” “I don’t have any characters or plot.” “That’s fine, just start writing.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

My stuff isn’t as crazy or as interesting as what he came up with, just because he was on his own planet. When people ask me to describe my work, I’ve said, “Imagine if you took Nnedi’s work and Philip K. Dick, and kind of mixed them together …”

Your work is a lovechild of those two?

Somehow. Somewhere in between, yeah, a little bit!

You mentioned the fact that growing up, your family moved around quite a lot. You’ve lived in lots of different cities, particularly in southern Nigeria. You’ve lived in London, you live in Kuala Lumpur now. Do these different cities that you’ve called home influence your work?

Every city is different. I guess the main thing I pick up from everywhere is a sense of variety. If you grow up in only one place and you only take a few vacations here and there, it’s easy to think that where you live is primarily how the world looks and works. Having moved around, you get this sense of scope of how wildly varying the world can be.

Whenever I write stories set in the future, set on another planet, or whatever, I realize that you have to reflect that. If not, the world doesn’t seem like a ‘real’ world. Some people write a story set on another planet, and they describe it as an ice planet where everybody more or less dresses the same. They’re obviously writing about their own town, their own city, or somewhere they know. A whole planet would have a wide variety of climates, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of faiths, beliefs, and systems all going around at the same time. Not everyone would follow the same political philosophy. Everything … even the vegetation would vary widely.

So it’s just having a sense of that. A lot of times, when I’m writing a story, I would just throw something in there to give it an authentic sense of variety. If I have only Nigerian characters, where is everybody else? Why is Mars full of only Nigerians? That doesn’t happen anywhere. Even Nigeria is not full of only Nigerians. There’s lots of Indians, Chinese, there’s people everywhere. So I think that’s the main thing I get is just that sense of variety. It’s always at the back of my mind that the world is a big and very varied place.

‘Thursday’ ends with the statement, “This is what happened and thus must be told.” Do you have a particular sense of the need to tell certain stories? 

To be honest, I don’t feel like I need to tell any story. I don’t feel like I have a responsibility. I have a conflicted relationship with storytelling. On the one hand, for me, stories are mostly about entertainment. That’s why I use terms like “cool robot stuff”. At the end of the day, the ideas are nice, but the feeling you get at the end was, “That was a cool idea.” That’s what I come away with.

I usually don’t like it when people try to drill too much into a story. At the same time, I also know that everything we know comes from stories. Everything is a story. It makes me laugh a little bit when people say, “Why don’t you write more realistic fiction?” or, “Why don’t you try some non-fiction?” It’s all the same thing, it really is. Everything you know is a story. None of us for a fact knows when we were born. We celebrate our birthday on a particular date, but that’s the date your parents told you. It could be a story they told you, and you believe it, and you center your entire life around it, but it’s just a story. Our religions are just stories. Maybe there’s more to them, maybe not, but by and large, they’re stories. Even if one of them is right, at least a thousand of them are just stories.

When people try to explain things to you, or when people try to get close to you, they tell you stories about themselves. “This is what happened to me, this is how things were, this is why I did this.” Even now, when you give presentations in business meetings and stuff, people tell it as a story. There’s a beginning, a middle, an end, a conclusion, “This is what we’re trying to do.”

I’m very aware of how powerful a story can be. I try not to take them too seriously, but they can be very powerful. People that blow themselves up for ISIS or Boko Haram, they do it because of a story that someone told them.. The people that work on cures for cancer, they are also doing it because of stories that they were told.. They are working towards what they think is a good end to their story.

Basically, everything we do is based on stories. Stories have a lot of power. I try not to take them too seriously, but I recognize how powerful they are. I’m usually stuck in between. When you’re telling a story, you know that that story could have very little impact, or could have a huge impact. I might not think much about a story, and yet that could be the entry point for someone else’s entire writing career, or reshape the way that person sees the world. They just see something in it and just … for me, it was Isaac Asimov. He died before I ever started writing, but he’s influenced me a lot. A lot of his work has stuck with me, and it’ll probably stick with me until I die.

You’ve talked about the importance of ideas. But surely part of the power of stories comes from their style? I’ve got a passage here from ‘Thursday’. You’ve got, “His blood boiled, bubbling and burbling boisterously behind black, beady irises that bore brutal and baleful beams of bristling rage …” That is a lot of alliteration.

Oh, yeah. A bit too much.

No, no! Apart from just enjoying, I guess, the sound of it, what effect do you want to engender?

I like patterns. I am not sure why alliteration in particular. It makes me happy just to have a string of words all starting with the same sound. I guess it’s also a bit of a challenge trying to make a sensible statement using alliteration. I used to overdo it before. That’s an early story. Yeah, that one’s a bit much! More recently, I’ve found ways to put it in a bit more subtly, so you don’t even notice until after you’ve read the sentence, you just get a feeling like, “That sounded interesting.”

A lot of religious texts have a certain style of language they use. It’s very poetic, and there’s a voice in your head that you have when you’re reading passages from the Bible or the Quran. It’s a very authoritative but almost poetic, melodic kind of voice. I try to get that effect when I’m writing, especially more with big fantasy stories. I tried to do that a bit with ‘Wednesday’s Story.’ It alternates a bit, because Wednesday is supposed to be a slightly immature character, so sometimes her voice slips, but for most of the story, I tried to use this big-sounding, almost epic voice.

I like to experiment with style and voice. I used to do it more with my fantasy writing, but I’m starting to experiment more in science fiction too. I like the idea of the voice and the sound of the story fitting what’s happening.

I think sometimes, alliteration or certain patterns with words can help with that effect, make it almost seem like you’re reading a lost ancient manuscript, religious text, or something that was written … a legal document, almost. I like trying to play around with that a little bit, not always successfully. 

For alliteration in particular, I don’t know, I think I just like the challenge of coming up with a sentence that makes sense, and I like the way it sounds when you read it out loud. Editors tend not to like it. They can see what you’re doing. They feel like it detracts from the story. It’s an opinion, I guess. For me, writing is more about fun. If it was fun for me coming up with it, sometimes I just leave it in anyway. Even if I know it’s overwritten and it’s a bit obvious, I just leave it in because it was fun.

You also tend to deal with complex issues. I’m just thinking about some of the conversations you’ve had in your writing such as attitudes towards disability or difference, abuse of power, subjects like paedophilia, rape, murder. I’m wondering if you see yourself as having a particular role as a writer, or do you regard your writing as making a particular social or political intervention?

No, I don’t. That’s the simple answer. I don’t take on any specific role when I’m writing. There are really two things that drive what I write. Science and technology is a big one. But second, I would say philosophy. People do terrible things. We do wonderful things as well. But people do some pretty terrible things to each other. Whenever I write – especially about bad things like rape, abuse, people suffering – it usually comes from a place of trying to understand why humanity does that to itself. Why are we here? All this negative behavior we have, where does it come from? What’s the point of it? To use another engineering term, is it just like bad code? Were we programmed to do something, and this is just like bugs in the system where ten, fifteen percent of humanity is behaving erratically? 

Why do we have psychopaths, sociopaths, people who abuse children? That kind of thing. But also, I like to step back a bit and view humanity as a whole system, not specific individuals, but as a whole system, and say, “What’s the system doing? How can we make it better?” So it’s more about viewing humanity as a whole and trying to figure out why we work the way we do or at least tell stories about it. I guess if I have a theme, or something that generally runs through my work, it’s that.

I don’t know if you’d agree with me, but in a few of your stories, there seems to be a recurrence of theme of loss, and a kind of melancholy.

You’re probably right. I haven’t thought about it that much, but now that I think about the stories, it’s true. There are sad endings, there is often a sense of loss in there. I think part of it is – yes, I’ve used this term before, so I’ll use it again – I think humanity is inefficient. And it makes me sad, in a way. We could do so much more.

Humanity, at our best, is a spectacular thing. We put people on the moon. We’ve gone from cave-dwelling animals to putting rockets on the moon. Working as an engineer, seeing people figure stuff out is amazing.  I work in the oil industry. We drill thousands of feet into the ground using tiny tubes just to get oil out of the ground. If you think of how much ingenuity, how much effort, how many people it took to come up with the science and technology to achieve that, it’s spectacular sometimes. We’re capable of a lot, but then we spend so much time on irrelevant nonsense. I guess a part of me doesn’t get why we would even do that. I guess there’s a sense of being unhappy with humanity in general, because I kind of see us as being inefficient. I wish we could be better, but I don’t know how.

Some of my more recent stories have been centered around these wild ideas about things that could make humanity better. Again, science fiction writers are not prophets. We don’t know what we’re talking about half the time. We just know what’s an interesting idea or a cool story. For me, I think about that a lot, about why we work the way we do. I don’t have any answers, I just weave that thought process into the stories. I guess it comes out as melancholy or disappointment.

Let’s finish with, what’s next? What can we expect to see from you?

It’s a good question. More stories, for sure.

Are you sticking with the short story form? I think you mentioned a novel?

I’ve been debating that with myself for a long time. Short stories come much easier to me. I think I do them better than I do long-form writing. I think they also fit more with the way I think about my writing. It’s a random idea that I think is interesting, come up with the story that fits it, and write that. That tends to work better with short story or, worst-case scenario, a novella, but nothing too long. Once I start trying to make it too long, I notice I start to struggle a bit with maintaining the idea. 

There’s kind of a novel I’ve been working on and off on for the last five years. The idea is there, it’s just actually writing all the chapters. It’s quite tricky, also because it’s a bit of an action thriller with science fiction elements, so not usually what I write. But let’s see. In all likelihood, I’ll probably have a second collection of stories done before that. I think I’ll call it Convergence Problems.

Wole Talabi is a full-time engineer, part-time writer and some-time editor from Nigeria. His stories have appeared in F&SF, Lightspeed,Omenana, Terraform, AfroSFv3, and a few other places. He edited the anthologies These Words Expose Us and Lights Out: Resurrection and co-wrote the play Color Me Man. His fiction has been nominated for several awards including the Nommo Awards and the Caine Prize. He likes scuba diving, elegant equations and oddly-shaped things. He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Louisa Egbunike is a Lecturer in English at City, University of London. Her research focuses on African and Afrodiasporic literature, including writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi and Buchi Emecheta, and fields such as Igbo-Nigerian novel and the legacies of the Nigeria-Biafra War. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Arts Online.

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