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In discussion with Suyi Davies Okungbowa

in Literature

Better late than never – I've a series of interviews I conducted with my fellow authors in editor Wole Talabi's Lights Out: Resurrection anthology of African horror fiction, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa is up today. (Sorry, I've really been holding back on these for a while due to work pressure). You can pick up a copy of the anthology here.  

ND: I realise we know very little about each other. Tell me more about you and what you love writing.

SDO: Well, I was born and raised in Benin City in Nigeria. I currently live in and write from Lagos, though, which means lots of my stories set in Nigeria are informed by some iteration of these two places.

Crimes, mysteries and thrillers were the first novels I interacted with as a young reader. The cheapest books in Nigeria as a kid were either imported used crime/thriller/mystery paperbacks (Robert Ludlum, James Hadley Chase, Sidney Sheldon, the likes) or locally produced fast-paced novels and novellas (a la Pacesetter Series). These mostly informed my early reading habits, until I began to seek more wonder in Ghostbusters, Goosebumps, Narnia, Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

I can remember neither the author nor title of the book that got me hooked on speculative. I remember the story though: three Nigerian kids find a spaceship, take it on a joyride, discover the mysteries of the universe, and crashland home in time for dinner. I remember thinking it was the greatest thing ever, and dreamt for months about taking spaceship rides. It occurs to me now that the story sank deeper than all others because I could see myself in that story, because I was represented.

After I the dreams wouldn't stop plaguing me, I decided I was going to write them down.

I write speculative because in speculation lies vital questions towards all things, a capacity to perceive all-time human issues through fresh perspectives and way more engaging lenses. I believe the suffering of a lost and helpless protagonist in a faraway galaxy at the hand of an authoritarian government holds more poignancy than a narration of the sufferings of African immigrants under modern-day cutthroat immigration practices. Also, much much more fun imagining and writing spec, and who doesn't love fun?

ND: How does living in Africa inform your writing? Tell me more about your environment, and a day in your life.

SDO: Living in Africa multiplies the difficulty required to achieve things, and writing is not excused from this. Especially when one is a writer of fiction (unserious writing), or worse speculative fiction: the kind of fiction that asks questions of everything, that pokes everywhere. The African society is, by nature, highly dogmatic and does not welcome such inquisitiveness, so it rebels. Many times, aggressively so.

And I find that weird, considering that the continent possesses endless possibilities for these examinations. I read epic fantasy and watch people marvel at worldbuilding based on European societies. If only they knew the countless civilisations Africa possesses that trump those in nuance. If only they saw that we possess monsters more complex than the cardboard vampire or staple zombie. If only they see how big a role Africans can (and will) play when aliens finally invade the earth and we all have to move to Mars.

As for my regular day, it usually starts with work at my day job as a visual designer. I read during lunch breaks at noon, for about an hour or so. (Yes, I’m always that guy in the corner buried in a book or Kindle while my food cools). After closing, I write my daily word count in the break-out room at the office, mostly to rock or classical music. Then I turn to other writing concerns: emails, submissions and duties at my writing community (WAW).

On holidays and weekends, I meet with my writing group (once a month), do full-scale revisions and attend WAW events. I play FIFA and watch shows like Black Mirror in-between. Sometimes, I go fuck-all and have ice-cream or cocktails all day instead. I never miss swimming whenever I get the chance.

ND: What are you reading at the moment?

SDO: I just concluded reading Leye Adenle’s crime novel, Easy Motion Tourist. It’s a nice book in its great portrayal of Lagos through a frightened foreigner’s eyes. On my reading desk currently: re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in preparation for the show; A selection of African poetry (my first foray into poetry); and the ever-present list of online speculative fiction magazines--Lightspeed, Fireside, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Apex and many others.

ND: Tell us more about your story as it appears in Lights Out: Resurrection.

SDO: “Sleep Papa, Sleep” follows Max, a grave robber and illegal trader, as he struggles to come to terms with his father’s death. Things worsen when he makes a mistake that brings his father back from the dead for real. Max realises maybe what he wants is not what he needs after all, and struggles to get rid of his father amidst many challenges.

The story attempts to examine the idea of us wanting something, and then after getting it, realising it’s not what we want at all. And it’s worse when this seems to be a permanent change, something that comes home to sit in our chair and refuses to leave. Desire turns to disappointment, and disappointment turns into fear of having to live with our decision (or mistake, depending on your point of view). In the story, Max realises he will have to make a sacrifice in order to overturn the mistake and find what he truly seeks, as we usually have to when faced with such a situation.

ND: What are you writing at the moment?

SDO: I’m currently preparing to participate in NaNoWriMo. What I’m writing is a fantasy novella set in an alternate Earth with only one small continent (Africa, of course) where magic is provided by moons and prehistoric beast fossils, and sea travel is deadly because the waters are enraged.

Haha. I know, right? I’m laughing at myself too.

I’m also working on a couple of short stories for submissions. I just completed revisions for a story coming out in Issue #8 of Omenana. You should check it out when it publishes.

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