An Interview with Author Suyi Davies Okungbowa
January 13, 2020
Interviewed by Joyce Chen, TSW staff
For Suyi Davies Okungbowa, author of the science fiction, myth-punk epic David Mogo, Godhunter, the lived experience of being a diasporic, multicultural writer is what informs his fiction. There is, in that sense, nothing and everything speculative about the world and the experiences that he writes about.
Okungbowa hails from Benin City, Nigeria, but currently resides in Tucson, Arizona; suffice it to say, he is familiar with the sort of liminal spaces that his fictionalized characters are presented with. In David Mogo, Godhunter, the titular character is a demi-god who feels like an outsider to both his god counterparts and his human peers. He’s never quite enough, never at home in any one space, always seeking, always code-switching. When the gods descend upon the city of Lagos, displaced following a massive hierarchical shakeup, David is forced to reckon with the many fractured parts of his identity, and to consider how they all fit together to form a whole self.
We first spoke with Okungbowa about his book and his writing during an event in partnership with the Elliott Bay Book Company last fall, and we continued the conversation in-depth in a follow-up conversation two months later. Here, he tells The Seventh Wave about the importance of nuance, intersectionality, and specificity in today’s world of storytelling.
Joyce Chen: When we talked at Elliott Bay in October 2019, you spoke so vividly about the idea of in-betweenness; characters that are trying to navigate liminal spaces are so central to your book. Could you speak a bit to your fascination with characters who live in the middle?
Suyi Davies Okungbowa: Generally, I tell people that I consider myself a middle person. A combination of various cultures, kinds of experiences, and influences. I wouldn’t say completely misunderstood, but I have always found some sort of similar-hood with the idea of being in spaces between the crevices of the world. I’m not about labeling things and wanting to have things fit into a specific group, but that’s just the way the world operates now, and actually has always operated. Being able to use my work to highlight that problem is a major feature, and it pretty much appears in every piece of work I put forth.
I like to talk about those people who don’t quite fit into all of these spaces, and need to forge their own spaces for themselves, despite what the world says they’re allowed to be. Maybe my hope is that, in doing so, they can either inspire more people to forge their own spaces, or just to forge one that becomes a welcoming space for others that are like them but have always thought that they were alone.
I like to talk about that in my work, and David Mogo is no exception. With David Mogo, it is very obvious what worlds he’s living between. As a demi-god, he has one human parent and one god parent. But it isn’t just about that: it’s also about not having people who understand your experiences, and trying to explain it to people, especially when you are having difficulty making decisions that should be easy for people within these groups. For people like David, even the simplest of things becomes something of a tough choice. I wanted to examine that friction and see how that plays out in David Mogo’s life, from the very little things to the grand issues he had to deal with.
Joyce: Are you saying we see more when we exist in those gray spaces?
Suyi: It’s a very tricky thing. I like to compare David Mogo’s experience to my own experience as someone who grew up in Nigeria currently living in the US. When I am asked questions, I have to think as someone who is living in the US but grew up in Nigeria, but also is not American. To Nigerians, I am not quite Nigerian because I am not living there. So I always have to do mental gymnastics in a way that is not really the same as if I were living in Nigeria right now, and I get asked questions without having any experience of living in America. I would just have a very Nigerian perspective about it. I’m always having to perform these cyclical, mental processes all the time, because things are just much more complex being in that space where you can see all sides.
Joyce: The term code-switching comes to mind. In your book, if David Mogo is among gods, he will react a certain way. And vice versa with humans. He has to consider a lot more because he understands a lot more.
Suyi: Even outside the simple god-human scale, even in a city like Lagos, David Mogo isn’t really from Lagos, so he’s also a bit of a foreigner even in his home city, which adds a layer of complexity. For instance, Yoruba is spoken very commonly in Lagos, but David doesn’t understand it. Someone has to tell him what someone else is saying in Yoruba. At the same time, he has to speak Nigerian pidgin English to his wizard grandfather, because that’s what his foster father speaks. He’s jumping between all of these places at the same time. He is a different person to each of these people, and that’s just one of the realities of being that kind of middle person. You have to be somewhat different, or a different version of yourself, at different times. That’s something I love to explore because that’s something I’ve had to do a lot.
Joyce: In terms of craft, how do you keep track of all these different relationships?
Suyi: The honest truth is I don’t really have to use any sort of strategy. That’s the experience of someone who has had to live in a multicultural place, and also interact with a multicultural place on a global scale. It’s kind of a natural thing. You just know how a person would react in different situations. It’s like you said, code-switching. Nigeria has over 600 languages, about 250 ethnic groups. I grew up in one of the cities that was multicultural, so going to school, I could meet people from 10, 11, or 12 different ethnic groups, and just have to navigate that world with them. Moving to different cities means you have to interact with people in a different way. When you have a group of friends from all these places, interacting with them is also different. It’s something that, after a while, comes naturally and plays out in the characters I write.
Joyce: Your book is very much about actionable storytelling, which is the topic of our 11th issue: there is an importance to the story, writing, and creativity behind your work. How do you enact change both on and off the page?
Suyi: I think this is generally the same all over the world, but it’s especially important for postcolonial spaces: a lot of your history, identity, and power is tied to the kind of stories you’re allowed to hear. If you think about the idea of “story” broadly, we’re talking about everything from history to what the media puts forward to what you’re reading in novels. Technically, it’s anything that is passed on, both stories we’re writing now as fiction and fantasy down to what our parents are telling us.
For me, I’ve always wanted to tell stories that are true about the people I know and where I come from, because a lot of times, in stories told about us, the narrators that are drawn from these places are not always true. I learned that a lot from reading. I come from Benin City, which has a strong history with the Portugese and the English, and a lot of our stories weren’t even told to us, because they weren’t the kinds of stories people wanted to tell. Just learning about them and being able to see the difference between the kinds of stories that were told in narratives received from western audiences and those received from indigenous cultures, how different they were and how people saw things, that was a big deal.
I felt it was very important to tell stories about people like me, and how we really are, with more nuance than the single, monolithic stories that people know about people like us. In a lot of my stories, especially the ones seen as speculative, I want to talk about how people are living regular lives like everyone else in the world. We have intersections, just like everyone has. We have the negative, positive, and neutral stuff happening just like everyone does. So I try to tell these stories as a way to show people, if they had a single story about any person, issue, or situation, that they might not quite have it right because they haven’t looked at all the sides. I jus try to tell nuanced stories about human beings, both within and outside of the things readers know about people that come from the kind of places I come from. Hopefully, people will see some sort of change in position, belief, or understanding just by reading the stories that I write.
Joyce: There’s something about the physicality of the word that really holds a different kind of feeling. Is there a difference between the stories that are being told and the ones that are being written?
Suyi: A lot of the discrepancies I find in, say, the history about Benin Kingdom, which was the basis of the city where I was born, are usually between the written stuff I see in the encyclopedia of the history of Benin people, versus what I hear someone tell me, someone who is a chief from the palace, or whose father was a chief from the palace, and who said his father told him something his grandfather told him, and I am like, hm, that’s not what we read. It’s very common for this to happen.
Another common thing is the Nigerian Civil War, which took place in the 1960s. There’s been a really strong pushback by all governments since then about telling the actual stories of what happened. The stories we have are really watered down, but if you meet folks or vets from the war, or had parents from the war, the stories are completely different. And sometimes, they are in complete conflict. I feel like cementing the war in the written words, being able to put it into archives — maybe even in recorded oral storytelling, but recorded in some way — lends credence and a certain kind of longevity to the story, and if you come from places like the place I come from, these weren’t things that we had room to do for a very long time.
We weren’t allowed to record our stories. We weren’t allowed to tell our stories. We weren’t allowed to transmit them globally. As a result, a lot of the time, people only have stories about the places they are familiar with, and everywhere else, they present as a monolith. And so now, we have an opportunity to change that. There are people like me who grew up in Nigeria until adulthood; now, I am thrust into this space globally, and I have this opportunity to tell these stories and so I take the opportunity to tell very nuanced ones. Who knows how long we’ll be allowed to tell these stories. I will tell all the truths now, as they are, in their multifaceted ways, so that the complete picture of who we are and who we have always been can be present in the world for a long time to come, I hope.
Joyce: It’s exciting to think about that; how our words are going to outlast us.
Suyi: I grew up reading a lot of stories about Greek gods and stuff like that, but I never read anything about my gods. Even up until now, I can’t say, is there a picture book? All through life, there were picture books or novels about Norse gods and Greek gods, but where was anything about the gods I know or the gods people talk about here? I feel like this is a step in that direction for me. This is just one book. I will tell stories about other things, but I am thinking about all of them in the same way. We have all this work about all these places, and I now want to tell these stories from the places I know and haven’t made it as much into the world. The more these stories are out there, the more they will be stamped into the minds of people, I hope.
Joyce: It feels like this is the beginning of a vast unlearning. For example, The New York Times’ powerful 1619 Project, or how now, people are saying, let’s not recognize Thanksgiving because that was actually an entire genocide of Indigenous people. Not that it’s comfortable or easy to talk about, but it’s definitely necessary. To what you’re saying about actually writing the stories that didn’t exist on the main stage before, what are your reactions to this kind of unlearning, and is there anything in particular that you feel needs to be pulled apart or recalibrated?
Suyi: I would say everything. I would go right out and say everything, especially as we’re coming into a time of extremity, where everything is either a hard right or a hard left. There’s almost no space for all of these things to actually all rub into each other, places that are very much more complex. Examining everything that’s put in front of us has become so much more important now.
I just think that more and more now, we really need people to come out and tell very specific stories of specific situations and specific experiences, because we’re getting to that point where nuance is getting buried underneath the big stuff. The advent of things like intersectionality is important. How just one tiny shift in something can change a whole experience in someone, is important. We need more people telling more specific stories of very specific intersectionalities, just to be able to show people that things aren’t always the same. They’re always slightly different, regardless of what can seem like this big monolith. If we deconstruct all of these massive believed myths that we have, people will hopefully become more attentive, more careful in the way they approach people and situations, because things are always different, depending on when, where, and how.
I’d say everything should be seen under that lens. Thanksgiving is a good example because folks will be like, “Oh, I’ve only known it to be this thing.” And that’s fine, but you also have to understand that there are other people who have only known it to be this other thing. It’s important to have these painful discussions, as you said. It’s a lot of things to think about. I think just bringing up that discussion, and having all of that put out into the open, and people documenting it — very specific experiences — we need that. It’s invaluable.
Joyce: Turning the lens inward, have there been any other books you’ve read recently, or something someone in the public has said, that has helped you to rethink anything you’ve previously thought of as the truth?
Suyi: Recently, I read this novel, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, for graduate school. It follows Hurricane Katrina, but it’s more so about the people who lived in the town. And it specifically followed the personal lives of the people who didn’t leave, either because they couldn’t or they just did not have a place to go, and the various reasons why people stayed, despite the fact that they knew that a hurricane was coming. This was 2011.
I was younger, living in Nigeria, when the hurricane hit. I just saw everything on the news. My whole experience was filtered through what I was fed. A lot of it was: Why didn’t people leave? Why did they do such a thing? And I carried that with me all this time. Gladly, I never had to talk to anyone about Katrina, because I would’ve been exposed. But then I read this book, and I was like, oh, this is actually what people went through. Having the backstory as well: this wasn’t the first hurricane to go through that place. This was just one of a number. I’m like, ok, this is not as simple as what was packaged and put forth by the media.
That’s something that happens often. You take this very multifaceted thing and you flatten it into this one thing. Like hey, here is the one story. Just seeing things like this — reading and encountering different sides — I’ve learned to not just take things at the flat-out face value of how it’s presented. I’ve heard this part, and now I am going to wait until I hear something different, because there’s always something different. That trains you as a person to approach things more delicately, with more patience, to be able to see how issues could be more complex than they seem.
Joyce: This might be an odd question, but in the process of writing David Mogo, was there anything you had assumed about the story or a character that changed and it surprised you? Perhaps something from the outside world that changed this inside world?
Suyi: One of the things that was difficult for me to juggle was religion. Nigeria is a very conservative country. There’s always some form of leaning toward religion. There’s very few atheist or agnostic folks. They’re severely frowned upon, if not persecuted in some way.
One of the things I wonder is, in David Mogo, you have these gods coming down [o earth, which basically breaks every form of religious leaning that people have. And you would think that everyone would be like, “I guess all the stories we know about everything are wrong.” But that doesn’t really happen at all. It took me a while to figure out people aren’t really strongly religious in Nigeria because they necessarily believe in those things, but because they have to believe in those things. The belief is the only thing keeping them sane. It’s just a kind of belief; others have beliefs for various reasons. Even if they’re believing the same things, they do so for different reasons. For a lot of Nigerians, belief is survival. Without it, they have nothing. And so they cling onto it, even if there is not a single fact. Or even if the fact were standing right there in front of them in a physical form, they still would not believe in something alternate.
I had to go back and rethink that, realize that people have this survival-based belief. We’re not just talking mentally; we’re talking physically, economically. For some people, they have to believe in order to get community. For some people, it has economic benefits. For others, it has sociopolitical benefits.
Joyce: Fear felt pervasive throughout your book and the narrative. How did it factor into creating the characters and the storyline?
Suyi: In Nigeria, the fear of stigma is a really strong driving force. Breaking away from a community is a huge act of bravery. It’s massive. It could be for the simplest of things, religion being a very good example. Some people die as a result of that, in some very extreme cases.
Belonging to very square communities and square groups, like fixed groups, is actually an act of survival a lot of times. Because just being mislabeled, being othered, being misunderstood, is dangerous, physically and in many other ways. People get ostracized, they lose their sources of income, they lose support. A good example is, say, if your neighbors don’t know you and if you get arrested for some random reason, no one is going to speak for you. It seems very basic, but for Nigerians, it’s a very big deal. Everyone around you knows who you are and what you do. The risk of getting arrested randomly for doing nothing is super high. You have to protect yourself by being a part of the community. So even just saying, nah, I don’t really want to fraternize with the neighbors, is quite dangerous. You’re then open to all the things that can occur. That fear of rejection, misunderstanding, being othered in general, is such a big deal.
Which kind of ties into another theme: migration. In the book, the gods are moving from their world into this one. They have to deal with being different, and what comes with that? Luckily, they’re powerful, but it’s not always the same for everyone, especially when the people of Lagos itself start getting displaced. All the structures they built around themselves obviously collapse, and they have to find a way, quickly, to form some other kind of community that can provide that same kind of protection. Because alone, you’re lost and displaced. Having nothing to cling onto is super dangerous, and not even necessarily just in the semi post-apocalyptic world of Lagos in David Mogo, but more generally in the world, and very particularly in Nigeria — at least, what I know of it. Specifically, in Lagos, which is a carnivorous city, where if you’re not attached to something some way, you’re easy prey.
Lagos is often described that way. There is a book, even, called The Carnivorous City.
Joyce: Fascinating. I remember you’d spoken about having compassion for these gods, because they’re displaced, too. They weren’t asking to inhabit this new world. They were also put out of their home, and they’re trying to find a new home. I think that idea of extending compassion, page space, and brainspace for what these gods were going through, of showing things from that side, was really effective in the book. Could you speak to the importance of extending that brain- and page-space to the gods’ perspective?
Suyi: I was thinking about the alien invasion stories that were told to me as a young child, which are just allegories for colonization, imperialism, and stuff like that, where there is this other entity that comes into a space that is not theirs and tries to make it their own by subsuming whatever there is. We have tons of those stories in real life — colonialism — and in fictional works, too. But here, with David Mogo, I wanted to tell a specific story about a very specific situation. It’s these very specific people trying to perpetrate this specific thing, not just a monolith.
As someone who has been a victim of monolithic stories, I am always cognizant of how you can easily slip into one-dimensional storytelling. A lot of the gods in the book feel displaced, but some people decide to treat that situation differently than others. And that happens in every situation. Even in the stories of migrants, the entirety of the stories have to be told, because there are factions who use the stories of the bad eggs to be like, this is everyone. This represents everybody. And there are people on the other side who say no, that’s not true. This represents everyone. So “this represents everyone” stories are the stories that I’m trying to counter by telling more nuanced ones, where we are looking at the people’s individual value as opposed to group value, which is difficult to pin down and dangerous to try and attempt to do.
Joyce: You mentioned then that you don’t write speculative fiction necessarily — what is it about the branding of the genre you are not so sure about?
Suyi: I like the term speculative fiction as an umbrella for work that examines things that aren’t currently present in this world, is how I would put it. But then the first question is, which story that’s fiction isn’t speculative? What story isn’t speculative? Pretty much every story is based on something that hasn’t quite happened yet, even if it belongs in this world. I think my general eyebrow raise at the term is as a term that is trying to displace science fiction, fantasy, or horror as “genre,” work outside of the spaces that literary work is allowed. Sometimes it can be used as a gatekeeping term, where writers actually struggle to come out and say, I write science fiction. They instead oftentimes say speculative fiction, because it’s a more acceptable term in certain spaces.
As someone who also inhabits those spaces as an MFA student, who has been in a lot of academic spaces, I want to say I write speculative fiction to people because I do write across the spectrum, and speculative fiction works as a term that describes that, but at the same time, I am wary about being pigeon-holed as that person who writes what people increasingly term literary speculative, in trying to draw lines between work that is speculative with literary undertones or literary traditions and genre work, which is equally important.
Some people actually act surprised that they like the book. “Oh wow, I found these sentences quite good.” And I’m like, “Wow, did you expect them to not be?” All of these expectations, like, oh this is a fantasy book, so it can’t be good. Or, it’s a literary novel and so it has to be boring. It’s just ridiculous. I read an essay by Carmen Maria Mercado, who is someone who I think really straddles both sides, and she actually came out to say she doesn’t straddle, she just writes what she thinks works, and then it works. Someone could come out and say, I write horror or fantasy, but then you read it, and you’re like, this could be categorized anything. It’s just a spectrum. It doesn’t have to be one thing or another. I usually just say, write a good book, write good stories, whatever it is.
Joyce: Zooming out, what does writing look like to you?
Suyi: For a long time, I didn’t think I had a process, to be honest, until I started teaching writing process in undergrad. Then I realized I should probably figure out if I have one before I teach someone else about it. I would say it’s two things: it’s the creative part of the process, which is the actual writing, and the other part — I wouldn’t say it’s non-creative because I think they are intertwined — but the less glamorous parts, like the waking up, sitting front of a certain place every day, and having a specific place or writing with music and stuff like that. For me, I write anywhere. So it makes it difficult for me to say I need to be in a specific place at a specific time. I have written on an oil rig before, for example.
For me, my best creative time is in the morning right after I wake up. If I miss that time, I have to struggle to write any other time of the day. It used to be at night, but that has changed. It’s different when I am in a different place. In my house in Nigeria, for instance, it’s a very different process because of the dynamics of the place. Morning doesn’t quite work there, other times are better. I actually have to write when I am coming out of a period of when I haven’t had mental stimulation for a while. Even if it is in the afternoon, it means the morning must have been spent doing menial things, like cleaning. When I come out of that, I can write. Once I go past that time — it lasts for about two hours or so — then I usually do other stuff like editing, sending emails, and such.
People never say it, but sending emails is the second part of being a writer. I usually wake up in the morning these days, and write for one hour or an hour and a half, and usually it’s between 600 and 1,000 words, and that’s it. I do it every day. I set a very realistic word count that I usually go over, which is better for my self-esteem. That way, even if I miss a day or two, it’s fine because some days are just not good days and accepting that some days are not good is very crucial to being a writer.
But I realize that something that makes routines stronger is a ritual. Something you do right before you start your routine. I started using candles. My wife makes candles, so I light one before I begin. Now, I have all these holiday candles. Right before I start writing, I light the candle, have my hot beverage, and then get into that space. The ritual is to usher you into this mentality to start creating. So every time I light the candle, I am primed. It has worked so far, so I am doing that more often. That’s usually how my process works.
Joyce: Having a ritual tied to the routine is so helpful. It helps you focus and realize, this is the time to write.
Suyi: Yeah, it’s funny because even just clicking the lighter, the sound of it generally sparks in my mind, and I start thinking about the work even before the candle is lit. And the fact that the candle gives off an aroma throughout the period of writing also helps because it kind of sustains my process. And when I blow out the candle, it’s like the end of the session. So there is a start and there’s a finality to it. It really just works.
Joyce: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to discuss?
Suyi: Just generally, being a writer in the world is always different for everybody. And I’m not just talking about where you’re drawing experiences from, not just what’s in the creative work. A lot of times, people talk about the creative aspect of being a writer, and want to know about all these various places you’re drawing from, but there’s also an aspect of being a writer that’s not necessarily about being creative but heavily impacts your experience as a writer. And that’s not as discussed. We’re not just talking identity, being a black writer or an African writer in America, but other things. A good example, as I was explaining the routines, is how I can have one while I am living in America and another one while living in Nigeria because those two places are so different. So if, for instance, I were to give writing advice about routines, I would give very different advice to an American living in Nigeria and a Nigerian living in America.
I went to this conference recently where a separate session was held for families of writers. There was a writer’s conference going on on one side, and everyone who was a family member was having a separate session where they talked about living with a writer and how to help them on the other side. That’s something that I’d say is often not brought to the forefront, but really impacts writing as a profession: the resources and support that a writer has or doesn’t have. Like I mentioned, where I come from is a high survival space, so a lot of discussions preface the action. For instance, if someone wanted to talk to me about writing, they would first talk to me about how they would get power to charge their PC to write before even talking about process. A lot of people don’t think about those aspects, but those are things I tell my students all the time. Think about your specific situation. It matters, because it does influence how you can produce, how much you can write. Only do what you can because every writer’s journey is very unique in that way. I just hope more discussion about all the other things that come into play happens.