RN: First of all, Oghenechovwe, thank you for taking part in this project. And thank you for choosing “Ife-Iyoku” as the story you’d like to talk about. I think there is a lot to discuss here – it’s going to be a very interesting conversation.
Let’s start here: The story is divided into two distinct sections. The first is the Nlaagama hunt, in the beginning, and then the village scene. In the Nlaagama hunt, there is a tension between the tropes of science fiction and the tropes of fantasy (the antelope's description clearly references the unicorn, and the Nlaagama, when fully described, turns out to be much like the dragon of fantasy. Yet both are the product of nuclear war and mutation.
This feels like an interrogation (and I mean that in a good way) of the boundary between the two genres. Please talk a little about how you view the genres of science fiction and fantasy -- especially their boundaries and entanglements -- and how that reflects in the world of "Ife-Iyoku".
ODE: I've always been interested in the intersection between science fiction and fantasy. As you know, Africa is a deeply spiritual place. And some people tend to believe that this makes it less scientific. But I align well with Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And what if spirituality, all the pockets of unexplainable phenomena we call magic or dismiss altogether, is science: Real things with rules we just don't understand or have forgotten. Unicorns, dragons, all the creatures of myth might be more than myth. There are, after all, dinosaurs that had a close physical resemblance to these mythical creatures. So I try to explore this intersection in my work, to make people see the possibility of there being a connection between science and magic, a juxtaposition. Ironically, I thought that was a good book – Juxtaposition, by Piers Anthony. At least when I read it, decades ago. I explore a lot of these themes in other of my works, yet to be published. And I believe that there is more science to the universe than that born in a lab, in the West, through the demise of guinea pigs and human test subjects made willing by the demands of capitalism. It is this I wish to explore, through my world: creatures, science, and magic systems.
RN: Indeed, “systems” seem to pervade the story, and we get a sense of a close linkage between the members of Ife-Iyoku, of all of them functioning as a single system: their lives and deaths ae connected to one another, and they appear to share a single essence. Tell us a bit more about this bond between them all, and the role that plays in their sense of identity.
ODE: I believe that the interconnectivity of people in a society is at every level. It's just not something we are always aware of. It's there whether we see it or not. And I believe this became more apparent during the pandemic. We easily saw how the actions of others, their life or death affected us. Lockdowns, and their relaxations, depended on this. And that in turn impacted the life and survival of others. This sense of dependence, of connectivity is what I sought to invoke, even though the story was written before the pandemic. In Ife-Iyoku, they evolved as a society, perhaps akin to the herd immunity we talk about today. And there were continued adjustments to their evolution like I said before, the actions of the one influence the well-being of the rest. We also see that today, in masking policies, the actions of singular persons, like Donald Trump and other super-spreaders. Both positively and negatively, for good or ill, we are connected. Our lives or death impact each other. And this is something I sought to explore in my story and it's something the pandemic has been able to illustrate very clearly. How pertinent, the themes we try to pass in our stories. There are rarely as clear, as obviously relevant to real life until events like this make them so. Though, they are no less relevant for that lack of clearness. Understanding this connectivity and allowing it to affect our idea and understanding of society, and our identity will allow it to affect our actions and do a lot in impacting our collective society.
RN: I completely agree with you on how much the pandemic we are still going through has demonstrated how interconnected all of us are. It is also fascinating how sometimes history intervenes to give a story an added resonance – and that certainly is the case here. In 2019 perhaps people could (ignorantly) still put forward the pretense that national and local policies were just that – national, and local. Now we see that national and local policies, and even personal decisions, have life or death consequences that affect everyone on Earth. That in fact the ideas of “national” and “local” are illusory and fictional: interconnectivity was the primary lesson, I think, of 2020, and of 2021. I hope that this lesson holds: It certainly has not held in the past, to our species’ detriment.
On to my next question: At one point, while weaving her tale, Ologbon the Weaver says, "You must know your history if you are to seize for yourself a future." This appears to hit at one of the core themes of the story. Talk a little bit about that importance of history and self-knowledge, and how you present it here.
ODE: I believe that life is a cycle. There are patterns in existence. And while we might seem to be charting new courses, breakthroughs, everything we do, we have done before in some form or version in the past. Patterns as I said. We fight wars for the same reasons. Resources, human relations, etc. So, whether with guns or spears or blasters or thermonuclear weapons, we are fighting the same wars, going through the same motions we always have. And if we learn to understand these patterns, we might be able to break away from them – the more harmful ones anyway—and consciously work towards the beneficial ones we only seem to incidentally stumble towards. Again, the relationship between science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy tends to focus more on the past and science on the future. And this distinction makes people believe that sci-fi is more important. This is a conclusion one might come to if one is thinking about these things at a surface level. But I have found that patterns are the key to solving problems and without understanding the root causes of issues, we are doomed to be unable to make fundamental changes in things. The short story Ife-Iyoku which you read eventually morphs into a novella, which is published in Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora. It explores some more of these very issues I am talking about and if you were able to read it, you would see how much the society falls into the same destructive patterns that led it there, because it failed to heed the Weaver’s warnings.
RN: Another binary in Science Fiction is utopia / dystopia. This story, however, seems to again be mixing the two together: there is a strong message of hope that the people from inside Ife, whose "blood and bodies are stronger" and who "adapted abilities to make up for what we lost and to enable us survive in this new world" will re-emerge from Ife and establish a new Afrika. Do you view this story as a dystopia? A utopia? Or something very different from either?
ODE: The story is a dystopia, reaching for a utopia. As I believe is all life. Humanity is always struggling to reach that point where it betters itself and everything makes sense. We are constantly reaching for utopia, a perfect society that caters to all our needs and desires. But this is a continuous journey, a goal we may never attain. In fact, the force that moves us to search for a utopia or perfection may keep us from ever reaching it – because if ever we do reach it, we may fail to realize we have done so, and may go on searching, moving away from it again. Perhaps we do reach it every day but fail to recognize that we do. In this story they do have elements of the things one would consider ideal in a utopia. They manage their resources rather well, they are stronger and physically more advanced and healthier than regular humans, even having powers that are fantastical. They have eclipsed the form the average human has. A bit of a spoiler: I mentioned earlier that the story morphed into a novella. Well, that novella is morphing into a three-book series. Perhaps, even beyond that. There's a supernation somewhere there, a hyper-Wakanda where the average citizen, not just the king, is gifted and advanced physically and intellectually, and the technology of the place is infinitely enhanced by the seamless merger of science and spiritualism, a pure understanding of the elements of the universe we refer to as science. And those books will explore the complex and tense socio-political atmosphere as the world tries to deal with this new supernation it tried and failed to destroy. Futurisms have long explored the what if of Africa. What if it was never exploited, conquered, or enslaved as it was and it's development rolled back? Wakanda-esque stories. Or what if it was the exploiter and conqueror, as in Mallorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses. I want to explore in Ife-Iyoku, the tale of what if they did conquer Africa, as they did, and Africa came out of it the stronger and more dominant, as is actually possible. A future that is not just good, but possible. What if? Perhaps that would be a utopia. But what is a utopia for one isn’t always one for all or others. I suppose the term utopia is one that needs a lot more examination. That is something I would like to do in my works as well.
RN: I have said elsewhere that one of the things I have come to believe, in my many years away from the West, is that individualism, in the firmest Western sense, is a sham. We aren’t individuals; our ability to communicate is collective: it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. Our lives are embedded in the collective.
I see this thought very much mirrored in "Ife Iyoku" when Ologbon says "despite all that happened, survival is collective. If man would survive, we must do so together, as one. We must think of all and not of individuals.” How do you view the concept of individuality and the collective?
ODE: I very much align with the idea of the collective. I don't believe man is a solitary animal. And the only reason we have been able to survive this long is our embracing of the collective. At least the times we did. Don't get me wrong. There is uniqueness in that collectiveness. And I believe that uniqueness can be appreciated and celebrated, while maintaining the collective identity. I believe this is the key to man's survival. We must think of the world as a home. And of the different continents as rooms with their occupants. The room next to you being on fire wouldn't be someone else's room being on fire. It would be part of your house being on fire. I believe that divesting ourselves of this collective way of viewing the world has resulted in a lot of harm. Global warming, plastic pollution, and other such harms done the environment are a clear result of this kind of thinking. What is that thing they say? America first. Lol. Exactly that kind of thinking. It should be nobody first. Life, humanity first. In Africa, we place great stock on family, and community. A lot of the time it takes a whole community to crowdfund someone's education abroad. GoFundMe’s are run regularly for people with admission to institutions abroad that they can't afford the tuition for. Gofundme and other crowd funding platforms asides, this has long been how things ran, at the family level, even before technology. Sometimes everyone has to sit back so one person can go, and that person is expected to carry the family along after him. We have a strong sense of family and community. I think this is one of the better traits of humanity, that we do well to cultivate and display more widely.
RN: I have two questions here: The first: The opening scene of “Ife-Iyoku” certainly reinforces that sense of collective responsibility and the community, in its depiction of a group hunt in which the most important element is cooperative action. The “protagonist” Morako – and I use this term “protagonist” loosely, as really this does feel more like a story about a group than a story about one person -- is a lero or “feeler”. Later in the story we see that this ability makes him much more vulnerable, in a sense. That vulnerability isn’t normally a masculine trait, in our highly prescriptive society (though I hope those stereotypes are eroding.) Talk a little about gender roles in the world of “Ife-Iyoku” and how you envision them in your work in general?
ODE: Our world today is heavily pervaded by gender inequality, and fixed gender roles based on our perceptions of gender. Toxic masculinity has demanded exaggerated displays of strength from men while portraying any show of emotional sensitivity as weak or womanly. The two, weakness and visible display of emotion, being even considered synonymous by misogynistic society. Well, Ife-Iyoku is a world of the near future, one in which these same problems exist. In fact, some of them are exacerbated by the situation and circumstances they find themselves in. Even in our world today men have relegated women to reproduction, assigning them roles of procreation and saddling them with the continuity of the human race. In a society that believes its extinction is imminent, there is an unfortunately high level of pressure on women in that society to procreate and this is shown in several ways in the story. It is of course, not ideal. The story is merely a tool to show the harm these outdated ideals can cause and the ruination it can rain on a society. The very thing they fear, extinction, their fearful actions lead them to. Like the trope of encountering your destiny on the road you take to escape it. A lot more of this appears in the Ife-Iyoku novella. I will make a slight confession. This story is inspired by the society I live in, in Nigeria. From being hemmed in, in corrupt, damaged environs, to the misogyny that exists in every layer of our society, to the desperate desire of some to escape the trap of their society, to the fight to not just live, but have a life, by others. The story Ife-Iyoku is a warning of my society, to my society, of the dangers inherent in the path we are heading down. Sci-fi is supposed to predict the future, after all. Or prevent it. And that future isn't always one of high technological advancement. Sometimes it's this, impending destruction if we do not turn from our path. Not to be a prophet of doom, but I do believe this needs to be said.
RN: What a brilliant quote: “Sci-fi is supposed to predict the future, after all. Or prevent it.” I love that. I feel like one of the highly underappreciated elements of SF is its “interventionist” quality – the way in which, by calling into question and commenting from a differing distance on contemporary society, it might light a path to a better world.
Here is my second question: As you said above, “what is a utopia for one isn’t always one for all or others.” Some would say that a focus on the collective over the individual is of detriment to individuals – especially to individuals who do not fit into their ‘proper’ places in society. How would you respond to that?
ODE: The idea that that focus on the collective erases the individual is somewhat simplistic and incorrect. Focus on the collective embraces rather than erases. Society, for example, is further broken into family units. This fact does not erode the family unit. In the same way, the collective is made up of and enhanced by the individual. Collective thinking does not need to erode individuality: rather, it can recognize and embrace it, if done well. Like I said before, it is thinking of things on a surface level that leads to the idea that the collective and the individual are mutually exclusive or at loggerheads. The search or desire for easy or simple solutions can also be the cause of this. And that is what I try to explore in my work. Helping us understand that there are no easy answers and reaching for utopia will involve more than the most obvious and the first answers that come to mind.
RN: I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that this collective / individual binary is false. As I stated in an earlier question, I believe the entire Cartesian sense of individuality is false: Our ability to communicate is collective – it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. Our lives are embedded in the collective. And adding to that thought, I think that our ability to make change is reliant upon our concrete connections to the collective in which we exist. It’s precisely that connectedness to community that gives us relevance.
This is something that the ancient Greeks understood, but that in some ways the West appears to have forgotten. For the Greeks the ‘polis’ is not the city as we think of it today, the physical place, but rather the collectivity of individuals who compose the ‘polis.’ When Herodotus speaks of Athens being evacuated in the face of the Persian onslaught, he is not saying that the city was emptied out – he is saying that the city moved its location, leaving their houses and temples behind.
Aristotle’s often quoted but little understood statement approximated as “Man is a political animal” really might be better translated as “Man is of the city.” The human is a part of the ‘polis’ – the community. Human activity in isolation is meaningless activity. So, rather than being mutually exclusive, we could say that it is precisely the collective which gives the individual meaning, and the individuals of the collective which, taken as aggregate, give the collective meaning. They emerge, and they succeed or fail, only together. Our modern, “Western” sense of individuality is a betrayal of the original Greek sense in which it was meant.
Enlarging and enriching our sense of community appears to me to be the primary task before us as a species, and understanding our interconnectedness is the work we must do to succeed in that task. Speaking of success or failure – I think that has been an amazing conversation, and I am grateful to you for your time and effort, and for the contribution that “Ife-Iyoku” makes to our collective understanding, and to my understanding as an individual.
ODE: Well, thanks for chatting with me Ray. It's been a pleasure having these conversations with you, getting to explore all these parts of my writing and find out what truths they might point at and answers they might lead to. Patrick Rothfuss did write in The Wise Man's Fear that “All the truth in the world is held in stories.” Perhaps there is something to that. And our stories are truth wormholes. And if we keep exploring these other worlds, who knows? They might lead us to answers we can use here in our own. Thanks again for having me.