Tade Thompson is a writer – his most recent works are the novel Rosewater, the novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne, and the short story The Apologists. He is a 2017 Campbell Award finalist and won the 2016 Golden Tentacle Award at the Kitsches. The Murders of Molly Southbourne, about a woman who spawns murderous clones of herself every time she bleeds, was recently optioned by Welle Entertainment.
You’ve had an interesting upbringing: born in England, raised in Nigeria, and now living in England again. Do you feel that these shifts in culture and environment have helped shape your writing in any particular ways?
Inevitably they would, but I’m too close to the matter to be able to fathom how. When compared with English some of the other languages are more poetic. For example, one of the phrases for death in Yoruba is “S’alaisi” which transliterates to “the person became non-existent”. I find that stimulates more interesting death imagery for me. Perhaps my cultural experiences can lead me to an odd turn of phrase now and again. Each language is laced with its own relevant mythology (for example, the amount of Greek mythology used in English), so I have access to alternative cosmologies, which is great for anyone working in fantastical fiction.
Having lived in a number of countries (not just the ones you mentioned), I have to avoid thinking I can speak authoritatively about them. I can speak of Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, but I won’t deceive myself into thinking I can have opinions that represent these cultures in 2017. I can extrapolate, but that’s the extent of it.
You’re able to speak and write in different languages (English, Yoruba, Igbo, Pidgin). In your experience, how do the rhythms of writing differ from one language to another?
For the record, I can’t write in Igbo. I try, and it’s atrocious. My Igbo friends fillip my nose when I show it to them. There is a greater tendency to use proverbs in Yoruba and Igbo. Even the saying “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart requires some cultural context.
Yoruba is a tonal language, for example, and diacritics are required when writing it (I’m shit at diacritics, by the way). Take the word “oko”, for example. It can mean farm, bush, village, vehicle, hoe, husband, or penis, depending on how you pronounce it. When speaking it, these tones make the language rather musical and pleasing to the ear.
The best thing about pidgin is you can borrow words from other languages.
Having your novella, The Murders of Molly Southbourne, optioned for a movie is big news – did it feel like a breakthrough moment?
Yes, it did feel like a breakthrough. A lot of people did hard work behind the scenes to make it happen. I love the idea of my thoughts being represented in another medium and I’m excited to see how others would interpret Molly Southbourne as a character. Many books get optioned and never made, of course, but I’m hopeful.
It’s a great time for African SFF writers at the minute. Does it feel like there’s a growing appetite for African perspectives in SF and Fantasy? And is this helping to change preconceptions of what African fiction should be?
I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, yes, African perspectives have been mostly invisible in SFF, even though African SFF goes back to pre-WWII.
It is possible that having strip-mined Norse (or cod-Norse) mythology, Western appetites need something new, like African or Asian fantastical fiction. This perhaps opens opportunities for some African writers, but to me it’s a trap similar to what writers of general fiction find themselves entangled in. There’s a risk of repeating a particular aesthetic, a kind of literary perseveration that only serves marketing departments and keeps the door shut on some truly original writers.
I’m ambivalent about categorisation. Yes, it can help African readers find African fiction. But it can also create a literary ghetto that limits the ascension of the African writer.
For now, I am unconvinced that this will change preconceptions of African fiction. Most of the gatekeepers of “African Fiction” are not African. You end up with a Western idea of what African fiction should be, a Western authenticity with shades of exoticisation, and I don’t think that’s okay. If the Caine Prize rewards a particular kind of fiction with life-changing cash, literature skews towards what writers think the judges want.
That’s why I have mixed feelings. I don’t like what is, but I don’t see how else it can be done for the time being. When we started discussing the African Science Fiction Society, we got hung up on the question “Who is an African?”, for example. These constructs have questionable ontology when scrutinised.
To answer your question, the growing appetite, to me, seems to be an increasing recognition of the African as a human being with a valid cultural context. Which is kind of sad, if you think about how long it’s taken. If it leads to more African writers attaining success, so be it.
I would always prefer to be a writer as opposed to an African writer. Prefixes should not be required unless they are code for something else, which is a whole different discussion.
You wrote a great blog post on your website, called A Letter To My Younger Self About Writing and Publishing. If you could travel back in time and change one thing from your writing career, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change a thing. I picked up each lesson at the appropriate time, especially when I made mistakes. Yes, working with Rosarium Books was a mistake because I led with my heart due to their pro-minority rhetoric, but I would not prevent myself from doing it again because it was the right thing to do at the time. At the time of writing this, I still haven’t been paid anything for my novel Making Wolf. I did get prize money from winning the Golden Tentacle Award, but that’s it. I have a collection of empty promises and ultimately, I said any payment should go to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, but even that hasn’t been done. These are formative experiences, and one hopes they lead to wisdom.
What is the single most important piece of advice you received starting out as a writer?
From Holly Lisle (I think): No matter what romantic notions you have about being a writer, don’t quit your day job until your royalties (after tax) equal or exceed your current paycheck.
You seem to be looking both back and forward in your work; for example, your first novel, Making Wolf, was set in an alternate history version of Nigeria, with the likes of your Science Fiction alien invasion novel, Rosewater, at the other end of the scale. How much does one inform the other?
They don’t, although what I said earlier is relevant. I can only represent a version of Nigeria that is gone, and that leaves me with two options: a period piece or an imagined future Nigeria. I don’t only write about Nigeria, though. The Murders of Molly Southbourne has nothing to do with Nigeria (except that the kernel of the backstory came from conversations with old Cold Warriors who fought the proxy wars in Africa).
You’re also a psychiatrist. Does that help when it comes to creating complex and believable characters?
I’d like to think so, but it’s complicated. I can’t use any material from work due to confidentiality. It creates a burden because I have to check and double-check that what I think is a fresh take on a character is not, in fact, a constellation of traits from a real person that I have seen at work. My colleagues imagine I write psychological thrillers, but that would be too risky for me, although I might try this in the future.