Nuzo Onoh is the author of The Reluctant Dead (Canaan-Star, 2014), a well-received debut collection of ghost stories. This year, she followed that effort with Unhallowed Graves, three novellas spawned in the depths of darkness solely to haunt your sleep. Just in case you haven’t stumbled upon her works currently touting a warm reception in the mainstream horror fiction community, you should read her. These are compelling stories that offer a friendly handshake…to start. As soon as they get you close, they grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you flailing and screaming into darkness where the barrage of horror escalates in tightly knit paragraphs. You would figure that in horror fiction of this sort, lines would be clearly defined and Good would have its place on a spot-lit throne while Evil roiled in its putrid space. Think again. Onoh smashes conventions with her fiction founded on cultural motifs very immediate to the average African even as she deploys characters so carefully crafted, anyone anywhere can easily recognise them. A British writer of Nigerian roots, Onoh obtained her law degree and a Masters in Writing from the University of Warwick, England. She runs Canaan-Star, a publishing outfit. She spoke with Sola Osofisan.
Sola Osofisan: You must be giddy with excitement over the things you write. It’s like you’re living in a borderless playroom full of imaginary things, all brought into existence by you. Are you having a blast?
Nuzo Onoh: Each time an idea for a new story takes root in my head, everything else pales into insignificance until that story is birthed in black and white. Sure, life’s little ups and downs can get in the way of writing at times but nothing beats the pure high of creating fiction.
Sola Osofisan: A night market full of silent faceless entities… “Oja Ale” makes the skin crawl. I grew up aware of the real night markets in Lagos and much of western Nigeria. Mysterious stories abound about these marketplaces, but they are a convenience nonetheless, places you stop by to do a last minute shopping after a too-long day at work. I suspect many readers of your collection, Unhallowed Graves, will steer clear of those places after reading your scary story… When horror fiction writers turn the familiar unfamiliar, they traumatize!
Nuzo Onoh: For me, the beauty of horror lies in creating pure terror out of the mundane, the familiar and the innocent. That’s what’s always made Stephen King’s stories brilliant for me – his ability to weave insidious terror out of the ordinary; Cujo, an ordinary dog turned rabid, Insomnia, a common condition that afflicts most of the human population…the list is endless. I heard about the night market from a friend who had no idea why it was a no-go area. I was intrigued by the urban legend and decided to create my own vision of what takes place in a night market shrouded in mystery. It will be a thrill for me if people who read my stories are frightened enough to think twice before venturing into one. It means I have succeeded in writing a good horror story.
Sola Osofisan: You’ve cited Stephen King as one of your influences. In my dog-eared copy of Danse Macabre, King writes of that specific moment in horror stories when the fabric of normality and sanity begin to part ways for the unspeakable to leak through… As in Alan at night in your story “Night Market” saying to a total stranger in the middle of nowhere, “would you like a lift?” And the reader is screaming, “are you crazy!?” What quickly follows is a deluge of mind-bending, yet familiar, otherness. Do you look forward to that moment too – when things begin to get weird? You write it so painstakingly in your books…
Nuzo Onoh: Dear Lord, yes! In my story, The Follower, (The Reluctant Dead – Canaan-star publishing, 2014) I recall the thrill I felt when I wrote about the moment NEPA cut off the power supply and the morgue suddenly turned hostile and terrifying to the skeptical young chap doing his first night shift at the morgue. It was sometime past midnight, the usual time I write my stories and I remember feeling a sense of unease when typing the scene in the chilly morgue with the white shrouded corpses in their silent, yet, watchful repose. That unease I experienced made me realise I was on the right path. I think every writer of horror experiences that special thrill of self-inflicted terror.
Sola Osofisan: You do your writing at night? Is that because it is distraction free or for some other ominous “horror-related” reason?
Nuzo Onoh: There’s no special reason except that I’ve always been an insomniac and find that my brain functions best at night plus horror flows easier in the twilight hours.
Sola Osofisan: I love the concept of “The Follower” in The Reluctant Dead. Being cautioned to knock three times before entering a morgue and having to ask permission before touching a corpse sound like superstition or something from one of those scary stories we heard as children. But it is also incredibly believable, especially in Nigeria where many denizens of the morgue are unnamed, unclaimed and have ugly stories to tell. Is there a backstory to how that story came together for you?
Nuzo Onoh: I have an older cousin who used to work as a mortuary attendant in Enugu when I was a child. He told me about the strange practices amongst the morgue attendants. He used to regale me with stories about the morgue as I would pester him with questions about the morgue. My fascination with death and the supernatural was a well-known fact in the family. I used to recount my dreams about ghosts and dead people with gusto to my family and till date, there’s rarely a night I don’t dream of a ghost/ghosts or a haunting experience. “The Follower” was therefore my idea of what could be the consequences of disobeying those unwritten morgue rules.
Sola Osofisan: History is replete with stories such as that of “Igbo Landing” begging for new life to be breathed into them – something you took a stab at in “Our Bones Shall Rise Again” from the Unhallowed Graves collection. You reinvented it as the tale of ghost returnees to the Motherland… While reading that piece, I had a feeling that it was an unusually difficult story to write. Was that just my imagination?
Nuzo Onoh: It wasn’t your imagination. The tragedy of Igbo Landing is one that still has a deep emotional impact on me till date. The late Catherine Acholonu worked tirelessly to bring a sense of closure to the restless spirits of the tragedy through her project, The Ebo/Igbo Landing Project and till date, people like Marquetta L. Goodwine, the Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in The United States and author of The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture, have been trying to get the site of Igbo Landing memorialized. My story, “Our Bones Shall Rise Again” is my own humble contribution to this haunting tragedy and my way of giving myself some form of closure while at the same time, writing a horror story that would grip the interest of my readers.
Sola Osofisan: Dr. Acholonu is passed? It is embarrassing to admit that I didn’t know that. I remember the energy she brought to literary discourse. She brought the name Olaudah Equiano to feisty mainstream attention in Nigeria. Did you know her personally?
Nuzo Onoh: No, I didn’t know Dr. Acholonu personally even though she was from my tribe. She was a truly remarkable person, a true African and a great inspiration.
Sola Osofisan: How critical are your instincts to you as a writer of horror fiction? Fear is innate, wild, and animal. It rises appropriately in response to stimuli when we read horror stories. Instincts help us respond to the fear, but in birthing what scares, in mixing and matching to create the unimaginable, do your instincts also come into play?
Nuzo Onoh: I can honestly say that instinct plays little or no role whatsoever in my writing. Once the idea or the framework of a story comes to mind, I just start writing it down, wherever I am, be it in a parked car, in the park, in a shop, even in hospital. I’m never without my little notepads where I scribble dialogues, scenes, ideas…anything that will build the story. Once I sit in front of my laptop, my fingers work in conjunction with my mind to weave the stories along the lines they want. I don’t even bother writing story plans as inevitably, the final product never follows my original plan. I’ve learnt that in the end, stories write themselves and characters decide exactly how they want to be portrayed. My instincts, should they arise, would likely have no impact on the final product.
Sola Osofisan: You’re relentless in the suffering you inflict on some of your characters. Just when I’m thinking the poor woman’s agony is about to end in “The Unclean”, you pile it on again and unleash a whole new level of pain. It brought to mind this question of the purpose of horror fiction… What does scaring the wits out of a reader do for you as a writer of the macabre?
Nuzo Onoh: What would be the point of writing horror if not for the thrill of scaring your readers witless? Pure bliss!
Sola Osofisan: I’d like to tie that to a clichéd question you’re going to get eventually (cue the evil laughter here): Everyday life in Nigeria consists of so much that is already horrifying: the unnecessary road kill; the mob and its spontaneous and mindless “jungle justice” often of the innocent or misunderstood; exploding pipelines and burning bodies in the Niger Delta; the drunken unhinged Policeman who wields a loaded gun… Why do you make up horror stories in a world that’s already so messed up by very real horror?
Nuzo Onoh: You’re not the first to ask me this question and I’ll give you the same answer I always give. Everyone, regardless of their peculiar personal or national circumstances, has the right to escapism, which is what fiction is. Africans are no different. Every country has its own horror culture. One might as well tell the citizens of America not to read horror because they have enough horror with their history of gun violence, racial unrest and gang warfare. Here in the UK, we might also tell the good British citizens to burn all horror books because of the prevalence of child abuse and stabbings. India, with its horror culture of gang rapes on women and violent caste systems should also be barred from reading or enjoying horror. The point of all these? Basically, that horror is simply another literary genre like Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, Drama, etc. Everyone has the right to find their route of literary escapism via whatever genre tickles their fancy. If horror does it for them, then so be it. I think I touched on this issue in a blog I recently wrote for Female First.
Sola Osofisan: Okay, this is a two-pronged question that’s going to put you on the spot. I expect you’ll eventually be accused by the critics of perpetuating stereotypes of the superstitious African. Maybe that has happened already. Nollywood got a lot of flak for that and has been doing quite a bit of house-cleaning. What would you say in response to such an accusation – that you write about spirits and juju and evil when Africa is scrambling to portray a side that is increasingly modern and technological to the rest of the world? And while at it, tell us how you writing so lovingly about our darker side is any better than what some in the Western media do by presenting Africa as a continent of diseases, war, poverty, famine and the primitive?
Nuzo Onoh: The first process of enslavement begins with the systematic stripping or demonization of everything that validates a man – his name, his language, his religion, his culture, his history and eventually, his nationality. As the products of colonisation, we Africans saw our names, our religions, our culture and our beliefs demonized by our colonial overlords as barbaric, pagan and uncivilized.
While embracing the positives of colonization, I aim in my stories to reclaim some of our lost African values, embrace them with pride and celebrate them without apologies or shame. Our beliefs are part and parcel of what we are, like it or not. They were handed down to us by our forefathers long before the first white feet stepped on African soil. Our histories have been rewritten for us by our colonial masters but one thing that remains true, that tells us the truth of who we are, is our culture, those old stories, practices, superstitions, beliefs and norms. The imposed religions of Christianity and Islam, as well as Western civilization may vilify these ancient beliefs and culture but at the end of the day, their righteous scorn does little to detract from the validity and truth of a culture that precedes the dawn of modern civilization. Why should the Japanese practice of ancestor worship be accepted as a civilized practice while the same in Africa is demonized as paganism? What is the difference between the Psychic in the West and the Witchdoctor in Africa? The popular media is quick to ascribe the term “African Horror” to any negative condition of the continent rather than a bona fide literary genre as is the case in other continents. My books are nothing but a proud validation of who we were, who we are and who we will always be regardless of whatever views the Western media adopt. To say we Africans should deny, denigrate and destroy our culture to fit into the brand new globalized world, is an apologist’s stance. That is why I continue to revere the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, my earliest literary icon. He was true to his culture and roots despite being vilified by the then new crop of post-colonial intellectuals for degrading the African with his writing. Today his books are considered modern African classics, translated in several languages.
Sola Osofisan: Igbo traditions and culture form the bedrock of several of your stories, especially the intricately woven pieces set in the village. But you live far away from Nigeria. Where does your deep knowledge of village life come from? And what sustains it? How do you keep distance from diluting your memory?
Nuzo Onoh: As a child growing up during the Nigerian/Biafran civil war, I experienced village life in multiple villages with different practices, superstitions and settings. After the war, we lived in my grandfather’s stone-brick house in my village, Ngwo, set above the notorious Milliken Hill, which I mention in some of my stories. Till date, I’m always surprised by the wealth of memories I’ve retained from those early years. These memories, coupled with stories my mother and late uncle Sabastian told me as a child, are my writing inspirations. However, these days, I also seek information on traditional customs from the extended family still residing in our village.
Sola Osofisan: The world is changing rapidly and village life anywhere is mostly no longer what it used to be. I’m sure you’re glad to see change in some aspects, but are there elements of Igbo village life that you wish would remain unchanged?
Nuzo Onoh: Certainly. The celebration of old village festivals which the proliferation of Pentecostal churches have ruined, is one aspect of village life I dearly miss. In my village, we used to have a masquerade celebration called ODO Masquerade. It was an annual event of feasting in the village square, dancing, celebrations, visiting relatives, dressing up and week-long merriment. The Christians termed it paganism and as the number of churches in the village grew, so did the festival wane. It was almost made extinct till my brother returned from his studies in the United States and revived it at his sole expense. We were lucky. So many other village customs and festivals have not survived the scourge of Christianity.
Sola Osofisan: You delve into the depths of (in)human nature. How do you keep yourself from thinking the worst of the very real life situations you find yourself in? I mean one could be driving and imagining grisly ways to end up under a trailer, instead of thinking happy thoughts; on a flight, it’s tempting to picture the airplane falling out of the sky. I’m always thinking a snake would crawl up the plumbing into the house and it haunts me… Considering the thoughts you have to let run rampant in your mind, does it get overwhelming? How do you remain sane and keep from ripping your own mind out of your body? Do you compartmentalize?
Nuzo Onoh: Everyone that knows me intimately will tell you that I am a bundle of neurosis. I’m terrified of planes and heights, bridges and overheads, lightning and thunder, snakes and roaches, darkness and robbers, oceans and mountains, hypnosis and (for) my kids’ safety…the list is endless. I think that’s why I enjoy horror. It lets me think and write about horrible things that can happen to other imaginary characters and leaves scant time to dwell on my own terrors. Even when I lie in bed, all I’m thinking about is the plot, dialogue, lines of a story. When the occasional fear comes, (as it’s bound to do), I adopt the strategy recommended by The Law of Attraction, which states that anything you think about, believe in, visualize, speak about, anticipate and act upon, shall eventually become your reality. I remind myself that by thinking about the fears, I am feeding them energy and bringing them into my experience. Instead, I quickly switch thoughts to nicer things, a handsome stranger, a beach-house in Monaco, a stint on BBC’s “Meet the Author”, Terence Howard…you get the gist. Never fails.
Sola Osofisan: You like Terence Howard? One of the many under-appreciated black actors in Hollywood… He killed it in Hustle and Flow. I’ve seen your actress daughter’s video show reel. She’s got incredible range and depth, very much like Howard…
Nuzo Onoh: Thank you for your kind words about my daughter, Candice. To compare her talent to the brilliant Terrence Howard’s is indeed an honour. Yes, still waiting for an Oscar for Terrence Howard and Lawrence Fishburne. Things can only get better for black entertainers worldwide. Thrilled to hear that the world gets its first black James Bond on audiobook, David Oyelowo. Africa rising.
Sola Osofisan: Can a writer of horror fiction have taboos? Are there things you will not write about?
Nuzo Onoh: Horror is horror, the creation of terror, disquiet, discomfort. Anything that helps in creating fear will be used without a second thought.
Sola Osofisan: You have a way with words. Your style, deep exploration of character and deployment of aesthetics indicate you could easily write for the literary purists too…You know, the folks who snub genre fiction… The book you had published before The Reluctant Dead is unavailable in the market… Was that non-genre fiction? Writers evolve. Are we likely to see more of that in future?
Nuzo Onoh: In my quest for that writer’s utopia, Voice, I wrote and published several books under various pseudonyms, (Alex Stranger-Onoh, Cambridge Onoh) as well as part of anthologies. They were books on any subject that interested me at the time, ranging from fiction to non-fiction. I continued to write till I finally stumbled on the perfect genre that I was at peace with, one that flowed seamlessly and resonated with the innermost core of my being, African Horror.
Sola Osofisan: Your publishing company, Canaan-Star, seems to derive its name from Christendom. Considering the scary stuff you write…are you still a welcome face in church and in the community of Christian friends? No one’s thrown you out for being “demon possessed”? Or you have managed to keep your books and creative thoughts away from them?
Nuzo Onoh: Actually, the name isn’t linked to the Bible but rather the amalgamation of the names of my two beautiful stars, my daughters, Candice and Jija, whose middle name is Ann. So, I merged “Can” (for Candice) “a” (for and) and “an” (for Ann) and came up with Canaan, my two beautiful stars. Needless to say, by now, you’ll have come to the realisation that I am not a Christian or a member of any organized religion. I don’t do churches, although I love visiting church cemeteries to read inscriptions on old gravestones. I also enjoy meditating at the Coventry Cathedral on a weekday when it’s empty and free of excessive visitors. So thankfully, I don’t need to justify my writing to any religious fanatic or judgmental pastor.
Sola Osofisan: Would you encourage upcoming writers ignored routinely by the industry to explore the possibilities of self-publishing? In other words, do you find self-publishing fulfilling, liberating? You’re not bothered by the stigma sometimes attached to it?
Nuzo Onoh: I published an article on self-publishing, titled, 5 Reasons Why Every Writer Should Self-publish. The article expresses my views on Self-publishing, which is definitely self-liberating. Believe it or not, gone are the days of stigma. That’s the freedom that modern advancements have given every writer. In fact, I have published some writers who left traditional publishers for my self-publishing company. That said, it’s still the dream of every writer to get taken on by a big publishing house and I am no exception…unless of course, my own publishing house becomes big enough one glorious day in future to do the job for me.
Sola Osofisan: You speak highly of your editor and friend, Ted Dunphy. Tell us about him. From your experience, how far can the right editor advance one’s writing and publishing career?
Nuzo Onoh: My friend Ted Dunphy is the best thing that came out of my Masters Degree in Writing at Warwick University. From day one, when we started doing class critiques, Ted stood out as one of the few people in class that understood the rudiments of critiquing, objective assessment of the work and not the writer. He was adept at picking up the salient points, identifying writing strengths and weaknesses and coming up with suggestions for improvement. Best of all, he is Irish and understands and appreciates the possibility of the supernatural. As writers, we aren’t always able to pick out errors in our works as we’re too involved in the creation. An objective read by someone that knows what they’re doing, is vital for every writer. It will give the book the final polish it needs to keep readers and potential agents interested. I can honestly say that without the editing works of my friend, Ted, his suggestions for alterations and his ideas on how to drive the stories forward, my books wouldn’t be in the state they are today. I am also happy to announce the publishing of his first book by Canaan-Star Publishing, titled, Rowing Down the World to Auckland. It’s taken me years of nagging to get him to agree to publish his own book. Go Ted!
Sola Osofisan: How is publishing through your company more beneficial to a writer reading this interview than doing it alone using technology already available out there?
Nuzo Onoh: Nothing beats the joy of having total control of your work, albeit promotion without the big budget of the traditional houses can be difficult. I self-published my first book, (A Handbook on Being British by Alex Stranger-Onoh) with a self-publishing company and it was hell trying to get any royalties from them. That experience led me to decide to publish under my own imprint. Canaan-Star Publishing makes publishing easy, stress-free and affordable with our books distributed world-wide. We don’t publish many authors because we want our books to compete favourably with all other good books in the market. Our book covers are personalized by our in-house cover designer and royalties are paid promptly when due. I am proud of the great testimonials from some of our authors and can’t wait for the day that Canaan-Star Publishing will no longer operate as a self-publishing company but a full, independent, no-fee publisher of great books.