Interview by Acep Hale.
My dear unknown friend,
As I told you in my review of Nuzo Onoh’s stunning collection Unhallowed Graves, I stumbled upon her writing by chance and quickly became enraptured. The etymology of the words I would usually fall upon to describe my experience with her work would be telling. Enraptured, enthralled, enchanted; all have their roots in encounters with a world other than our own.
I’m sure we have all heard several times over the horrors of meeting one’s idols. Happily I can say this has not held true. Down the line the people involved in our corner of the world have proven the exact opposite. Ms. Onoh was more compelling than I could have foreseen. During the course of this interview our out of band communication grew and I am now blessed to call Ms. Onoh a true friend. Anyone familiar with the life of Lovecraft, this very website’s namesake, would not be surprised at this turn of events.
Le: Ms. Onoh, first of all I want to thank you profusely for agreeing to take the time out of your schedule to do this interview. In reading other interviews with you it quickly becomes apparent you lead a very busy life. When I wrote the review of Unhallowed Graves for Lovecraft eZine I deliberately left out the one section I have always loved to include, my recommendation for music to listen to while reading the book in question. This betrays the fact I’ve been secretly hoping I’d have the chance to interview you since day one. I’ve read that you are a musician who plays guitar and piano so I’m curious, what would you recommend to your readers as a soundtrack to accompany their reading of Unhallowed Graves?
Onoh: Thanks Acep for this interview. I do love my music and usually have a playlist I listen to when writing each book. I wouldn’t recommend any of them to my readers as they’re usually calming songs that wash away the darkness of the horror world I enter when writing. Reading is a different experience to writing so I’d like my reader to read each story in Unhallowed Graves with a different song. So, here goes…
“The Unclean” – The Spanish Train by Chris De Burgh. This song goes to the soul of my story. We see the devil and God playing poker for the soul of a dead man and the devil wins by cheating. My protagonist in The Unclean, makes a deal with the devil that sends her soul right into that macabre Spanish Train of the dead, headed all the way to Hades.
“(Oja-ale) – Night Market” – Come With Me – Tania Maria. I’d like my readers to listen to the lyrics of this song and read the sinister into the apparently harmless lyrics as they read this story. At the end of the day, the greedy ghouls that run the night market of the dead want their victims to come with them, because their business will definitely make the ghouls smile.
“Our Bones Shall Rise Again” – Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel. This is a song for soldiers, warriors. My protagonists are like warriors, powerful witch doctors that use their juju to protect their community. Not only do the men go down together, drowning in a collective act of mass suicide, but the father and son also go down together in their attempt to bring home the souls of the drowned clansmen.
Le: Ms. Onoh, I do not want to downplay the power and grace of your writing in any way, shape or form, yet one of the primary reasons I wished to interview you, even beyond the spectacular stories within Unhallowed Graves, was as soon as I finished reading the first story, “The Unclean”, I googled your name to see what information was available about you. The first thing I found was your interview with Words of Colour wherein you spoke of living through the Biafran War, obtaining your law degree from Warwick University, and then returning to Warwick to receive your MA in creative writing. You’ve also established Cannan-Star Publishing to release your works and the works of others. I came up through the punk rock DIY movement and this bio made me sit up and say, “This woman is the Rosie the Riveter of DIY!” This is an admittedly brief encapsulation of what I’ve gleaned from two previous interviews with you, would you please provide our readers with a brief overview of your life? I will not even attempt to hide my bias, I find this highly inspiring.
Onoh: You flatter me, thanks. Wikipedia tells me that “Rosie the Riveter” is an American cultural icon, since she’s not a personage we’re familiar with here in the UK. I’m truly flattered to be compared to such an exemplary female icon, a Jill of all trades and mistress of all. Sadly, while I’ve done almost every job under the universe from Care-worker to Avon Lady, Children’s TV programme producer/presenter to traveling Double-glazing sales woman, I can’t claim to have mastered any of those trades like our indefatigable Rosie. All I know is that I’ll fight fiercely for my independence and my passion for writing. I’ll do any job that gives me the freedom to write, no matter how low paid it is. Savings? Non-existent. I pour everything I earn into my writing and promoting African Horror to a wider audience. That’s my dream, my goal, to see African Horror take its rightful place as a bona-fide literary genre rather than a negative portrayal of the continent, as is presently the case. So, when mainstream publishers and literary agents couldn’t see the commercial value of my work, I realized that I had to DIY everything myself. No one taught me how to become a publisher. I self-taught myself. Promoting my books is still something I struggle with but I’m learning everyday. In the meantime, I pay professional publicists to do the job for me till hopefully, I reach the stage where I can go solo. My upcoming book, The Sleepless, due out on 28th June 2016, is dedicated to so many people, including the American, Irish and British public, whose generosity to Biafra ensured that I survived that war which claimed the lives of over one million Biafran children. It is another African Horror book of vengeful ghosts and hauntings, set amidst the bloody carnage of the Biafran war, featuring a child protagonist. That child’s experiences were mainly written from a place of truth. She is my younger self, seeing the war through the same eyes and viewpoint as I did. War stories and conflicts are often written from an adult’s perspective. The children’s voices are never heard. The Sleepless gives voice to a child refugee, grappling with both the horrors of a baffling war and the supernatural terrors from beyond the graves. I think any child that lives through a bloody civil war, develops an inner strength that kills fear of failure. Nothing is impossible. As I quoted in one of my stories, “There’s nothing the eyes will see that will make them cry blood-tears”. Otherwise, I am a strong believer in the Law of Attraction, which states that whatever we think about, believe, speak, visualize, expect and act upon shall become our reality. I think that belief brought you into my world to help spread African Horror.
Le: I think that’s part of the beauty of our modern age. I’m reminded of a recent article I read in The Guardian. Ewen MacAskill while reviewing five lectures Nietzsche presented at the Basel city museum in 1872 puts forward the argument that popular culture, with movies such as Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, the television shows The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Man in the High Castle, is doing a more effective job with presenting philosophical issues and shaping culture than higher educational institutions which are entangled in bureaucracy and enmeshed in self-censorship. You stories within Unhallowed Graves and then The Reluctant Dead present a living mythology that has taken residence within my head more effectively than any course on comparative religion or dry textbook of anthropology. You talk frequently in your interviews of African Horror, would you please tell us how you feel African Horror stands apart from the Western European genre of horror and how it overlaps?
Onoh: One of the great horror writers of the early 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft, described horror in these words – “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Horror as we know, is designed to induce feelings of terror or repulsion in its reader and can be either supernatural or non-supernatural in its context. Every culture has its own unique horror genre which has grown from its particular beliefs, practices, religions and traditions. One thing they all appear to have in common however, is a belief in the afterlife and ghosts, evil and demonic powers, as well as a host of supernatural entities, ranging from vampires, werewolves, mummies, Joro-Gumo spider woman, zombies, banshees, Mammiwater … the list goes on, with each culture having its own monsters. This is something that African horror shares in common with most other cultures.
In Africa, we have a proliferation of tribes (over 3000 tribes and counting), each, boasting a treasure-chest of supernatural entities, which very few cultures, not even the Japanese, can rival in their sheer volume and malevolence. Remember this is the oldest culture on earth, the cradle of mankind, with centuries upon centuries to develop its horror arsenal. African horror has grown mainly from folklore, moonlight stories told over centuries by parents and the elderly, as both a form of discipline/caution for the unruly young, as well as a means of preserving history. It has also been used as a form of social control by the local chiefs or witchdoctors. This probably leans towards Ewen MacAskill’s argument about the role played by popular culture in shaping our thought and individual character. Unlike Western horror which adopts both the supernatural and non-supernatural horror elements such as gore and slasher tales, loaded with violence and blood, extra-terrestrials and technological demons from computers/TVs, evil barbers and sadistic doctors, African horror is mainly focused on the supernatural … ghosts, hauntings, supernatural possessions, manifestations, dream-invasions, plus a myriad of supernatural entities like mammiwater, nightflyers, witches, evil animals, malevolent rivers and trees, born-to-die children (ogbanje, Abiku), powerful demigods and goddesses, etc. It is a highly superstitious culture which makes it the perfect breeding ground for supernatural horror.
As we all know, true horror requires a strong dose of superstition to thrive. Once upon a time, the western populations were held sway to superstitious beliefs, before the advances in civilization, science and Christianity slowly weaned them of it, leaving just the barest of superstitions in existence. So, Western horror has become more homogeneous, more of the same, while African horror remains heterogeneous, leaving ample room for the terrifying and unexpected. This is why its neglect by writers, as well as its invisibility to the wider horror audience, is indeed a literary tragedy which I’m trying to redress with my African Horror ghost stories.
Le: You speaking on horror being used as a form of social control leads me directly into “The Unclean”, your first story in Unhallowed Graves. I’m curious as to what the seed or genesis of this story was. It’s such a masterful blend of chilling realism with the very same supernatural elements you just enumerated in the previous answer I’ve been curious since I first read it, how did this story begin to take shape?
Onoh: “The Unclean” was inspired by a true event. It happened to a friend of my mum’s. She was made to drink Corpse Water (the water used in washing a corpse, regardless of state of decomposition) and forced to spend 3 nights in a deep forest with her husband’s corpse to prove she was not involved in his death through witchcraft, juju or poisoning. Her hair was also shaved off, another common abuse of widows in most parts of Africa which goes under the name of custom and tradition. The state of widowhood is one of the most wretched conditions a woman can find herself in most parts of the world and the African widow has more than her fair share of misery, discrimination and abuse. With the exception of Ghana, most African cultures are quite misogynistic and male children are more valued than females. I recall my late father, a British trained solicitor, telling me that a woman has no name, no religion, no nationality and no honour except that given her by her husband. This was when I informed him I was getting a divorce from one of my husbands. “The Unclean” was my way of tackling these vile practices within a horror context, using the supernatural elements of “The Tree of Truth” to heighten the terror.
Le: Wow. That brings me back to why “The Unclean” enraptured me so fully. The story, stripped of supernatural elements, is horrifying in and of itself. I don’t wish to reveal too much for those who have yet to read the story yet when we do reach “The Tree of Truth” how did you go about working with and blending African mythology into that story? I’ve read in other interviews you’ve grown up with stories being told and being scared yourself so I’m wondering if this was just a natural untangling as it were or if you deliberately plotted what you wished to accomplish.
Onoh: The Tree of Life was inspired by a real tree that was in my village, Ngwo. We had this tree, a massive towering tree right in the middle of the market square. The snake deity of my village, Asata, was supposed to reside in that tree. Hundreds of bats made the tree their home and flew into homes at will. I can’t remember a night go by without having a bat or several fly in and out of our bedrooms. That tree was revered by the villagers and the servants of the shrine, shriveled old ladies, always had cooked foods and palmwine delivered to its base on a daily basis. I remember my horror when I heard the tree had been felled by the new breed of Pentecostal church zealots who saw it as a pagan symbol. It is believed that the soul of our village died with that tree and I can well believe it. Going back to the village a couple of years ago and seeing the commercial soulless land of what was once a thriving and welcoming community, was heart breaking. So, when I wrote my story, it was easy for me to recall that tree and resurrect it in all its terrifying majesty. I have always loved trees and feel a special affinity with them. I can sense goodness, malevolence, pride, shyness, friskiness and various traits in trees. It’s funny, but I never see a tree without automatically knowing it’s male, female, child, or adult. I hope through my stories, my readers will come to see trees with a different perspective and value them as one of the oldest inhabitants of this planet we share with them.
Le: I want to talk about “Night Market (Oja-ale)” and “Our Bones Shall Rise Again” but first a slight digression if you don’t mind. In Western culture we have supposedly replaced our two world system of creator and the world he created with a one world system of a material world which can grasped by our senses alone. Yet we in the West still maintain traces of our old world duality, we speak of the mental versus the physical, we place our systems of governance, commerce, and work into hierarchical models, when we talk of succeeding we talk of accession for just a few examples. In our tales of the supernatural we tend to unconsciously follow these same patterns of above and below, both being intrusions into our world from other realms. Yet in your stories I do not get this feeling. For lack of a better word the supernatural elements in your stories feel ‘horizontal’ or ‘lateral’, they exist alongside the characters, not as intrusions into their reality. Is this a facet of your writing that you deliberately set out to convey or is this part and parcel of African Horror?
Onoh: Thanks for noticing this aspect of my writing. Africans, especially Igbos, have a close relationship with death. While Christianity focuses on how piously people live as a route to obtaining grace in the afterlife, core African culture focuses on how one dies and how one has served their ancestors. So, you could be an absolute “sinner” but die a good death without being struck down by lightning etc. As long as your family gives you the right burial rites, you are guaranteed a place amongst the ancestors, who continue to play an important role with the living. The ancestors influence the daily lives of the living, visiting them in dreams, sending omens and reincarnating back into the family. The living and the dead practically live hand-to-hand, with many people buried right inside the family living room and in the front or back gardens. There’s no “them” and “us”. They are always with us. We name our children after the ancestors to ensure they’re never forgotten. I was named Nuzo after my great grandmother and grew up being called “Mama” by my great uncles and other elders in the family. I’m not the only Nuzo. Every branch of the family has a Nuzo and we are all reincarnates of the original Nuzo. I didn’t find it odd that I was mother to my great uncles. It just was. I grew up pouring palm wine into the ivory funnel that protruded from my great-grandfather’s grave when we had the monthly family thanksgiving ceremonies. I used to peer into the dark funnel, hoping to see my great grandfather’s open mouth guzzling the palm wine. I never did though I allowed my imagination to run riot. At those occasions, we would thank him for protecting us, pray for his continuous protection and goats would be slaughtered, cooked and everyone in the family would eat and drink and the children would play in the sandy grounds while the adults talked about whatever adults talked about. Those were wonderful days, which sadly, no longer exist. The elders have died out and we the younger ones are in diaspora. There’s no one left to revere the ancestors but thankfully, the practice of burying our dead within the family compound still exists to date. I believe that as long as we continue to keep our dead with us, we shall never lose our bond with them and shall continue living in that parallel existence you mentioned.
Le: I think the hardest part of my job is conveying just enough information to let readers know how impressed I am by a writer’s creation without relating each step of the journey and thus destroying the accompanying sense of discovery for them when they read the work themselves When I reached the section of Unhallowed Graves that dealt with “Night Market (Oja-ale)” I wrote, “This story may be the most damning indictment of trade I’ve read, it approaches myth in its effectiveness.” Given that we’ve already established you are a very considered writer, with a story this beautifully layered, where the interweaving of myth, character, and message work so well together, was there a graphical sketching out beforehand of how you wished this story to go?
Onoh: Sadly, I’m one of those writers that struggle to map out my stories. For some reason, my characters tend to have a mind of their own and all I need is an idea and I just start typing. The next thing I know, new characters insinuate themselves into my story, others go down some unexpected dark lane and weird things happen. Night Market (Oja-ale) is one of those stories that came from an idea. A dear friend of mine, an English ex-diplomat, told me about a night market somewhere in Nigeria, which people couldn’t visit once the sun went down. He was pretty amused at the superstitious drivel of the locals and we had a good laugh about it. But the idea had lodged itself in my mind. He became the inspiration for “Night Market (Oja-ale)” to date, the only one of my stories to have a white protagonist. I sat down and began writing and the result was what you read and thankfully liked!
Le: Miss Onoh, thank you for such an absolutely fascinating interview. As I said before I’ve never had an interview where the answers chilled me as much as the writer’s short stories. What can we look forward to seeing from you in 2016? Where can our readers keep up with your continuing exploits?
Onoh: Thanks for giving me this great opportunity to discuss African Horror and I hope your readers would continue to read such works in future. My latest book, The Sleepless, will be published on 28th June 2016. This is the date I publish all my African Horror books, so my fans know when to expect a new chiller from our mysterious continent. The Sleepless is a novel about ghostly vengeance by murdered children and is now available for pre-orders in Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Kindle and other good retailers. I am hoping my readers will find it as terrifyingly entertaining as my other books and will spread the word about this new and exciting horror sub-genre, African Horror.
Words cannot express how grateful I am to Nuzo Onoh for taking the time out of her schedule to talk to us. I urge all of you to check out her collections The Reluctant Dead, Unhallowed Graves, and The Sleepless. You can hear Nuzo Onoh and Veronique Edwards sharing tales on BBC’s The Fifth Floor.