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Dayo Ntwari is one of the five writers shortlisted for the 2015 Writivism Short Story Prize. A Rwandan Nigerian, Dayo is a big fan of fantasy and science fiction as reflected in his shortlisted story; Devil’s Village. Here, he shares with Praxis his enthusiasm for African science fiction, his discontentment with the Nigerian government and his gratitude to Writivism. Read:
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This maybe a bit late, but congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2015 Writivism Short Story prize.
Thank you very much.
Have you been shortlisted for any literary prize before Writivism?
The Writivism 2015 Short Story Prize is the first time I got a story of mine, shortlisted. It’s mind-blowing. As a matter of fact, I recently got longlisted for the Huza Press 2015 Rwanda Short Story Anthology. This is all very exciting!
Congratulations, Dayo! Would you say your being on the Writivism shortlist has boosted your confidence as a writer?
Being shortlisted by Writivism is not the only thing that has boosted my confidence. Interacting with other writers and participants at the recently concluded Writivism 2015 Festival, played a major part in this, too. Getting all that feedback from “random strangers”, who approached me to tell me they read and liked my story, has been incredible. Before Writivism, I had never had any of my writing put up for public consumption; at least not since secondary school, when I contributed a couple of stories for the school paper.
My mum and my girlfriend had been the only people who got to read my stories. And while their feedback has always been positive, one tends to expect only kind words from their loved ones. In fact, it was my girlfriend who found out about the Writivism Festival and their Short Story Prize, and insisted I submit a story. And look where it got me.
Devil’s Village, the shortlisted story, casts light on the insurgency that poses a threat to Nigeria’s security. In doing this, you adopted terms alien to the nation’s army force; such as drone strikes, cortical implants, Heads-Up Display, Exosuit, Proximity sensor. Is this an attempt at science fiction?
Interesting. Devil’s Village is actually a chapter in a novel I am working on, and the insurgency in the story is a mutation of the one being fought in Nigeria today. Devil’s Village takes place two to three decades into the future. In science fiction terms, this is very near future, isn’t it? It’s practically tomorrow. There is another chapter from this novel, posted on my website (dayontwari.com), which establishes the point in time the Devil’s Village story takes place.
Setting a science fiction story in near-future Nigeria has certain implications, especially when it is meant to be a direct consequence of events taking place in the reader’s present. The terms you describe as alien to Nigeria’s armed forces, drone strikes, cortical implants, HUDs, exosuits, proximity sensors… these are not exactly imaginary technologies. All of these things exist today, and have for a while already. What I did was take existing technology and extrapolate on its uses three decades into the future. That is science fiction.
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Do you always write in such way?
Not all my stories are exclusively high-tech science fiction. There are many styles of science fiction, and near-future technology is but one element in a style of science-fiction writing. I don’t set out to write about young Muslim ladies in Ironman suits defending a village of children in Nigeria against a team of Ukrainian mercenaries. Whether a story I write turns out like this or is more easily labeled as fantasy or dystopian fiction or whatever labels people like to play with, depends entirely on where the story takes me. What happens is I get an idea, and then I sit there and listen while the story talks to me. I go wherever the story takes me, and it is up to the reader to decide the name for this destination. Or maybe the reader doesn’t care what this place is called and just wants to enjoy the ride.
What can you say about the adoption of science fiction in African literature?
Generally speaking, there seem to be two types of people, with regards to science fiction in African literature. You have those who “quietly” enjoy reading science fiction, be it African science fiction or Western science fiction. And then there are those who vocally insist science fiction has no place in African literature, while at the same time asking you; what is this African science fiction thing anyway? I find this amusing. Take Nigeria, for example. You will not find many people who are fans of science fiction, fantasy stories or movies, when the author is a white American or European. And then look at how Nigerians simply cannot get enough of Nollywood movies about witches, spirits possessing spouses, evil cults using magic spells to subdue their enemies. It’s all science fiction. It’s fantasy. Nollywood storylines have a very heavy dose of speculative fiction, don’t they? Yet nobody bats an eye at this.
Nollywood movies are immensely popular across the continent, but Africans will rarely call it fantasy or spec fic. Our relationship with the speculative nature of juju stories in Nollywood, Ogbanje children etc., is different from our relationship with the Mars Rover, for example. It is a problem of agreeing on definitions, I guess. An average African reader will call Devil’s Village an attempt at science fiction, however if I had made Jahida a bullet-deflecting witch instead of an exosuit-clad Muslimah armed with a submachine gun, the story would have probably gone much more smoothly with African readers.
The thing is, the reason I got into writing was to be able to read more of the kind of stories I like to read. I don’t think it is my job to convince anyone of the viability of African science fiction. I think African science fiction speaks for itself on that front, and it is up to the reader to decide whether they are into the story or not. If people always get hung up on the African science fiction label, they rob themselves of a chance to connect with so many fascinating and wonderful stories on this continent.
Back to Devil’s Village. The last two lines of the story is an apt summation of all it tells: the double standard state of the Nigerian government. The work is quite detailed and shows proof of intense research. How did you go about this, being away from Nigeria for quite some time?
Actually, I have only been away from Nigeria for two years now. I left in 2013 and moved to Rwanda. The topics being dealt with in Devil’s Village were familiar to me long before I said my goodbyes. I remember watching the Mohammed Yusuf (Boko Haram founder) murder by the Nigerian security forces in 2009 on Al Jazeera. I grew up in Nigeria under Babangida’s and Abacha’s military dictatorships. I know firsthand what the Nigerian military and government is like. I know firsthand from Nigerian soldiers today, that from 2009 onwards, the Nigerian military has been no better than Boko Haram.
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There is so much talk about Boko Haram and kidnapped girls, yet the Nigerian media won’t touch the story of the Nigerian military quite routinely kidnapping, torturing and killing civilians. What about the military killing the police in Nigeria? Some unfortunate police man gets into a scuffle with a soldier and the army burns down the police station. I’m talking about Nigeria in the 21st century. I think even children today in Nigeria are aware of this thing we call extra-judicial killings of people being arrested, tortured and held in Nigerian prisons, often for years. I think I could even be away from Nigeria for a decade and still not run out of new material. The biggest problem I think is Nigerians have over time become understandably numb to it all. People don’t generally see these things as story-worthy. But I do. I guess to try to keep from being infected by the madness, I feel I have to keep pointing to it and saying “This is crazy! Why is this a thing here?”
Some of the writers, Mary Ajayi and Adeola Opeyemi, at Writivism
You seem very agitated. Do you earnestly believe writing about these things changes anything?
Well, it is easy to be agitated about the state of things in Nigeria, when not much has improved since the military era. It is also easy to drown in apathy. I think apathy is a driving theme in the Nigerian day-to-day. I tend to believe, a people often end up with the leadership they deserve.
Can you explain this?
Take the 2011 Presidential Elections as an example. I was living in Abuja at the time and almost all Nigerians I talked to said they were voting Jonathan over Buhari because ‘Buhari wants to bring Sharia law to all of Nigeria’ The virulent Islamphobia that has been so characteristic of western media for long had managed to finally creep into the conscious of so many Nigerians in a country that has about a 50% Muslim population – really sad thing. Buhari lost, Jonathan won and Boko Haram started spreading throughout the Northeastern Nigeria. Nigeria had a full-fledged extremist insurgency on its hands and was stuck with the most corrupt and most incompetent government since Gen. Sani Abacha. Now in the 2015 elections, everybody suddenly hated Goodluck and the same Buhari overwhelmingly won the election. The irony, if it all weren’t so horribly tragic, would be the stuff of dark comedies. And yet, it is classic Naija, isn’t it?
Wow. Now I see where Devil’s Village came from.
Yes, I’m so sad about these things and have to write about them. Now, whether or not I believe my writing can change anything in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world, is beside the point. Sometimes the writer isn’t trying to change anything, sometimes the writer is just documenting events and times; for the sake of future times. And even if I want to write for change, the only thing many of us can do, is to write for conscience, and say: I was not okay with this, I was not among the ones who looked away.
Let’s talk about Writivism. What do you think of the workshop and the festival?
I have not yet participated in the workshop, but I had a blast at the Writivism Festival. I think I managed to go to almost every single Master Class, and I got something valuable out of each one. I learned a lot at the 2015 Writivism Festival and I strongly feel being longlisted for the Huza Press 2015 Rwanda Short Story Anthology has a lot to do with the things I learned from the Master Classes at the festival, and from my interactions with the writiers; Sumayya Lee and Emmanuel Sigauke, while we were editing Devil’s Village.
What were your best moments during the festival?
To be honest, my favourite part of the festival was talking to people who came up to me and said they enjoyed my story and wished me luck for the short story prize. And also signing all those copies of “Roses for Betty and Other Stories: The Writivism 2015 Anthology”, where my short story is published. All of that still puts a very big smile to my face.
Would you love to reapply for next year’s Writivism Short Story Prize?
Oh yes! I will definitely be submitting a short story for Writivism 2016. I feel like Writivism is my jumping-off point. I have gained so much from this experience and I will always do my best to submit a story and attend the festival.
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Thank you, Dayo and good luck with the Rwanda Short Story Anthology.