"I have known Tade Thompson for some years now and we co-wrote ‘The Last Pantheon’ in AfroSF 2 (December 2015). Our collaboration on that novella was exciting and often surprising, working with whatever the other threw up into the air – or onto the paper. I prefer face-to-face contact as it feels more alive and spontaneous. In keeping with this, we thus met for the interview in front of the British Library in Bloomsbury, London." - Nick Wood
NICK: Going back to the beginning, when and why did you start writing?
TADE: Ever since I picked up a pencil. I wasn’t interested in reading when I was a child. I saw a Fantastic Four comic and asked my mother to read it to me. She said I had to learn to read. So I learned to read, but then I started drawing my own comics, telling original stories. My teacher in primary school used to give us large, blank sheets of paper. She would draw a line across the middle and ask us to draw a picture on the top and write a story below. That just set me off.
I used to draw 3-4 comics a week on pink and green typing sheets and make carbon copies I could sell to my mates. I did this throughout primary and secondary school, with my biggest piece being a James Bond, DR. NO comic adaptation.
I wrote one novel when I was 15, a spy novel which was essentially a James Bond/The Saint pastiche. I had one copy and a guy called Mark borrowed and never returned it.
In university around 1995 I wrote a short story called 'The Sneeze', for the college magazine.
From 1999 I started writing regularly on a PC and around 2000 wrote the obligatory first ‘trunked’ novel, around 150K in length. I learnt a lot from this and from 2001 my aim was to be published. My first sale was in 2002/2003 to a small zine for a contributor’s copy or token per-word payment then in 2004/2005, my first semi-pro sale to Ideomancer, ‘The McMahon Institute for Unquiet Minds’.
NICK: And WHY do you write?
TADE: I have a lot to say. Writing teaches you different ways of thinking and expressing things. I once quit writing fiction for a year, and I filled volumes and volumes of journals. It’s just a thing that is in me.
NICK: For people who don't know you or your work, how would you characterize both yourself and what you write?
TADE: I’m a complicated man. I have a lot of rage at the portrayal of my people. Often, when I encounter Africans in narrative I see red. I have no patience with ignorant portrayals and do not spare misrepresentations.
Miles Davis had a term for some other black musicians, such as Louis Armstrong: ‘Smilers’. Always smiling, in order to be ‘the non-threatening Negro’, to avoid being described as the ‘angry black man’. I can understand why this was done, but it’s not me. I’ll say and write whatever I want.
I’ve studied science and history and it is important to have an accurate portrayal of things that are not well known, for example that there were rebellions during colonial times, and that the role of women was a lot bigger than is generally known (e.g. Maria Nkoje). There is so much ignorance, which is why it is important to keep repeating honest and accurate portrayals, to try and create public consciousness.
I guess I write to entertain, if anyone is entertained by what I write.
NICK: You've clearly read very widely and well beyond genre, so why SF in particular?
TADE: I love SF because you can bend reality and change history.
I enjoy speculative fiction in its broadest sense – weird, fantasy, hard SF etc. I love the freedom in changing history and facts to suit the narrative. Like thought experiments you’re unable to run in mimetic fiction. Anything can happen – and that makes it so interesting.
NICK: Have you - or do you - write outside genre - if so, how would you characterize this?
TADE: I write anything, both fiction and non-fiction. I have written crime and memoir, and I am writing general fiction, but nothing I want to share yet. This is because I read everything except perhaps romance or cod-Medieval high fantasy. I did read over a hundred Mills and Boon novels in my teenage years, so I think I’ve sampled the genre enough.
NICK: You've published a couple of books as well as several novellas and a good clutch of short stories - where would you suggest a reader NEW to your work begin?
TADE: Rosewater – I’m satisfied with this, as well as ‘The Apologists’ in Interzone #266 for short fiction. My other novel Making Wolf, although you should have a strong stomach for that one. My novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne is due out from TOR in October 2017.
NICK: Your first novel Making Wolf won a Golden Tentacle Kitschie Award (for Best Debut Novel) and is an exciting genre-bending crime noir, but is sadly looking for a new home. Any advice you'd give others off the back of this difficult experience?
TADE: It’s not looking for a new home. I’m working with Lola Shoneyin (who runs Ake Festival, and wrote The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives) on a Nigerian edition. I’m not yet looking around for other publishers. My advice? Always do your due diligence. Speak to people who’ve published with the press you’re exploring – preferably by phone if possible.
People are often afraid to talk if hooked up with problem presses, in case it impacts negatively on their career. If you can’t sell something, keep it in the trunk – and at some point, when you sell something else, someone will ask, ‘what else you got?’
NICK: Rosewater - your latest novel with Apex, is a complex and brilliantly original alien invasion story - what was the spark and fuel for this story?
TADE: My interest in alien invasion scenarios. So many invasions are thinly disguised colonial metaphors. These are less interesting for me – a repeating fetish of dominating so-called lesser cultures, as if rehashing generational memory.
Why would they come all the way to Earth? What might their motivation be, to embark on generational ships on the off-chance of stumbling upon Earth? True aliens would surely be unknowable.
NICK: Like in some of the work of The Strugatsky Brothers?
TADE: Yes, perhaps a bit of that – leaving their enigmatic rubbish, as in ‘Roadside Picnic’. I enjoyed their work.
NICK: Rosewater is set in Nigeria, which was formerly a British colony - can you tell us if there is an association between the new invaders Wormwood and the old British colonialists?
TADE: My book might be a metaphor for neo-colonialism, a colonization of the mind. That’s just my reading of my own work, though.
If you watch music videos in Nigeria, many of them are mimetic, using the semiotics of American rap. So that’s odd, watching gang signs from LA being used out of context. “Sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as the Bard said. Or, maybe it signifies minds colonised, as per the distribution of resources and aspirations involved.
NICK: Your novel structure is unusual and intriguing, alternating between a younger and older Kaaro - and not always in an obvious sequence - what drove this structural choice for you?
TADE: That’s how people tell stories, it’s not perfectly sequential. They jump backwards and forwards, so this is a way of mimicking normal tale telling according to director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
With rewriting I had to wrestle with this structure, part of me supporting the link between art and chaos. But in the end I opted for an alternating structure of past and present perspectives, with Missions slotted in-between acting as linking narratives between young Kaaro and older Kaaro.
I don’t like linearity – I find it boring. I can avoid writer’s block by jumping around and then piecing the parts together.
It’s also a way of keeping the reader engaged. If you can’t predict what’s coming next, you keep turning the page. The problem with working like this, though, is that I have to know exactly where and when everything happens and to whom. The real nightmare was keeping track of the stuff that happens off-camera since the novel is written in first person.
NICK: America goes 'Dark' in Rosewater - I do hope you have plans to enlighten us as to what is happening there - AND how it gets resolved?
TADE: Yes, some people have drawn parallels with Trump in the US. The Americans have run all the scenarios and realise there’s no way to beat Wormwood, and so have initiated the ‘Drawbridge Protocol’ which is extreme isolation from the rest of the world.
NICK: Rosewater has been garnering many great reviews and I'm hoping will feature on awards shortlists significantly - but what next (or right now!) for you, Tade?
TADE: The next book in the series goes further into the experiences of the aliens in Nigeria, focusing more on Aminat. I’m enjoying writing it; it's tentatively called Rosewater: City State.
We find out what happened to America in the third book, Humans of Rosewater.
NICK: So it’s a trilogy?
TADE: Gah! I don’t like trilogies, but I guess it is. Sort of. Maybe a quadrology, because there’s a novella between book two and book three. Ideally it’s one big book (and I hope there will be an omnibus edition one day). Lord of the Rings was originally one book, but was seen as too unwieldy on its own.
I keep my options open – although I know the entire narrative through to the end, what happens to Earth, America, humanity, the aliens…
It’s very real in my head and I have it in files, in my notebooks and with flowcharts providing rough signposts. That way, I keep my characters and dialogue open and free, plotting more closely when I review what I’ve written. All the elements in the book have a function – they’re not there just for spectacle or decoration. My ‘reanimates’ are not just zombies but are in evolution and have a purpose, particularly in Book 2.
NICK: As a founding member of African SF Society, how would you characterize African SF? And how much does your own work dovetail with this - or not?
TADE: African SF is primordial – there’s no obvious pattern, it’s huge and diverse. There’s probably more magic than technology overall, more speculative fiction than hard SF (I hate that label). We’re getting some extrapolation of Hollywood films, some mimesis of Western SF tropes.
Kojo Laing’s ‘Woman of The Aeroplanes’ on the other hand is a brilliant evocation of a town in Ghana perhaps quantum entangled with a town in Scotland. Its strength lies in its poetic language and ability to pass the stage of Western mimesis. This is what we need to focus on – what are OUR narratives; how can we tell OUR stories, using and pushing the tropes of SF further.
Nnedi Okorafor in the US and Lauren Beukes from South Africa are the two obvious writers most people think of when considering African SF. We need to write more of our own experiences. We need more writers from Lilongwe and elsewhere in the continent.
I write from London of a remembered Africa. I’m not speaking for anybody in Africa. I write beyond Africa as well.
NICK: What are some of the African SF books you have particularly enjoyed?
TADE: There’s a lot to like. I’ve enjoyed your Azanian Bridges, as it’s clearly emerged from the soil of South Africa -- and I’m not saying that just because you’re interviewing me.
Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is a masterpiece EVERYONE should read. The richness and beauty of its language and its uncompromising vision is so powerful it should be read several times! It’s very good indeed.
Chikodili Emulumadu’s Candy Girl is a weird and absurdist story, growing from local African space.
Part 2 of Nick Wood's fascinating interview with Tade Thompson can be found here
Tade Thompson lives and works in the UK. He is the author of a number of SFF, crime, general fiction, and memoir pieces. His alternate history crime novel Making Wolf from Rosarium Publishing was released in September 2015 and his latest novel is Rosewater. More of Tade's thoughts and writing can be found at his blog, Long Time After Midnight.
Nick Wood is a Zambian born, South African naturalised clinical psychologist, with over a dozen short stories previously published in Interzone, Subterfuge, Infinity Plus, and PostScripts, amongst others. Nick has also appeared in the first African anthology of science fiction, AfroSF – and now in a collaborative novella follow-up with Tade Thompson in AfroSFv2.
His book, Azanian Bridges, explores a current but alternative South Africa, where apartheid survived. Nick has completed an MA in Creative Writing (SF & Fantasy) through Middlesex University, London and is currently training clinical psychologists and counsellors at the University of East London in England. He can be found on Twitter, @nick45wood or on his blog.