Nuzo Onoh self-publishes African horror. She terms her work as an "unexplored genre" likening it to the Japanese Kaidan tradition.
Your work is said to be African Horror, which is reminiscent of the Japanese Kaidan tradition. Could you explain more about the genres and how they relate to both the perception of death and the grief process?
NUZO: Thanks for this question, which I must confess, no one has as yet asked and which I think is crucial to understanding my stories. As noted, I write a horror subgenre I refer to as African horror. Re-defining the term, "African Horror", has been my passion as a writer. I’ve been championing the term as a bona-fide horror subgenre, just like Scandinavian, Korean, Japanese horror, etc, rather than a negative condition of the continent as mostly portrayed by the popular media. Thanks to the South African Horror fest, the Nigerian Nollywood industry and my BBC World Service author interview amongst others, one can now find some references to African Horror as a bona-fide genre in online searches, albeit mainly in the movie category as against books. My books The Reluctant Dead (2014) and Unhallowed Graves (2015) have introduced this hitherto unknown genre into mainstream horror literary genre. I write mainly about Igbo ghost stories and my stories are set in Igboland, Old Biafra, in present day Nigeria. I’ve tried to show how burial customs, deaths, Christianity, colonization and superstitions have affected African/Igbo beliefs in the afterlife, reincarnation and haunting. As is the case with most regional works of horror, I adopted a thematic approach in my books. Africa is an immense continent with a diverse culture which can only be truly appreciated with this type of approach.
The Japanese Kaidan literally translates as, talks, discussions or narratives about weird, strange, mysterious and bewitching apparitions. Kaidan stories are therefore old-times Japanese ghost stories or oral tradition folklore, just like African horror stories. They are local stories, set in a particular village/region revealing local customs and beliefs. Based initially on the Buddhist philosophy, there is a strong moral element to the Kaidan stories. Karma plays an important role, with ghostly vengeance for wrong-doings featuring frequently in the tales. This is also quite similar to African ghost stories and each single one of my stories portrays the supernatural consequences of bad actions or omissions by numerous characters. Like the Japanese onryō or Vengeful Ghost, African ghosts become more powerful in death than in life and just like the Kaidan ghosts, need the intervention of diviners or “witchdoctors” for exorcism rites. Unlike the Christian tradition where death is viewed as a final closure to earthly existence pending a great judgement day at some unknown date, both the Kaidan and Igbo/African traditions see a continuous link between life and death, with the dead playing an active part in the lives of the living through hauntings, possession or reincarnation. This belief can at times mute the pain of separation occasioned by death and speed up the healing process. From these, one can see that there is a strong theme of death, the afterlife and supernatural revenge common to both the Igbo/African beliefs and Japanese Kaidan stories. I believe these strong similarities, albeit, portraying two distinct cultures within a supernatural narrative, are what would attract the average fan of Kaidan horror to my Igbo/African ghost stories.
Growing up, death was often presented to me as something that sets people free: from pain, illness, their personal demons and, often, their tragic circumstances. The three novellas in Unhallowed Graves challenged that mind set. Death not only trapped the dead, but the living that were connected to them. As one character says, 'I am a prisoner in a jail without bars.' Thus, as I read, I considered how a person is shaped by history, choices made by the dead, be they the people in our family trees, cultures or nations. Was this an intentional theme, or one that was born as you composed the narratives?
NUZO: The three novellas is Unhallowed Graves were the result of a deliberate intention to show what can happen when (as you rightly stated), choices made by the humans in our lives as well as culture, combine to disrupt what ought to be the peaceful and final sleep of the departed. As my readers know, my stories are mostly themed around vengeance by the restless dead. In Unhallowed Graves, I took this further to show what could happen when the dead fall victim to certain cultural practices and actions of their families, resulting in them being buried in unhallowed grounds. This is a practice that used to be quite prevalent in many villages in Nigeria and still practiced in some villages till date. I recall when my little brother died at just age 19yrs in 1991 from gunshot wounds assumed to be an act of suicide; I remember my fury when I heard some clan members challenge the family’s decision to bury him in the ancestral compound with the rest of the departed, as is the norm in our culture. They claimed that as a suicide, he should be denied a Christian burial and buried far away from the family compound as is usually the case with suicides, murderers and others that die certain accursed deaths. That experience made me wonder what would happen should the ghosts of people cast away in Ajo-ofia or the “bad forest” arise in vengeful fury against the families and customs that desecrated their corpses. So, one can see from my stories that for Igbos and Africans, death, unless that of a very old person, is rarely viewed as a release but as an alternate existence that is strongly intertwined with life, the living and their earthly affairs for better or for worse.
What was the evolution process of Unhallowed Graves? Did you begin with a fairly strong and detailed outlined for three novellas? Or was the process much more of a free flow roller-coaster ride?
NUZO: When the idea of Unhallowed Graves first occurred to me, all I had in mind was to write a story about the tragic ghosts of Igbo Landing in Dunbar Creek, Georgia, U.S.A, with a working book title of Our Bones Shall Rise Again. For years I’ve been tormented by a burning desire to tell their story and bring their tragic and restless spirits back to Igbo-land. As I started researching the story and the Igbo customs at the time, it brought to mind my experience when my brother died and the next thing I knew, I was writing a second story and then a third. When I realised that they all had a similar theme, vengeance by people buried in unhallowed grounds by the acts or omissions or others, the working title changed from Our Bones Shall Rise Again to Unhallowed Graves. I never bother drawing up outlines for stories as my characters inevitably decide how they want to be portrayed and I just let myself be led by them. Can’t recall the number of times I’ve read a story I’d written and wondered how it ended up that way. I’m sure lots of writers have had a similar experience. Makes you wonder if these characters we think we’re creating as writers don’t actually possess some distinct corporal existence somewhere with a living intelligence powerful enough to influence our thoughts and fingers.
What writing projects currently have your attention?
NUZO: I’ve been invited to participate in the Creative Fiction Edition of Black Women Horror Aesthetics, put together by Kinitra Brooks (Ph.D), Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Linda Addison, who is the first African-American two-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award. I’m working on the story for that anthology at the moment while also writing my next African Horror book due out next year on my usual publishing date of 28th June. This time, I’m writing a complete novel (not short stories collection) about haunting and revenge by dead children who have been victims of adult abuse and evil. Like the Kaidan onryō, we find that these innocent children who were weak victims in their lifetime become extremely powerful in death, wreaking unimaginable terror and mayhem on their living tormentors. The working title of the book is The Sleepless, although that may change by the time I complete the book. It’s all fluid at the moment.
Lastly, in the acknowledgments you thank THE CATS. If FB and twitter are anything to go by, writers are often cat people. Please tell us about your office companions. I'm sure our readers would also enjoy a photo.
NUZO: Funnily, I was actually referring to the close feline companions of my dear Canadian writer friend, Bob Morritt, whom I mention in the book. But I also have my own cat companion, who is also mentioned in my book. Her name is Tinkerbell and she’s a grey pebbled Tabby, as barmy as a March hare and completely adorable! She hates women and plays up to men…the little tart!!
On Nuzo's Bedside Table.
Spook Lights by Eden Royce
Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Nuzo Onoh is a British Writer of African descent. Born in Enugu, the Eastern part of Nigeria, formerly known as The Republic of Biafra, Nuzo lived through the Civil war between Nigeria and Biafra, an experience that left a strong impact on her and continues to influence her writing.