Mazi Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu are co-founders and editors of Omenana, a web-based literary magazine dedicated to publishing speculative/sci-fi/fantasy fiction by African writers. In this interview with Uche Okonkwo, Mazi Chiagozie and Chinelo talk African speculative fiction, life lessons, and writing and publishing as a labour of love.
UCHE OKONKWO: This idea that Africans don’t write sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction is, I believe, part of the reason you started Omenana. Where do you suppose this idea comes/came from and why did/does it persist?
MAZI CHIAGOZIE: I think it comes from that general misconception that Africa is a backward place that hasn’t played any notable role in man’s journey to the stars. So even Africans look at Africa as this place whose people only concern themselves with war, famine, dancing, and procreation. It’s a view that has been propagated for a long time and has now come to offer a copout for people who don’t want to do the work needed to unravel the complexity that is Africa and her varied nations and peoples. We are doing our bit to change the perception, but it continues to persist. And with Wakanda being a fictional place, will continue to persist.
CHINELO ONWUALU: I think the idea that Africans don’t write speculative fiction is born out of the rather racist definitions that limit what speculative fiction is to the sorts of things written by white men in North America and Europe. Thus, when Africans write speculatively, it’s often dismissed as folklore or fable telling.
I feel many of us have adopted this same attitude as part of the deep-seeded practicality that is common with a lot of oppressed groups. Because our systems are so broken – often by colonialist design – we don’t see a lot of value in imaginative endeavours that might divert our energies from the struggle for daily survival. Combined with the devaluation of cultural artefacts like our stories, traditions and beliefs, many of us end up dismissing creative pursuits as wastes of time.
UO: In practical terms, how does one start a literary magazine? Once the decision was made to start Omenana, what were the first few steps you took to realize this vision?
MC: So, like you already stated, you decide to, then you do it. However, there is that journey between deciding to and doing it that is super important. For me, it was studying other magazines and learning from them, then choosing to concentrate solely on speculative fiction. Then there was meeting Chinelo and discovering that our tastes in stories match, and then her coming on board, and us having those long phone conversations about name choices and how to approach our first edition.
CO: I would say it starts with a good website. Once you have that infrastructure, the rest sort of falls into place. We built a lot of our systems over a lot of Mazi’s existing freelance business – using the email address he already had for that, for instance. Then you create accounts on social media and figure out your publication schedule. Then we contacted potential authors and put out a call for submissions.
UO: Could you walk me through Omenana’s publication cycle, from when you open to submissions up until when an issue is published?
CO: Our cycle starts with a month-long call for submissions. Then we take about two to three weeks to sort through our stories – usually contacting authors we’ve chosen about a week after that. The editorial process can take up to a month – depending on the story. Around that time we try to commission illustrators and cover artists. The last week is usually the most hectic, trying to get a lot of moving parts into production on schedule. Unfortunately, we’re both busy people who are working on this out of our pockets – so sometimes, things can fall behind quite easily.
UO: How do you choose the stories and art that Omenana publishes? What do the editors look for?
CO: Personally, I’m just looking for engaging stories that can keep me reading until the end. Many times, we see interesting ideas but that’s not enough without a larger theme or strong characters and plot. In some rare cases, too many writing mistakes such as bad grammar and spelling can also disqualify a piece.
We have no tolerance for hate speech such as sexism, ethnocentrism or homophobia – those will get a story disqualified no matter what else it’s doing well.
UO: How much editorial input do the individual pieces published in Omenana usually require? For example, do the editors get involved in substantive or developmental editing with writers?
MC: That was one of our goals from the get go. Omenana’s co-founder, Chinelo, is a professional editor and I’ve had cause to claim that title during the course of my career as a journalist. So yes, we do extensive reworking of stories. The idea is to not only discover new writers, but also to help them see their stories in a new light and make them the best they can be.
UO: The idea of writing and publishing as a ‘labour of love’ can be at odds with the realities involved with building a publication that is self-sustaining. How do you marry these ideas: the sheer love of writing and giving others a venue for expression, versus the need for Omenana to be a sustainable publishing venture?
MC: It’s hard, and we were at a stage where, after doing this off pocket for three years, the question of the future had more than a single question mark behind it. But with the grant we got for this year, we know the labour of love can travel for another year. But we plan to keep doing this forever anyway.
CO: For the first couple of years, our love for the project outweighed the personal costs for us. Mazi shouldered a lot of that financial burden by using the funds largely gleaned from his freelance activities. However, as we’ve taken on more responsibilities in our private lives, it’s become a little harder to do that.
We’ve gotten grants in the past from organisations such as the Goethe Insitut in Lagos and most recently, a donation from one of our authors who won the Nommo Awards run by the African Speculative Fiction Society. We hope to continue to garner this sort of support so that the magazine can continue without needing to rely on our continuous input.
UO: How have your personal experiences as a writer influenced how Omenana is run (for example how the magazine solicits, publicizes, raises funds, etc.)? On the other hand, how has running Omenana affected your life and work, including your writing process?
CO: I’ll be honest, editing the magazine has taken a lot of time away from my own writing. I think it’s because for me, writing and editing tend to come out of the same place in my head. If I’m doing one, I tend not to be doing the other. However, it has given me the opportunity to get to know so many amazing writers from all across the continent. It’s been a real privilege.
I come from a publishing background and so I was able to meet a lot of writers and editors from all over Africa, but I can’t say whether that has influenced how Omenana is run. I will say, though, it has allowed me to expand my networks and reach out to writers that I wouldn’t have necessarily known otherwise.
UO: What do you think is the future of sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction by African writers? What do you imagine is the role of Omenana in this future?
MC: The future of the genre in Africa is super bright. More voices are appearing every day and publishers who hitherto turned their noses up at the thought of publishing something listed as speculative fiction are now asking for such stories to be written. The future is bright and we plan for Omenana to be right there providing opportunities and cheering everyone on.
CO: When we first started, there were some questions as to why anyone would choose to write about non-existent worlds when they could be commenting on corruption or inadequate healthcare. But I think this attitude is largely changing – especially among young people. The best speculative fiction, like all other kinds of writing, has the ability to challenge our preconceptions and more of us are coming to realise that.
With the emergence of more speculative writing from Africa – and more proponents of it – coming to international prominence, I think we’re in the midst of a sort of golden age. The movie Black Panther just became the highest earning superhero movie ever, and Tomi Adeyemi’s novel Children of Blood and Bone earned out a half-million US dollar advance. Nnedi Okorafor is writing for Marvel Comics! So many of us are out there making waves. I like to think that Omenana is helping to create a platform from which new creators can be discovered. We tend to be a good place for writers and artists to get started, and I hope that this can continue.
Uche Okonkwo is an MFA Fiction Student at Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Ellipsis, and Per Contra.