A Conversation with Suyi Davies Okungbowa

By Uche Okonkwo

Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s David Mogo, Godhunter is one of the most imaginative novels I’ve read this year. Drawing from Nigerian mythologies and traditions, the novel situates deities of the Yoruba pantheon—including Olokun, Sango, Ogun—in post-apocalyptic Lagos. With the city under threat from the gods ousted from Orun, it is up to David Mogo, himself half god and half human, to fight back.

I was only a few pages into this novel when I decided I had to talk with Suyi about it, and so this interview happened. This version of our conversation has been edited for length. You may read it in full here.

UO: What inspired David Mogo, Godhunter, and how long did you spend writing it?

SDO: To be honest, I just wanted to—and still want to—tell cool stories steeped in the cultures within which I was raised. One of those stories is to explore our indigenous belief systems prior to colonization, but within fantastic context. So, I decided to explore pantheons of our gods come to earth. I lived in Lagos at the time, and wanted the book set there—because, let’s be frank, Lagos stories write themselves—so the Yoruba pantheon seemed the most accessible.

I started work on the characters around early 2016, but didn’t really sit down and write the first half of the book until early 2017. I sold the book with that partial in late 2017, and ended up finishing it in about four months after, mid-2018. So, actual writing time was about six months, but the book was a much longer time in the making.

UO: For me, one of the great pleasures of reading this book was recognizing Lagos, where the novel is set, and imposing the reimagination the novel demands on a landscape that is so familiar to me. Setting plays such a big role in this book and can be considered a character in itself. How were you thinking of and working with setting while writing this novel?

SDO: I used to tell my old housemate that Lagos is not a place, Lagos is a spirit. It’s something you think you’re living in, but really, is living in you, gestating. It’s like any other megacity out there with an attitude and a fierce disposition: New York, Mumbai, Tokyo, Mexico City. To act like these cities can be present in your story without being present in your story will be disingenuous. So, it made sense that the city was part-and-parcel of the story.

UO: One of my favourite scenes has Payu locking the deity, Kehinde, in a “ward” ritual. There are so many other vivid scenes and details that incorporate magic and myth and traditions from Nigerian cultures. I’m curious about what kind of research you had to do to make this novel come alive in the way that it does.

SDO: To be honest, I just made a ton of stuff up, haha. I borrowed a lot from research on elemental wicca practices—Payu uses the earth pentacle in that very scene, because Kehinde is an “earth god” within this pantheon. But, again, I had to stay as true to the existent indigenous knowledge and practices as I could, so I asked a lot of questions, interviewed Yoruba cosmology enthusiasts, listened to a lot of stories from those who knew practitioners from a time before. I completely eschewed stories written through colonialist perspectives. If any liberties were taken with the characters, I wanted to do that on my own terms.

UO: How did you navigate taking the liberties you needed to take to write this novel, a work of fiction, with being respectful of the cultures you were drawing from?

SDO: It was a delicate balancing act, you know? Because I realised that once the book goes out in the world, there’s an equal chance that someone who’s a current devotee reads this, as well as someone from some far corner of the world who cannot even point to Lagos on a map. I wanted to give both those people an equal chance to enjoy the book, and that involves making these kinds of choices.

I was also looking to subvert current Nigerian schools of thought around identities, especially gender. Ogun, for instance, is considered a very powerful and respected god, two things that women in Nigeria do not often get. So my decision to—spoiler alert—switch Ogun from male to female was to challenge the mainstream belief that women cannot lead and command respect by simply being competent.

UO: What’s next for you? Any exciting new projects in the works?

SDO: Yes. It was just announced that I’ll be writing a comic for 2000AD (Rebellion’s comic arm, of Judge Dredd fame): it’s a reboot of Mytek The Mighty, a British ‘70s comic about a robot gorilla with roots in Central Africa. It had very strong colonialist leanings a-la King Kong back then, but together with artist Anand Radhakrishnan, we’ll be working to subvert that and tell better, much more inclusive and respectful stories. I talk a bit about that in my recent newsletter.

I also have a forthcoming epic fantasy series inspired by an amalgam of 15th-century West-African empires, currently titled The Nameless Republic. It’s been sold, so the acquisition announcement should come forth any day now, maybe even before this interview publishes!

 

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian author of speculative fiction inspired by his West-African origins. He is the author of the highly-anticipated Nigerian godpunk debut, David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019). His shorter works have appeared internationally (or are forthcoming) in periodicals like Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Fireside, Podcastle, The Dark and anthologies like A World of Horror (Dark Moon Books, 2018) and People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction (Lightspeed/John Joseph Adams, 2017). He lives between Lagos, Nigeria and Tucson, Arizona where he teaches writing while completing his MFA. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies everywhere else. Learn more at suyidavies.com.

Uche Okonkwo is currently a third year MFA Fiction candidate at Virginia Tech. Her stories have been published in Ploughshares, One Story, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019.

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