Tochi Onyebuchi brings a keen eye for world-building and momentum-filled action scenes to his young adult novels. From the Pokémon-like Beasts Made of Night duology to the upcoming fantasy novella Riot Baby, he’s making waves. At NYCC 2019, we sat down to talk to him about pop culture influences, the process of building a novel, and how he wants to push back against Western perceptions of African countries.
Den of Geek: Your latest book, War Girls, is a post-apocalyptic story involving both catastrophic change and nuclear war. What draws you to writing apocalypse while the real world feels so apocalyptic?
Tochi Onyebuchi: Part of it is coping! Part of it is trying to imagine my way through crisis. Because the thing about climate change, or at least the discussion as it is happening now, has been very much dominated by Western voices. It has been very much focused on climate change in parts of the U.S., for instance. Or efforts to combat climate change in Western Europe. Whereas a lot of the really averse effects of climate change will most viscerally be felt on the African continent.
We’re already seeing it. You see the desertification of the Sahara. And that is pushing people on the lower end, particularly nomadic tribes, further down into densely populated countries. And so you see all this unrest that’s happening right now in northern Nigeria, because you have pastoral Fulani tribes that are being pushed down into farmland that is already populated by people. So all of a sudden there are these new clashes over land rights that would not necessarily have happened were it not for climate change.
There are islands in the Pacific that are sinking. That won’t be here in 12 years or 20 years. So I was very interested in what people in those places would consider with regards to climate change. So that was why it was particularly interesting to think about issues of climate change and post-nuclear disaster in Nigeria.
Tell us about the two sisters at the heart of the book. What made their story compelling?
They both carry aspects of my mother. War Girls very much has its genesis in stories that I would hear from her of her time as an internally displaced person in the Biafran war, the Nigerian civil war, that waged in Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. She was either just finishing or just getting ready to start kindergarten at the outbreak of the war. She was a child living through this! That in many ways was the genesis of the book.
I wanted to also write in a way about a lot of the other civil conflicts that raged throughout African countries in the 1990s and early 2000s and mid 2000s, and that’s where the issue of child soldiers comes in. Child soldiers weren’t necessarily prevalent in the Nigerian civil war in the 60s and 1970, but in a lot of the later conflicts in the 90s and the 2000s you saw prevalence of the instances in which adolescents and teenagers would be drawn into the conflict and faced to fight, forced to kill. I think particularly of the story of Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala, which was made into an extraordinary movie starring Idris Elba. It’s that sort of thing.
How do you deal with that afterwards, too? As a society, but also as the person who did those things. Because there is an after. There will be an after. What does that look like? Those are very fascinating questions to me.
War Girls is set in an alternate Nigeria. What kind of research or experiences lead to the way you portrayed it?
While I did a lot of research on Nigeria, particularly the Biafran war, I also wanted to do a lot of research on other African countries. But one thing I wanted to make sure of was I wanted to write a specifically Nigerian story. And part of that entailed researching both conflicts and histories of other African countries.
One thing that I wanted to do also was make sure this wasn’t a doom-and-gloom, ‘everything is horrible in Africa’ story. Because a lot of the popular perception of Africa is it’s this entire uniform place that’s universally afflicted by starvation and civil war. It’s the picture of the kid with flies on their face and the bloated stomach from malnutrition. But there are 50-plus countries in Africa, many of whom have exponentially more ethnic identities in them. There are over 200 tribes in Nigeria alone. So that speaks to the diversity on every scale, whether it’s economic, social, tribal, what have you. It speaks to the overwhelming diversity of the continent. And that was something I wanted to get at.
So, in researching other countries and other traditions, it became easier for me to pick bits from other cultures but use them specifically, and not just have them be this background of ‘African traditions’ and what not thrown into the story. It was very important to me that the story was specific, the references were specific, the geography was specific. That is a lot of what drove the research that I did.
War Girls is marketed as Black Panther inspired. Tell me more about this connection and about what pop culture influences you.
One of the reasons Black Panther was so important, particularly to War Girls, is that it provided a reference point for a lot of people that might not have been familiar with a lot of the things that are going on in that book. War Girls is very much more inspired by Gundam Wing. I’m a huge, huge Gundam fan, so this book is very much a love letter to Gundam. When I pitched it to my agent, it was ‘Gundam in Nigeria.’
But at the same time I recognize that there’s a maybe somewhat limited fandom for Gundam. I feel like in the United States more people would recognize Black Panther. One of the beautiful things about it was that people could see Black Panther and have a reference point for this depiction of Africa as technological advanced. That, I think, was new to a lot of people. To see an Africa that maintains fidelity to certain traditions, and had high speed rail. That had hover cars. That had spaceships and what not. But also had specific music and dance traditions and fashion sense.
So, in crafting a society that had all those things, it’s easier for people to understand.
What is the idea at the core of Riot Baby, your upcoming novella?
Riot Baby is the story of Ella and Kev, two siblings that grow up in the shadow of the L.A. Uprising in the 90s. Their story takes them from South Central, to Harlem, to Riker’s, and back to the Watts, and they have to deal with institutional racism and police violence and issues surrounding mass incarceration, while slowly discovering superpowers.
What have you learned about writing in the course of publishing four novels?
I’ve gotten much better at my act threes! [Note: Some of the audio in this section was disrupted. The author goes on to discuss gaining sensitivity to the quality of his own writing.]
You can write something and you can feel that it’s right, even though you may not necessarily be able to articulate all the ways in which you feel it’s right, or why this particular choice is the correct one. You can direct the plot a certain way and feel you’ve made absolutely the right choice without necessarily knowing why. Developing that intuition after having internalized so much of the craft is very important. That’s an aspect of writing I’ve grown in.
What is your process like? Do you outline?
It often differs by book, and also by the relationship with whichever editor I’m working with at the time. Riot Baby came together in part out of disparate pieces of existing work, and then when it coalesced it grew more of itself. There wasn’t necessarily an outline involved in that. It started with writing pieces of it and the spine of the narrative came together. Then, the rest was a result of growing it out.
Whereas with War Girls it was very schematic. I had the idea, I had a bucket of particular images in my head I wanted to figure out how to dramatize. Out of that came the outline, which of course changed shape over the course of the drafting. So I had the initial outline and then a revised outline. Then I started drafting, and events changed as I was writing.
Would you say to an aspiring writing that process matters? Do you need to write a certain way, or do different ways work for different people?
Whatever works, works. I think that’s the way to go. There is the temptation to fall prey to a lot of the dogma early on, particularly when you’re trying to figure yourself out with regards to voice, process, how to make this writing thing work.
We hear people say write every day. But that’s not feasible for a lot of people. Whether it’s their school schedule, whether it’s child care, whether they have a particular job that doesn’t allow for that. People are dealing with different realities, so writing every day isn’t necessarily universally applicable.
The only thing I feel confident in terms of advice to aspiring writers is to love writing. Whether it’s the act of putting sentences together, playing with that, or whether it’s the larger discipline of storytelling, certain aspects of that—if that gets your heart racing, if that gives you the same feeling as when you see your crush from across the room, that’ll get you so far in this. Because there’s so much nonsense you have to deal with in this, and so much conflicting advice. If at the end of the day you love doing this thing, hold on to that. That’s why you do this.