Last week, TNC published the anthology Lights Out: Resurrection, which features a crop of African authors of horror and dark speculative fiction, edited by Wole Talabi. It features a story by Nerine Dorman who is an active figure in the South African horror fiction scene. Today, we present a conversation between them on their writing, African horror fiction, Halloween and more.
Nerine: I realize we know very little about each other. Tell me more about you and what you love about genre fiction.
Wole: To condense myself into a few words: I an engineer, a writer and sometimes an editor. I enjoy equations and stories and travel. I like genre fiction because it’s full of big ideas, strange ideas, unexpected ideas and ways of exploring the world. To me, writing genre fiction is a lot like using mathematical transforms to solve an equation – by a changing the basis or domain of a function, the function can be seen differently and may become easier to understand and solve. So it is too with fiction, by a suitable choice of genre and conceit, aspects of the world may be seen differently and perhaps, understood. I like that.
I first found out about you after you edited SSDA’s Terra Incognita. You’ve been an active figure in the African speculative fiction scene. What it is about SFF that draws you to it?
Nerine: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to write SFF rather than any other kind of genre. I have perhaps *one* general fiction novel on the cards that I’d *like* to write (but that’s nominally set in the music industry, which is another love of mine). But SFF has always been my first and deepest love. While I can appreciate good litfic, and can certainly learn from the genre, I’m more interested in imaginative worlds where myth and magic are the staples. I’m dissatisfied with reality as it is, and my imagination always tugs at my sleeve then whispers in my ear, “But what if there were dragons…”
Wole: You seem to have a distinct interest in horror stories. What is it that attracts you to the subgenre?
Nerine: I don’t like pigeonholing myself when it comes to fiction, so if the mood fits, a story of mine could be classified as horror, but more often lately I find myself blending the genres considerably. Some of my fantasy will have horror elements or vice versa. And sometimes I’ll even write military science fiction. It all depends on a) whether the inspiration fits or b) I end up writing for hire, which seems to happen a bit more regularly now when I’m approached to write for a specific IP or creative brief. What I do love about writing darker stuff is that I can delve into the darker aspects of the human psyche. Life is brutal and ugly, so I like to work through my thoughts and emotions in this respect when I write. Horror or dark fantasy allows much creative leeway for this.
Wole: What do you think of the African horror fiction scene? Particularly, what about it do you find most disappointing and what about it are you most excited about?
Nerine: When I first started writing seriously, it must’ve been around 2003 or thereabouts, not much was happening locally. Yet. Authors like Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz were beginning to break out and make a name for themselves, and we didn’t really have many opportunities for SFF authors beyond the horror magazine Something Wicked that was started by Joe Vaz. Which pretty much meant that either local SFF authors looked overseas for markets, or went about building their own vibe locally.
What has been an incredible source of disappointment for me about the South African industry has been the distinct lack of interest from the traditional publishers when it comes to building a platform for new voices. If you go onto their sites, some of them clearly state “no science fiction or fantasy” – though they seem happy enough to bend a little by publishing dystopias (which, to be honest, I view as a sub-genre of SFF).
They’re happy enough to distribute foreign SFF here, and there *is* a market for SFF. Clearly. But it’s incredibly difficult to build a platform unless you’ve got budget to throw into the work. And the support of a big publisher would most certainly help.
What does excite me is seeing the burgeoning self-published authors who’re making a go of it, with more and more voices being heard now that the barriers to getting published have, to a large degree, been dropped. You no longer need a small fortune to release your work. The trick now, of course, is getting word out so that folks will buy your book. The great thing about social media is, however, that authors can now connect and support each other, no matter where they are in the country, which pretty much wasn’t happening when I started out. I felt like I was the only one who felt the way I did.
How does being African inform your own writing? Tell me more about your environment, and writing.
Wole: To be honest, I think my writing is more informed by my occupation and personal interests than where I am from or where I live. My writing is more about concepts and ideas. Characters and stories are vehicles for concepts. Right now I live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, so I’m even more removed from daily life on the continent. Still, home and history provide the well from which I draw experiences and viewpoints for my characters which I need to explore my concepts. At least I draw from the parts of Africa I’ve experienced anyway – which is mostly just southern Nigeria. Africa is a huge and varied continent. I love to remind my friends that Africa is bigger than China, India, the U.S. and most of Europe… combined. There are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria alone. The size and variety is staggering but I am keenly aware of the general stereotypes many people have about Africa so when I write, I try to highlight the variety of experience and belief that is possible. Although, I’ve noticed that I tend to default back to my own ethnic group – Yoruba, especially for character names and history. I am very interested in mythology, and I like to explore Yoruba mythology, which is very rich and complex. I sneak elements of it into most of the stories I write. But yes, I love to find, explore and highlight that variety, and sometimes link it to things that people don’t usually associate with Africa. Halloween for instance. In the introduction to Lights Out Resurrection, I discuss Halloween in general and my perception of its historical relationship to Africa.
What is Halloween like in South Africa?
Nerine: When I was a kid during the 1980s, it was only our generation who grew up watching US series where the kids celebrated Halloween who had any idea about it. So I reckon we were pretty much the first bunch who’d go dig up old sheets, cut holes in them and make ghost costumes. However Halloween falls during the start of summer, so it’s really boiling hot, and not really conducive to dressing up. Nowadays parents are starting to go to town with Halloween here for their kids, which is awesome. I love how the littlies dress up and go trick or treating in our ‘hood and I think this year I’ll try do something for them on the 31st. Of course for the big people here in Cape Town, there’s now an annual zombie walk and, of course, the South African Horrorfest.
Wole: Tell me a bit about South African Horrorfest and Bloody Parchment.
Nerine: The South African HorrorFest is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Paul Blom and Sonja Ruppersberg, who’ve been keeping this horror festival going for 12 years now. This festival celebrates the best of horror cinema over the years at Cape Town’s rather quaint Labia theatre complex, which is something of an institution for serious film-goers (both the festival and the cinema).
I forget how many years ago exactly, but I approached them with the idea of running a supplementary literary festival for local SFF authors to showcase their darker fiction, and so the Bloody Parchment event came into being. Because our aim is to develop fiction, we also run a competition each year where the first prize is a round of developmental edits for the winner, and short story edits for the two runners-up. It’s important that we keep this going, because there is so little aimed at SFF in this country.
Wole: Do you think South African horror has any recurring themes? Any subjects or aspects of living in South Africa you see explored repeatedly or in different ways by multiple authors?
Nerine: I most certainly do see recurring themes, perhaps the most enduring being the myth of the Tokoloshe, which I’ve seen treated in some of the submissions over the years. African mythology and folklore offers a deep well from which authors can draw inspiration, but I’ve also recently seen authors write stories featuring some of the grislier topics, such as muthi killings (I can think of Angela Meadon’s Strong Medicine off the top of my head).
Tell me more about your own work with horror fiction and Lights Out: Resurrection.
Wole: Well, I don’t usually write horror fiction myself, I’m more of a science fiction and fantasy guy. But I do enjoy horror stories and movies. I am looking forward to reading the collection African Monsters, edited by Margret Helgadottir. For me, Lights Out: Resurrection is a special case because of its history. In 2011, my friends, series creator, Chioma Odukwe and TNC founder, Wale Adetula decided to do something fun for Halloween – publish a series of scary Nigerian stories online. It started as a bit of a fun, side-project called Lights Out. It was a hit with readers. Since then, Chioma, Wale and I have arranged the Lights Out special every Halloween, working with some of our favorite Nigerian writers while always trying new themes and new writers.
This year, we decided to make the Lights Out series a full-fledged book, a continent-wide anthology with a firm theme – Resurrection. We also decided to release the entire book online for readers to download as PDF, read and enjoy. Those who wish to and are able to can get paperback copies from Amazon to support us. We were also determined to pay our contributors because too often in African publishing, authors are asked to submit stories for no payment. I don’t like that.
As I explain in the introduction, we chose the theme because ‘resurrection’ has two meanings:
- To raise from the dead
- To bring to view, attention, or, to use again
Similarly, we called this collection Lights Out: Resurrection for two reasons:
- The original stories focus on the return of the dead or forgotten in one form or another.
- The reprinted stories have either appeared in print but not online before or are revised, reused versions of stories from the previous editions of Lights Out that also explore the subject of resurrection.
I reached out to several writers from all over the continent. Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, beyond Africa, everywhere I had a lead. Unfortunately, the time to produce the book was short and not all of the writers could meet the deadline so it ended up being mostly authors from Nigeria and South Africa. Still, I am glad we got a good response and 10 very different, excellent stories.
Now there are many ways of defining horror: many subcategories – psychological thriller, dark fantasy, body horror, bizarro, sci-fi horror, weird fiction, so so so many. However there’s another way to look at it which I prefer. If you look at writing as a type of “emotional engineering” where the goal of the author is to induce some feeling into the reader, then horror can be defined as fiction in which the authors primary objective is to engineer a feeling of discomfort in the reader, a feeling of ‘wrongness’ of things. No matter how it’s done, if that discomfort and wrongness is successfully induced, horror has been created. Fear comes naturally from being uncomfortable. From knowing that things in the world are fundamentally different from what you expect them to be. That’s my working definition. I mean, I could write a horror story with no supernatural elements, nothing unexplained, no killers and still make it horror by focusing on the discomfort and wrongness the characters feel, which the reader will then feel as well.
In selecting stories, chose stories with a variety of lengths and styles – psychological horror, supernatural horror, dark fantasy, sci-fi horror, even what would be recognizable to some as ‘Nollywood’-style horror but I wanted that discomfort to always be present and foregrounded. I also tried to choose stories with a bit more depth than just simple scares. Stories that explored some aspect of relationships, culture, history, belief, but with a horror lens, a horror transform, if you will. I hope the readers enjoy them.
For Lights Out: Resurrection, I decided to reprint your excellent story “Shame” which I found incredibly gripping. Without giving any ‘spoilers’, where did the idea for the story come from?
Nerine: Ah, “Shame” is a bit of an odd fish. I never meant for it to be so long, but the story wanted to tell itself. As a white African, I sometimes struggle intensely with my sense of “African-ness”, especially in the light of so much antipathy towards white Africans in the media (and all the stereotypes thrown around). I often feel like I exist out of time, and in my more negative moments, that I’m culturally irrelevant. It’s so easy to feel despondent when people toss accusations at you based on your race and heritage (especially if your ancestors were directly responsible for a great societal ill), and it’s difficult to talk back, because often dialogue is shut down before it even gets off the ground. But then there’s that sense of helplessness in current climes as well, that I wanted to tap into, of being swept away by circumstances. This is where my protagonist comes in. She’s Afrikaans and in a relationship with a black man, and she’s now finally taking him to meet her (very) conservative parents in small, fictional Karoo town (awkward doesn’t even begin to cover it). While she’s been able to move beyond her upbringing, others are still caught in a society distorted by racial prejudice, and to make matters worse, their visit coincides with another, more awful event. During the late 1980s, many white South Africans spoke of the Night of Long Knives, so I wanted to examine that sense of horror of the inevitable happening. This is a story about helplessness, and realizing that at the end of the day that you are the only one you can rely on to escape your existential horror – and sometimes even that is not enough.
Wole: Your story embodies everything I find great about horror. To me, horror is not really about monsters and spirits and all that, its about the fear and discomfort that comes from realizing something is fundamentally not as we expect it to be, about realization. The monsters and ghosts and events that happen in horror stories are tools to explore that. Horror writers focus on that fear and discomfort, give it form and name and feeling. This is a universal thing and therefore, contrary to what some people have said to me, horror fiction is just as African as any other type of writing. There are and have been lots of changes on the continent.
Something less serious then, who is your favorite fictional character and why?
Nerine: This totally depends on where I’m at. I’ve recently reread Robin Hobb’s Farseer books that feature a royal bastard who’s trained as an assassin, and whose entire existence sees him as a catalyst bringing about change in world events. FitzChivalry Farseer suffers much at the hands of others, yet he is a well-meaning, deeply caring man who often is forced to make difficult decisions often with catastrophic consequences for him and others. The depth and breadth of Hobb’s writing, and the sheer amount of detail and subtle shadings of nuance she brings across in her stories are absolutely staggering. I love her writing for the fact that it wrenches your heart and immerses you in another world with so much tactile detail that you feel as if you’re living Fitz’s life with him. There were parts of his story that made me cry real, ugly tears.
What are you reading at the moment?
Wole: I just finished reading “Salvation of a Saint” by Keigo Higashino which is a clever little murder mystery in which right from the first chapter we sort-of know who did it and why but don’t know how. The crime seems impossible. I’ve also slowly been reading the stories in the 29th edition of Gardner Dozois’s annual anthology “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” for a while now. Almost finished. I plan to finally read Teju Cole’s Open City once I’m done. I’m also (always) reading several short stories in magazines and online anyway.
What about you, are you reading anything interesting at the moment?
Nerine: I’m currently reading a bunch of different books (as always) but I’ll mention dipping into Alexandre Dumas for the first time, and once you get past his mannered style, you discover an author who possesses a keen eye for detail and social commentary. The Count of Monte Cristo is a time capsule that allows a glimpse into another era. Yes, sometimes as a modern reader, I have to eye roll a little at some of the characters’ attitudes, but it’s an absolute pleasure to discover something a little different from my usual fare. Another novel I will mention is Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, which is book #2 of his Gentleman Bastards series. His writing is incredibly textured and detailed, so it’s the kind of story you read slowly while savouring. (And he’s not for everyone!) I’m seeing parallels between him and Dumas, and it is quite the coincidence that I’ve picked up both these books round about the same time.
Wole: You’ve written several novels and short stories. Do you have any new fiction out now or coming out soon and where can we find it?
Nerine: I admit that I hit a bit of a dead patch recently due to the fact that I’d been studying and I’d had a sudden (and unexpected) career change. Going freelance as a designer, editor and author has certainly been quite liberating, but it’s not been without its challenges, so I’ve unfortunately not had as much time as I’d have liked to for writing. That being said, I recently saw two novelettes published in Storm Constantine’s Para Animalia anthology for her continued releases in her Wraeththu Mythos. It’s been an absolute honour to be part of her setting, as she’s one of the authors who inspired me to write the kinds of stories that I do. To be working with her now is most certainly a high point of my career. She’s an absolutely brilliant editor who knows how to coax better writing out of me.
I’ve a few upcoming short story releases that I’m looking forward to brag about, but other than that, nothing new novel length. I am, however, busy writing a novel-length work for Storm’s Wraeththu Mythos, and I’ve another novel that I’m busy revising for an editor who requested revisions, so there’s a lot happening under the surface, so to speak. For those wanting to read my existing novels, I recommend picking up my The Wayfarer bundle that features some of my best work collected in one volume: https://www.amazon.com/Wayfarer-Four-Tales-Nerine-Dorman-ebook/dp/B019HZXZZU – its great value for what you pay for it.
What are you writing or editing at the moment?
Wole: Well, I’ve just finished a editing a few stories I sold, one called ‘The Last Lagosian’ coming out in the next issue of the ever-excellent Omenana. And another, ‘The Regression Test’ will appear in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), which I am quite pleased about. I am also working on a couple of stories set in space which is excellent because it has given me an excuse to study elements of rocketry, astrodynamics and planetology. I keep a list of all the stuff I’ve written, along with links to read on my blog. It is updated as new stuff is published. https://wtalabi.wordpress.com/published-fiction/
This has been a conversation with Wole Talabi and Nerine Dorman. You can read all the stories in Lights Out: Resurrection here.
Becky Spratford, from the American Libraries Association interviews Lights Out: Resurrection contributor Nuzo Onoh here.
For fans of African horror fiction, there will be a discussion on ‘Exploring Horror Fiction in Africa’ moderated by Pemi Aguda and Geoff Ryman at the Ake arts and book festival, Saturday November 19 at 12 noon.
Click HERE to register for the Ake festival.
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