The History of the Future with Tochi Onyebuchi
Interview by Gillian St. Clair
Written by Juliet White
Welcome to post-apocalyptic Nigeria, in the year 2172—although welcome is the last descriptor that should be applied to a landscape ravaged by climate change, nuclear fallout, and civil war. Inspired by the past, yet set in the future, Tochi Onyebuchi’s War Girls is a gripping contradiction that explores one possible outcome of the decisions we’re making in the present. Just as the author uses his dual career paths as lawyer and writer to enhance his prose, he deftly unites the seemingly disparate Biafran War, waged in the 1960s, with a sci-fi world occupied by mechs, and humans equipped with artificial body parts.
War Girls is told from the perspectives of two sisters, Onyii and Ify, who live in a hidden refugee camp, until an attack leaves them stranded on opposing sides of the war. “The first thing Onyii does every morning is take off her arm.” This opening line instantly snares readers, just as Onyebuchi intended. “I wanted to evoke a sense of war time but show that, in this beginning moment, the girls are living in relative peace. I was very happy when that came to me because there was a lot of worldbuilding, just in that one sentence. You have a sense that there’s this greater conflict going on and also that this protagonist isn’t what she may seem. Taking off her arm. What does that mean? All of a sudden these questions are blossoming.”
"If you can’t sit on a panel and explain to an audience why you made a character a specific way and why you stand by that, then maybe you shouldn’t have made that choice." - @TochiTrueStory #wargirls #yaauthor
Regardless of the era in which war rages, its core legacy of violence, loss, pain, and displacement remain the same. “The issues of childhood trauma and the ways we’re forced to sublimate that or reckon with it, the ways in which children are manipulated by people older than them, those dynamics have been around as long as humans,” Onyebuchi observed. “It’s just the manifestations and level of technology involved tends to change. It’s unfortunate how relevant a story like War Girls is. I don’t know how much my readership will know about the Biafran War. My hope is that, after reading, they might be encouraged to look into some of the resources I point out.”
The Biafran War had its roots in British colonial rule and its aftermath, which pushed people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds into one nation. The north of Nigeria was mostly Muslim while Igbos, who practiced Christianity, lived in the southern part of the country. During the 1960s, a coup and subsequent countercoup led to Muslim military rule. In the north massacres displaced many Igbos, who streamed east. In 1967, the Republic of Biafra was established in eastern Nigeria. Federal forces tried to reclaim the separatist state and civil war ensued. Most of the international community supported federal forces when they blockaded Biafra, severing access to communications, currency, trade, and food. In the famine that followed, approximately one million people died of malnutrition and starvation.
History provides us with an enduring lesson in inequality and the suffering that comes with it, whether the cause is war or something more gradual, like climate change. “One of the things that makes fiction powerful is that we can postulate worlds where we’ve dealt in equitable ways with the consequences of climate change,” Onyebuchi noted, “but fiction [also] allows us to envision these futures where we haven’t. What will it look like for [the] people left?”
“Look at the way climate change has been affecting various parts of the world. You have coastal cities that are in danger, islands in the Pacific that will not exist in a dozen years, the desertification of the Sahara Desert. That, in turn, is moving entire tribes into areas that they hadn’t lived in before. In all these places, people with resources insulate themselves from the worst consequences, whereas you have entire other swaths of the population dealing with droughts now.”
Onyebuchi hasn’t shied away from tackling tough issues in his novels, but he believes that how they’re treated is critical. “Everything should be written about but that doesn’t absolve the writer of responsibility for treating that subject accordingly,” he said. “I look at a movie like Spotlight, which deals with the scandal of pedophilia in the Catholic Church and the newspaper (The Boston Globe) that helped uncover the horrific wrongs that were being perpetrated in that environment. This is a story about pedophilia, yet it’s respectful to the victims.”
“I’m personally of the philosophy that nobody should need to ask permission to write something,” Onyebuchi said, “but you need to really be on point. If you’re going to be a white author writing about Black characters and you decide that you want to have them speak in this parody of Ebonics and make them all drug dealers, don’t do that. But, at the same time, look at a TV show like The Wire, which was created by two white guys, David Simon and Ed Burns. If you’re going to make a particular narrative choice, you need to be able to justify that choice. If you can’t sit on a panel and explain to an audience why you made a character a specific way and why you stand by that, then maybe you shouldn’t have made that choice.”
The use of sensitivity readers was intended to reduce the number of thoughtless or offensive portrayals in fiction. Feedback from someone with lived experience can be invaluable, but the role is also open to abuse. “I think publishing houses started using sensitivity readers as this meat shield,” Onyebuchi noted. “They said, ‘Oh, we’ve had sensitivity readers read this. We have our stamp of approval,’ even though very often the reader would have pointed out things that were problematic but the publishing house wouldn’t have listened.”
Another point of frustration for Onyebuchi is how discussions about representation can sometimes actually stall progress. “People are asking questions about what it means to have a dope Black girl on the cover of a YA novel, when we should be far past that. I find myself wishing I [was speaking] on panels about integrating climate change into novels, or where we talk about cyborgs versus androids in fiction, or even how we put together certain scenes. Just craft. That would go a long way in pushing things forward because it would assume that it is a good thing to have a dope Black girl on the cover of a book.”
"I’d been writing since I was little, but everything was a product of what I was reading. All my characters were white people—essentially." - @TochiTrueStory #yaauthor #wargirls
“I’d been writing since I was little, but everything was a product of what I was reading. All my characters were white people—essentially.” That changed when Onyebuchi created his fantasy duology, Beasts Made of Night and Crown of Thunder. “[It] was the very first time I’d considered my heritage and my background as something worth integrating into a story.”
“I am the son of Nigerian immigrants and one dynamic I’ve noticed—and this goes across ethnic boundaries—is that when you are kids, you’re not really interested in where your parents came from. Whenever Mom was talking very loudly on the phone to relatives in Nigeria because the connection was so bad, I would tune it out and be like, ‘Mom’s shouting on the phone again. She must be talking to our relatives.’ The older I got, the more I realized, ‘Wait a second. My family’s history is interesting.’ Then I found out about the [Nigerian] Civil War and I was like, ‘Mom, you were alive for this,’ and she [said], ‘Yeah, I was a kid. I think I’d just finished kindergarten.’”
Onyebuchi had previously only encountered a fictional depiction of the Biafran War in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book won the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and was subsequently made into a movie. “That was the first time it entered my head that these concepts I’d studied in college as a political science major were directly applicable to my family’s life,” Onyebuchi revealed. “[Mom] lived through these African conflicts, so that was the seed that grew into the garden that is War Girls.”
His mother also helped Onyebuchi discover his love of writing. “I was originally going to be a comic book artist—I loved to draw. [When I was] a kid, Mom had this second job where she would go round to office buildings in Connecticut and clean. She would take us along. We would take out trash, wipe down desks, clean toilets. In all of these office buildings, they had three ring binders filled with plain sheets of paper and, because they were getting ready to throw these out, Mom didn’t feel guilty about taking them home. I would instantly fill them up with drawings of characters I would create, many of whom were pastiches of the anime I was watching at the time.”
as watching at the time.” “One day Mom was like, ‘Hey, you have all these characters. Why don’t you write stories about them?’ I think [she] [hoped] that getting me to focus on writing would improve my academic performance. She saw it as the development of a skill, more than the nurturing of creative impulses. In Nigerian households, your grades are your net worth. I found out early on that in creative writing class I could be relied upon to bring home an ‘A.’ You had that positive reinforcement [along] with the fact that I was really enjoying storytelling.”
The visual elements of anime and graphic novels continued to shape Onyebuchi as both a reader and a writer. “One thing I love about the comics medium is trade paperbacks. During the ’90s, they would have these giant crossover events like X-Cutioner’s Song, Age of Apocalypse and The Legacy Virus that would span all these different X books. You had to keep track of these simultaneously-running books in order to get the entire story. The only way I could consume that storyline in its entirety was in the trade paperback format and that’s part of the reason why I love graphic novels as much as I do.”
Onyebuchi cites Akira as one of his biggest influences. “It’s almost damning it with faint praise to call it a graphic novel because it’s over 2000 pages. Few things have expanded my sense of imagination in the way that that book did. Katsuhiro Otomo is a genius—like capital G.”
"I’ve been working on a non-fiction project that should be out in a couple of years" - @TochiTrueStory #authorinterview
Aside from Akira, Onyebuchi recommends Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh. “It’s a young adult novel about badass, female antiheroes. [Also,] Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and then the companion novel Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix? Extraordinary. Blew my mind. And if you’re looking for really compelling books about Africa, and specifically Nigeria, Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There was a Country, is like the touchstone for me.”
In nonfiction, Onyebuchi found A Moonless Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo enthralling. The book tells “the stories of people living their domestic lives in the midst of extremist environments. One example is this girl in Somalia who loves playing basketball and has aspirations to play professionally. But she has to deal with Al-Shabaab terrorists in her country, car bombings in Mogadishu every single day, and this regime trying to crush the independence of girls like her. You have the story of [an] anti-slavery activist in Mauritania, where there is still slavery, the story of these child soldiers in Uganda. [This book is] one of the perfect tools in combatting the idea that, one, Africa is a country, and, two, it’s filled with cardboard caricatures of people in poverty with distended bellies, whose only need is to be rescued.”
Onyebuchi is conscious of the ability and responsibility of the artist to expose injustice. “I’ve been working on a non-fiction project that should be out in a couple of years,” he said. “Over the course of researching, I came across this roundtable discussion that James Baldwin had participated in, sometime in the 1960s. It’s the one where he gives that famous quote, ‘to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ He talks about the role of the artist in the era of social justice and speaks to the occasional guilt that a writer may feel for not literally throwing their body onto the gears of the machine. [However,] he recognizes there are people who are much better than him at doing that.”
much better than him at doing that.” “When the first iteration of the Muslim ban went into effect, I had friends who were corporate attorneys who took cabs to JFK to file habeas corpus petitions for migrants who were in the process of being banned from the country and being sent back. That’s them perfectly using their powers for good. Then I looked at myself and I was like, ‘Why am I not at JFK right now?’ [But] I might have gotten in the way. I don’t want to be taking up space that is and should be reserved for organizers. That isn’t to say I can’t raise awareness—my platform as a writer positions me perfectly for that— but the writer as activist is very different than the organizer as activist. It’s different from the legislator as activist. Recognizing that allows me a sense of relative peace.”
Early on, Onyebuchi had accepted the idea that he would need to follow parallel career paths and balance his roles as lawyer and author. “Going back to the immigrant mindset, it wasn’t until recently that I realized it was possible for me to have a feasible career as just a writer. Growing up, it was always, ‘I will be a writer and…’ That was part of why I was cool with going to law school. I can never not write; it’s like breathing. Having that certainty freed me up to go about collecting experiences because it was this reservoir that I could dip into, to power my fiction and even my nonfiction. The experiences I had, particularly working with Colombia’s Mass Incarceration Clinic and with parolees on Rikers Island when I was with Legal Aid, all of that is continuing to make its way into my writing. Nothing is wasted.”
War Girls was released on 10/15/19.
What is your favorite dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA book or series?
Let us know in the comments down bellow!
"I wanted to evoke a sense of war time but show that, in this beginning moment, the girls are living in relative peace." - @TochiTrueStory #yaauthor #wargirls
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2019 issue of Curiositales. If you would like to receive a free digital copy of the magazine, sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page! Then, confirm your email address (be sure to check your spam folder). Once you click the link in your welcome email, you'll get regular news from Curiositales, including notifications when the latest magazine is published. You can unsubscribe whenever you like. Or, you can read it for free here.
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