An Interview with Tade Thompson

Sofia Samatar

SS: You seem busy, Tade! Your debut Making Wolf won the 2016 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award; Rosewater is out this fall; your novella GNAW is coming in December. How do you find, or make, the time?

TT: When you make sleep optional there are so many opportunities that open up.

I’m half-kidding. It’s true that I don’t sleep a lot. Six hours seems to be enough for me. While I don’t advocate this for everyone, I’m one of those people who write every day. Most of it is twee nonsense, but some of it can be salvaged in the rewrite. I also have a strict “work first, play later” relationship with television, modern society’s big time sink. I never watch scheduled programming. I watch on my own terms. I’ve done so since 2001.

I’m also quite organised. My dayjob is time-consuming and requires a lot of study to keep a sharp edge. I have no choice but to use my time wisely.

There’s a Nigerian saying that encapsulates all this: Naija no dey carry last!

SS: What was the seed that brought Rosewater to life? What was the idea that sparked the story, and when did you realize it was going to be a full-fledged novel?

TT: For this answer, we should go back to 2004. I wrote a story called “The McMahon Institute for Unquiet Minds” which was ultimately published in Ideomancer Vol. 4, # 3 (2005). I wrote the story about the aftermath of an invasion, although it was not understood. It was about survival in London after civilization had collapsed. I kept thinking about that world, and I kept asking myself “why?”

If we take as a given that aliens exist, why would they visit us? What do they want? What makes the energy and personnel expenditure of interstellar travel worth it? How would they do it? I felt that the standard invasion trope of a big-ass mothership announcing arrival and shooting everything to dust didn’t make sense except perhaps from a colonialist perspective. Once I decided to dispense with sturm und drang, the rest of the mechanics of the invasion became clear. It was an iterative process, but one that I enjoyed.

Over the years, almost as a literary exercise, I kept elaborating on the reasons for whatever happened, and the effects on society. I wrote other stories in that world while I was working out the intricacies. “Slip Road” was one (published in Expanded Horizons, 2009), and “Bicycle Girl” was another.

I wrote two novel-length histories of how the world ended up the way it did, but I suppose I did not have a reason to write Rosewater until I had a strong protagonist. Kaaro, my morally-challenged protagonist, dropped into my head one afternoon, almost with a full life history. Setting it in Nigeria was a no-brainer. Being a former colony gives a country a better perspective on alien conquest.

SS: Tell us a bit more about Kaaro. How is he morally challenged?

TT: Kaaro is a thief, a coward, and a hedonist, at least in the early part of his life.

Rosewater is an interwoven narrative showing two parts of Kaaro’s life, youth and middle age.

The alien invasion has left him with some abilities which, in his younger days, he uses for personal gain, despite the fact that he comes from a relatively privileged background. The money he steals is wasted on drink, drugs, escorts, and general dissipation. By middle age, he is jaded, working for the government, and disinterested in heroics.

I tried to contrast the different times of his life, and to show how Kaaro the younger became Kaaro the older. I treated them as different people, different characters in the book.

Whether it works or not remains to be seen.

SS: There seems to be a lot of play with old and new here—the old Kaaro of the present, and the young Kaaro of the past.  I’m interested in how the dynamics of old and new relate to your alien invasion. On the one hand, you say you don’t want an old, colonialist invasion story; on the other hand, Nigeria seems a perfect setting precisely because it’s a former colony. Can you say more about how your alien invasion does and does not relate to colonialism and standard science fiction tropes? How are you invoking the past, and how are you searching for something new?

TT: Excellent question.

Some of these uncertainties will be resolved by reading the book, and it may be disingenuous to explain too much here. For example, there is a relationship with ectoplasm and Victorian psychics. Classic alien invasion stories have big, set-piece motherships or smaller spaceships, and overt physical violence with which they plan to subdue the local population (in other words, just like the colonialist powers, and I am aware of the simplification). The invasion in Rosewater has more in common with neocolonialism. It’s invisible, it’s insidious, but it’s no less harmful. There is complicity. The old and new Kaaro reflect the old Nigerian colony and the neocolonialism that we experience now.

Most alien invasion narratives assume the aliens are more advanced than we are. To my mind, if they were more advanced, especially in their thinking, they would find a more subtle way of taking over. It would be a matter of steering rather than dominating with mind-blowing weaponry which has an annoying knack of stimulating rebellion. Unlike many invasion narratives this is not a war story, or a post-apocalyptic, post-invasion survivalist plot. That’s not to say war is not coming to the world of Rosewater. Just not in this book.

That’s also not to say this is not a violent book. “You guys always bring me the very best violence” is my favourite quote from Serenity. There is violence in life. Fiction should reflect that.

My hope would be that different readers would be able to pick up different things. If you want to read an interesting science fiction book, there’s that. If you want to pick up matters to do with geopolitical context, there’s that. If you want to look at gender politics, there’s that. Fun for all the family.

SS: Tell me about your relationship with the African blue butterfly, charaxes smaragdalis.

TT: It’s my Rosewater totem. Once I committed to writing the novel, I had a dream or reverie where a gigantic blue butterfly settled on my forehead. It stayed long enough for me to get a good impression of its wing pattern. I woke, sketched it, and checked what it was in Google Images. I found charaxes and decided to take the experience as mystical (which is probably my subconscious telling me, “I will guide you through this. Here’s a colourful butterfly to distract you from the work”). I found out that these butterflies have a predilection for rotting matter and animal faeces, which suited the themes of Rosewater. Before this, I had no interest in butterflies. Although I often draw insects, I had never drawn a butterfly prior to that day. It’s just one of those things.

SS: You’ve said that your stories are “about people, with incidental science,” which really resonates with me. I wonder what you think of the argument that writers who make their science incidental instead of central are not writing real science fiction, and perhaps even weakening the genre. Thoughts?

TT: The idea of “real” science fiction is elitist bullshit. There are those who think science fiction is one thing, a narrow and, frankly, unconsidered view. There are two elements at the core of a science fiction tale: at least one science and entities interacting/intersection with that science (usually, but not always humans. Even when inhuman, they are human-proxies). The amount of “science” or “human” in the science fiction story is a spectrum.

If you want pure science, crack open a textbook or buy a journal. Fiction is about people. To foreground people as opposed to science does not weaken the genre, it opens it up. Insisting on one incarnation of a phenomenon is antiscientific. Science observes phenomena and incorporates new manifestations into the corpus. “Real” science fiction reminds me of certain academics who are ossified in their little knowledge fiefdoms. The human factor is messy. The human factor cannot be quantified with P-values and Confidence Intervals. This horrifies some readers and writers, but I love it. There is nothing wrong with foregrounding science, but there is room in genre for every flavour. More variety leads to more fans. That can’t be a bad thing.

SS: You write short fiction as well as longer works. Can you talk about the differences between those forms? I always feel that each story demands its own particular form, but I wonder what those demands are for other writers. Are there any elements, any characteristics of a story idea that make you think “this is a short story” or “this is a novel”?

TT: This sounds like a question for Kelly Link or George Saunders.

I guess short fiction is a sprint and a novel is a marathon. Both require the development of different kinds of discipline, even though they are styles of competitive running.

A single idea cannot sustain a novel (or, at least not a good novel). The writer must corral a multitude of ideas, impressions, half-truths, all of which may need to generate more. The best novels have novelty, by which I mean new information as you proceed page after page. It could be insight into the character, or plot unfolding, but there will be new elements as you go along.

A short story can be written around a single idea, or even a fragment of an idea. That said, masters of the form like Link can compress a large number of ideas into a short narrative. I just don’t think a short story can perform the kind of character exploration that long-form fiction does. Space is at a premium, which doesn’t lend itself to languid psychic meandering. Short fiction is hard, and it’s a form I continue to learn and learn about.

When I’m struck by an idea for a story the first thing I do is interrogate it. What I’m trying to determine is what kind of legs the idea has. No legs? Discard or keep aside to be cross-bred with others. If, on examination, the idea blooms into other ideas which themselves bloom…it’s likely to be a book.

SS: Can we talk about the African Speculative Fiction Society and the newly launched Nommo Awards?! This is an exciting moment for African SFF, and it’s a discussion that’s been building for a while. What do you have to say about how the ASFS came to be, and what are your hopes for the organization?

TT: This discussion has been going on for a long time, with surges triggered by the fallacy that there are no fans or writers of sci-fi/fantasy on the continent. I’m pretty much of the opinion that if you aren’t invited to the table, build your own. I don’t like talking; I like doing. Okay, I do like talking, but I like talk that leads to action. Any other kind bores me to tears.

We applied that Project Management question to the situation: what are the obstacles to achieving this? Once we had listed those out, we systematically worked our way through each one. When I say it like this, it sounds like an easy, civilised process with cookies and milk. In fact it was emotive, with over 3500 messages exchanged, and hackles rising and falling. The simplest of things, we found, were not simple at all. What is an African? Who gets to be called an African?  Who is eligible? People who have spent time shedding their African identity might reconsider when money is involved. How do we deal with privilege? Where should the ASFS be incorporated? How do we securely store personal data? Do we go Hugo-style or Nebula-style?

There are some foreign actors who believe sci-fi should be a tool for driving development in African nations. I do not subscribe to that view. SFF is its own thing, although development is a welcome side-effect. It is also not the case that SFF is exclusively about the future. It is about the present, and it is about reclaiming narratives of the past, something urgently needed in African and Diaspora literature (cases in point: Everfair by Nisi Shawl and Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood). Such narrow-minded futuristic gazes lead to the erroneous conflation of African SFF with Afrofuturism.

None of this was easy, but we got through it, or are still going through with it. We have funding for a few years thanks to the Ilube Family. The inaugural awards will be 2017 and we’re looking forward to it. There are already strong contenders.

The goal is to promote equality and parity of esteem in SFF. With awards to look forward to, and a prize of a meaningful amount, we hope to encourage excellence and at the same time, highlight talent from the continent. There will be an associated journal for the purpose of reviews and essays. There is an explosion of comics and graphic art sweeping across the African speculative fiction scene right now, and it shows no signs of slowing.

The sooner Africa is considered just another continent better. I’m tired of the “oh, look, science fiction from Africa” response, which has a whiff of exoticism. Laing and Fagunwa were published decades ago. Why is this still a thing?

So, we will honour the best African work and our Dogon hermaphorditic mermaid guiding spirit (nommo) will watch over us.

A lot needs to be done by way of getting the French, Arabic and indigenous language work into the mix, but this is why it’s such a massive undertaking.

SS: Absolutely—the field is dizzyingly large, which makes the project both daunting and thrilling. I’m eager to see where it goes.

I want to ask you about what you’ve been reading lately. What’s something you’ve read recently that you’d like to recommend? What are you excited about?

TT: In no particular order:

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. It’s a book of poetry with a massive dose of honesty in a writer so young.

Animal Money by Michael Cisco. This is a masterwork of surrealism. More people need to read this guy.

 To Shape the Dark is a science fiction anthology edited by Athena Andreadis which contains amazing work.

 Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett is visceral, absurdist, excellent.

I tend to read a lot of works simultaneously. Currently, I’m reading From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra and Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton (which my wife bought me to get me to shut up about the musical).

SS: Finally, what’s next for you? What are you working on?

TT: Let’s see, working on the edits for the African edition of Making Wolf, which is interesting because a book for a non-Western audience comes across as patronizing when you explain local customs. I’m learning a lot. We expect this to be out by the end of September, with new cover art and everything. I’m doing the revisions for a sci-fi horror novella called The Murders of Molly Southbourne, the first draft of which dominated my spring and summer. I’m writing a short story called “The Dairo Protocols” for Milton Davis’ Dark Universe. This is the first time I’ve ever played in someone else’s sandbox and I’m enjoying it immensely.

I’m writing a new novel in the Rosewater world. Not exactly a sequel, but some of the old characters have walk-on parts. I expect this to take 18 months to final submission draft. I have no title yet, and the placeholder title would give a fundamental plot point away.

SS: So in other words—not slowing down. At all. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions!

tade-8Tade Thompson lives and works in the south of England. His background is in medicine, psychiatry and anthropology. His first novel Making Wolf won the Golden Tentacle Award at The Kitshies. His most recent works are the short story “The Apologists” in Interzone #266, “Decommissioned” in the NewCon Press anthology Crises and Conflicts, and the novel Rosewater from Apex Books.