The Darkness Behind My Book

During the launch of my first collection of short stories, A Killing in the Sun, one very irritating question kept coming up. What inspired you? It’s the brother of that question every writer hates. Where did you get that idea? Alongside it came its sisters, how did you get into sci-fi? Why do you write sci-fi and fantasy? I always pause before answering these questions, because it’s like asking me how I learned how to breathe.

Well, maybe not, but I don’t like that question because I think I’m never inspired. I always work very hard to drag stories out of the depths where they are buried in a pile of poop. To say ‘inspired’ is to make it seem like the idea dropped out of the sky and fell into my head. But it’s never like that. Every minute, things go into me and they have to come out at some point. The life I live dictates the stories I tell. Am I inspired to live? Well, no, I’m never inspired to live. I just live because I found myself alive. It’s a struggle to stay alive, to survive, to find even just an iota of happiness. The experience of it floods my brains like raw excreta. I have to digest all this poop, and then vomit out a refined product that smells of blood-stained roses. These are very negative images with which to describe myself and my writing, but I don’t lived a life of sweet roses. Rather, it’s one of pain and fear and self-doubt and agony and endless rejection. In other words, life sucks, and it will always suck, and only through writing can I make sense of it.

Take the title story, A Killing in the Sun, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. It’s about a soldier facing the firing squad, but memories of his childhood surface to turn his execution into a horror. I first wrote it in 2002, I think. At that time, two soldiers in Karamoja were accused of killing a priest, and shot dead after a trial that some people said was questionable. Their pictures appeared on the front pages. One captured my attention. In it the soldier’s zip was open, exposing a very clean and white pair of underpants. That image troubled me.

It made me think about the first few years of my life. The night I was born, so I’m told, my mother was screaming in labor. The neighbors did not come to help, for they thought soldiers had attacked our home. There was gunfire that night, for it was on the eve of New Year, and maybe the drunken soldiers, lacking fireworks, were celebrating by shooting into the air. Only one brave woman came to my mother’s help. She had nothing but a bed sheet wrapped around her waist, and she drove like mad to take my mother to hospital (by the way, this is how I got the name Dilman, but that’s a story for another day). Thus I came to this world under threat of being shot by a drunken, trigger-happy soldier. 

For the next ten years there was a civil war in Uganda. It was common for us to find guns and bullets abandoned in our playgrounds. We kept hearing stories of children who were blown up because they played with strange metals. News of people disappearing forever was rather common. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a soldier walking behind a long line of people. Each person carried a heavy piece of luggage. Loot, we were told. The soldier had taken a walk in some neighborhood, looting shops and homes, and he had forced these people to carry the booty to the army barracks. He kept shooting to make them walk faster. The image reminded me of slave trade pictures in history books. 

So when I saw the photo of a soldier with his pants unzipped, a few moments before he died, all these things came tumbling through my head and I had to write that story. Some will call that inspiration. I call it taking a poop to relieve myself of accumulated garbage.

I could give similar background material for most of the stories. Like The Doctor’s Truck, from my many years working in rural areas with NGOs on community development; Okello’s Honeymoon, from a pretty disastrous relationship, or maybe from the fear of getting hitched; The Leafy Man, from an article I read about two scientists trying to change the genes of a mosquito, and I read it at a time when I was sick with malaria every month, and I was scared I would one time go down and never wake up. 

Signing a copy for Auma Obama, the first buyer of the book. Photo courtesy of: Nyana Kakoma, of So Many Stories
Reading from the book during the launch at Storymoja Festival 2014, Nairobi. Photo courtesy of: Nyana Kakoma, So Many Stories

Two stories in the collection were born from the two years I spent in Nepal. These are Lights on Water, and A Wife and A Slave. Both are sci-fi, set in the future, and both discuss racism in its worst form. I’ve already written about my experiences in Nepal, but to give you a hint, at one time this woman, a friend to whose house I was going, told her baby something similar to ‘that black man is going to eat you.’ She was laughing as the baby wailed in sheer terror. At another time a girl screamed on seeing me, thinking she had seen a demon. In Nepali/Hindu cultures, black is associated with demons.

The trauma of living in such an environment gave me evil thoughts, like raping that woman and impregnating her with a child. What I was thinking about was that if she had a black child, she would not think of black people as demons. She would not use me to scare her child. She would not tell her child that I eat people. The reason they think habsis are demons is because they have never lived with habsis. So rape and impregnate one with a kalo child and they will be forced to love all kalo manches.

At that time, I had not read Nnedi Okorafor’s book, Who Fears Death. I only got to read it this year, and it was like looking into a dark mirror and seeing my dark self grinning at me. That is the power of speculative fiction, of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. It presents a platform to examine humanity from a unique point of view. Think of George Orwell’s 1984, would it have been as powerful if it were not sci-fi? And Lord of the Rings, born out of the same environment of Nazi Europe, would it have been as powerful if it were not fantasy? If I had not read Who Fears Death, I would have never imagined that my reaction to this Nepali woman was a seed of using weaponized rape in ethnic cleansing. Even if I had read the article that got Nnedi to writing that book, I don’t think it would have forced me to re-examine myself. I would have continued to believe that I was a good guy, that I could never descend to such bestial evil, that my reaction was justifiable. I could read that article in one sitting, but the book, I lived with it for two weeks, whenever I got a break from work, whenever I was in a bus stuck in traffic, and every word I read spoke to me with a strong voice.

I had to ask Nnedi what she thought of this, and she responded in a tweet, see below.

@dilmandila that was some REAL writing. Thank you for sharing it. I know that took a lot. Wow. few can write with such honesty. *Applause*.
— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) September 25, 2014

After reading an advance copy of A Killing in the Sun, Ivor Haartman, editor of AfroSF, sent me an email, saying he was working on AfroSF 2, and he wanted me to contribute. He particularly wanted a story set in that dark world of the stories mentioned above, Lights on Water and A Wife and A Slave. That world? I don’t like even thinking about that world and I was hoping never to go there again. But he said, “Yes, I hear you there, it is a scary world, very scary, and that’s why I like it, it’s a big warning, a needed warning.”

I was recently chatting with a friend, someone I met in Nepal, and she told me, ‘Surely Dilman, you did experience some good things in Nepal.’ I did. A lot of good things, which kind of outweighed the bad, and which is why I stayed there for two years, but I wish my mind was like the rest of you guys. I wish it could store the good, and never remember the bad. But my head is a terrible thing, and all the shit that happens in my life ends up in a big cooking pot up there, only to come out as stories. Which is why I call myself a social activist, for I want these stories to speak to the reader the way Who Fears Death spoke to me, the way it showed me my dark self.

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