“My feelings on current affairs bleed into my writing” an interview with Reni K Amayo
By Yasmina Nuny
Reni K Amayo grew up on all genres of books, but she had a certain penchant towards fantasy novels. She mentions Twilight, reminiscing about the days that the Meyer novels were all the hype, and, encouraged by my vigorous nod of ‘Black-girl-bookworm’ solidarity, she adds, “it was one of those series that was just so impactful”. They were; I have distinct memories of Team Jacob vs Team Edward debates and I was proudly on the former. Soon, though, my passion for fantasy literature dried up, and I traded them in for novels by Black female writers of the likes of Chimamanda Adichie and Tsitsi Dangaremba. Reni cites Octavia Butler and we agree that their novels are beautiful and necessary but also leave us broken as we (re)live all too familiar colonial and racialised hardships. Our conversation flows easily, our common understanding a subtext as I interview her.
A little embarrassed, I tell her that it had never occurred to me that fantasy novels by and featuring Black people were a thing until I had read her debut novel, Daughters of Nri. Upon reflection, it seems silly to assume an entire genre to be devoid of Black voices, but she assures me that many of us have had to unlearn the notion. Though Black fantasy authors exist and are on the rise, they are still largely underrepresented in the world of publishing and it is true for most genres. The first novel that Reni had ever read with a Black girl as a protagonist, she remembers, was Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman. In the fantasy genre, however, she tells me, “It was still difficult to find ones that focused on Black people, so I ended up reading a lot of Japanese fantasy books, Indian ones as well. I think I was always searching for the type of story that Daughters of Nri was, but I had to get it through writing it as opposed to finding it in a library to read”. Immediately, I am reminded of the Toni Morrison quote, if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Reni’s trajectory into the world of publishing was not linear – if there are such journeys as linear ones, she describes her great love for math as dorky and says that someday she would love to return to university to study pure maths. At university she had studied aeronautical engineering and found herself subsequently in the world of finance, “just because I was in London and it was the thing that everyone did.” Writing, though, had always been a constant in her life and she tells me that she writes every day. “I’ve always been that student that loved Math but also loved English,” she tells me, “my rationale during university was that, I would always be reading or writing something, but what is the likelihood of me staying up at night and solving a math problem if I stop?” She adds, though, that there is an unspoken process when it comes to writing that is similar to math, “there is this aspect of problem-solving because you have this plot that you’re trying to tie up, but how is it going to happen?” Now, she is fully immersed in the world of publishing with Onwe, the independent publishing house that she co-founded off the back of her debut novel.
Reni wasn’t satisfied with the tokenism that she sensed from the world of publishing as she tried to find a home for the novel, “it felt like the genre of Daughters of Nri was ‘a Black book’”, she comments. Observing how, in the 90s, the push of Black books in the name of “diversity is in right now” came crashing down, she wanted to create a publishing house that would not treat her book, and books by other minoritized authors with diverse voices, like a trend. “The industry needs a bit of work, and there was an opportunity for something new that would help to change the industry.” Onwe currently has five upcoming books, including the sequel to hers. “It’s always interesting to see the world of publishing from both sides, as an author and as part of the Onwe team”. She also tells me that she is excited to see what is to come as these books are released and minoritised voices become more than a trend.
Daughters of Nri, Onwe’s “guinea pig” was released in the summer of 2019, the first of a series entitled The Return of the Earth Mother. Set in the medieval Kingdom of Nri, in what is today eastern Nigeria, the story follows twin sisters, separated at birth and unaware of their divine descendance. They are brought up in different worlds, one among the aristocracy headed by the Eze, ruler of Nri who brought the Gods to their knees, and the other in a village that succumbs to the Eze’s tyranny. Unbeknownst to them, their magic – inspired by traditional Igbo faiths and mythologies – and destiny leads them right back to him and to each other.
It was written over five years, “the idea really started with an interest in Black history outside of the narrative of slavery and oppression,” she tells me. Many of us share this sentiment; this year in particular Black academics and content creators have spoken extensively on the need to discuss Blackness and Black histories in frameworks that do not lend themselves to trauma. “The more I looked into it, the more I discovered things that I had no idea about. I had no idea how rich Nigerian mythology was.”
We often talk about Greek and Roman mythologies, and she tells me that she had loved reading and learning about them, but she admits that she had never thought about the possibilities of other world mythologies. It is an unsurprising, and yet still chagrining statement of fact. An Igbo woman herself, the system of mythology found in Daughters of Nri stood out to her. The more she learned about the histories of the region, like the Benin wall and the Kingdom of Nri, she decided that this is where the story needed to be set, “because I wanted to learn more about it, but I also wanted to share it with other people. It isn’t information that should be lost, but it kind of feels like it is.” I ask her, then, how she managed to find enough sources to be able to tell stories that felt like they had been lost. In a chuckle, she tells me, “it was not straightforward.”
Few formal sources of information exist on the Kingdom, she tells me. “A few people before me have done their research and I found great sources, but I couldn’t point to a single book. I found a few different books that would have a chapter related to these histories. Or professors of Black and African history had written very localised papers that I could get some information from.” She adds that, like many African countries, Nigeria has a strong oral tradition, “I’m lucky enough that my dad has always been interested in history and discovering different things from elders” she tells me, “I spent a lot of time speaking to him to match that against what I was learning elsewhere.”
The novel also features characters from different parts of the continent and references places such as Namibia, Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and Timbuktu (city in modern Mali). I tell her that I greatly appreciated the portrayal of Meekulu, the head cook of the Eze’s palace, and the allusions to the character’s Namibian heritage. “I wanted the novel to be cosmopolitan because one of the beauties of Africa is how distinct our different cultures, but we can also find similarities between them. I also wanted to show something beyond Ancient Egypt; we often represent the ancient civilisation that existed there, and the rest of the continent is just grey as if nothing was happening there. I wanted to shed some light on all these different kingdoms that were prominent around the same time.”
Meekulu is the character that I most aligned with when I took the quiz available from Reni’s website. She is described as a wise soul with a passion for travelling and learning. When I ask her which character she most identifies with she tells me that, though Meekulu would be her ideal character, she identifies most with main character Sinai, “it’s so interesting because when you create these characters it’s like a combination of yourself and also pieces of people around you that end up forming this full person.”
Anticipating the sequel of the series, Descendants of the First, I read to her the first line of the blurb available on the Onwe website, “The King is Dead” and explain to her that I had read and finished the book with the backdrop of the #EndSARS uprising in Nigeria. I express to her how much I saw real life – across the world – being reflected in her words, with citizens organising and rising up against their governments, just as the characters of her novel organise and rise up against the Eze. I ask her how much real life inspired her words at the time as she was completing the first book. “A lot of my thoughts and feelings on current affairs bleed into my writing. As I work on the second book, I’m finding myself, and the things that I have been seeing in the world in 2020, coming through in the writing. Sometimes it’s planned, but most times it isn’t and it’s only when I finish it that I recognise it there,” she admits. “As far as Nri’s political system goes, it’s very much reflective of what I was seeing at the time. At the time, I had a huge sense of disappointment in world leaders and how they grasped for power for power’s sake. I really wanted to demonstrate how the Eze took power out of deities’ hands and created a system that was really just smokes and mirrors, which is what I’ve often seen with politics; some messages are brought forward to the public but what is going on behind the scenes is a lot more sinister than it seems.”
Reni tells me how she has felt betrayed by the concept of justice and in particular how it has affected Black people on the African continent and in the diaspora, “I wanted to show that through Amadioha, the God of Justice, who was really the cause of the breakdown in the Kingdom of Nri.” Writing is how Reni purges her frustrations and she tells me that she always appreciates when other people are able to pick up on her sentiments on the world from her writing.
She has more ideas in mind for future projects after the Descendants of the First series. She thinks that she will be writing more fantasy but hopes to also work on projects that have more contemporary settings, and some that will fall into Afrofuturism. She also hopes to work on a romance novel someday.
When I ask her what advice she would want to give to you Black writers, female writers, writers who came from backgrounds like math and finance, she tells me that she would just like to remind them that they are writers, “if you’re thinking about writing, if you are writing, you are literally a writer. The hardest part of writing is doing the writing and getting through that first draft, but once you get through it, it’s just a matter of going back and perfecting it.”