The Earth is dying and mostly abandoned. The generations of those left behind survive on protein bars, enforced entertainments, and the empty promise of ascension if they please their jailers. Pleasures, such as taste and smell, can be had for a price. Their life is hell, so why not get pleasure where they can, even if those tastes and smells and sounds are their own kind of self-inflicted torture? This is the world of Chikodili Emelumadu’s multi-layered story “Soursop.”
If you’ve jumped to this interview before reading “Soursop,” this interview includes a number of spoilers, so I implore you: go read the short story first. This interview will still be here when you get back to it in 20 minutes. Not only am I saving you from spoilers, but I want to see how many of you make the same assumption that I did. It’s something that’s happened to me twice recently, a certain oversight I have made about information in a story that is vaguely presented (or at least vague to me). Once you’ve read the story, let’s talk in the comments below about my “oops” assumption. It’s one of those things that says more about the reader than the writer, and I’m curious to see how many of us are in the same boat.
Chikodili Emelumadu’s short fiction has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, Sub-Q, Electica Magazine, and Apex Magazine. Her Shirley Jackson Award nominated short story “Candy Girl” appeared in Apex Magazine issue 66. She currently lives in England with her family. Learn more about her by visiting her blog, How To Love Igbo Things, where she talks about Igbo culture and music, growing up in Nigeria, writing, and anything else that strikes her fancy.
Chikodili was kind enough to give me a behind the scenes look at the creation of “Soursop,” the connections between food and storytelling, interactive fiction, her new novel, and more.
Apex Magazine: This is a dystopian future in which the Earth’s spin has slowed down, and our planet’s resources have been stripped and taken to space stations to keep what’s left of humanity alive. To be forced to stay on Earth is a death sentence. For the “ground crew” left on Earth, what have they become, biologically and psychologically? What will they become?
Chikodili Emelumadu: Still human biologically, same parts and all, which is why they have to be kept alive through the ’generosity’ of inhabitants of the other Aris planets. Some of their Earth children have started being born with anosmia and nobody can figure out why — I don’t want to say they have devolved a sense of smell because we all know it takes a while, but this is what it feels like. Nobody can figure out why and the ground crew are not priority, nobody cares.
They eat, shag, and sleep and it is all interspersed with work — the kind of back-breaking drudgery that characterises a typical Monday morning in the office — both to keep themselves alive and to keep themselves occupied.
This sort of life screws with their heads. Human beings are not meant to exist in months of darkness or excessive light. You also have to remember these are actually descendants of those left behind, born into nothing but tedium on a huge prison planet, so in a way that is a blessing, never knowing a better life. Perhaps this helps them deal with it all, just getting on with things. There is a lot of competition even if resources are limited, some bartering, people losing their shit, and others trying to keep them in check. Lawlessness, murder, and mayhem are the order of the day but there are periods of docility, the calm before the storm, as it were, brought on by the cooking shows. They are a promise of what they might get should they ever ‘ascend.’ Others might argue this is torture. Because you watch the shows and then what? You eat air?
Basically, Andrea, they’re fucked. And they know it.
AM: As a fan of TV cooking shows, I chuckled at the description of the show’s host, imagining a handful of cooking show hosts you may have been thinking of when you wrote her. Why did you choose a cooking show for the initial step of the protagonist’s “journey”?
CE: I chose food because of its importance to the people of the protagonist’s world. Its absence makes it a valued commodity, and sustenance when it does arrive is in a form that is altered; easy to transport, easy to digest, all the effort and beauty of it stripped away in return for a product that delivers on nutrients. Human beings are basically creatures of beauty. My people, the Igbo of Nigeria say ‘Anya ga ebu uzo ri’ — ‘the eyes will first eat.’ Even people who would not normally think themselves aesthetic in nature will appreciate colour, smell, and taste of a well-cooked meal. Something dies in people when food is as scarce or as … basic as it is in this world. It’s something everyone should have. In this Earth however, nobody has it.
I’m not sure why, Andrea, but most of my stories always end up — or in this case start with — food in them. Maybe it could be because where I come from, food and the correct preparation of it is one of the (many!) standards by which a woman is judged ‘good.’ At least it was when I was growing up. One of the worst things you could tell a woman then was ‘You don’t know how to cook.’ Which of course is bollocks, because the female DNA is not tied to the preparation of meals. Why chefs in ‘the western world’ are primarily male! It’s cultural more than anything really.
Or maybe it’s because I like cooking myself and eating. Food is tied to important occasions in my culture; births, marriage, celebrations, deaths. Food and eating/drinking are euphemism for many things in Igboland; sex, conquest, er … sexual conquest … an exhaustive list!
If someone came in while you were eating, you declared that ‘they had good legs’ i.e. good fortune, and you had to invite them to dine with you too and share that fortune. If a foe came to your house, they wouldn’t eat to show their displeasure or perhaps you wouldn’t offer to show yours. Message received. Which was why a lot of us Nigerians could relate to the ‘bread and salt’ of GRRM’s Game of Thrones. And then the Red Wedding came and changed everything.
AM: What inspired this story? Why Soursop as opposed to some other food?
CE: Well, it was the end of my workday and I was browsing ‘the internets’ when I decided to check out this blog by a food blogger of the same name, ‘Kitchen Butterfly.’ This was my second time on the website and I was ornery from writing so slowly all day and being frequently interrupted, I just wanted to ‘eat’ with my eyes, something that I did not create.
There on the front page was a photo of what she called ‘custard apples’ but which I knew as ‘Sweetsops’ from reading another Jamaican blogpost a few years ago. The fruits reminded me of their cousins, ‘Sour sops’ which we have in Nigeria and which I used to devour with relish. I started to salivate and eureka! The story slammed its way into my taste buds. I think it took about an hour and a half or two hours to write. It was just there.
AM: On a related note, why does the protagonist torture himself in this way? This is obviously something he’s done before, and plans to do again.
CE: My protagonist is actually a ‘she’. A woman, not a man. (It’s interesting that you’re the second person to say ‘he’ to me when I thought I was writing her to resemble me in the way she thinks. [If it is because Obiora, the engineer, says ‘Man’ to her, he’s only using it colloquially, as one would say ‘Dude’ for both sexes.]) I think she keeps going back, not just because of the food, but because of her ancestor. There is a yearning in her to reconnect to her past, to understand what it was that caused her to end up on the wrong planet, as though by understanding, she can somehow change her fate, I guess. Already the work she does involves what some might consider ‘penance.’ She is one of the guards on the prison planet, Earth. It just mightn’t be enough for her.
And then of course, there is the added layer of the fruit which she would always taste second-hand. That thrill. Human beings are programmed to want what they cannot have and Sarge is no different.
AM: What is your writing process like? Where do your story ideas come from?
CE: My writing process has changed since my kid started going to school. Before September, I worked mostly at night, from around 8pm till 1 or 2 in the morning. Sometimes 3 am. Ideas then mostly used to come to me when I was exhausted beyond my capacity for rational thought. At first I fought them because I wanted to sleep, but when they kept coming, I embraced the added inconvenience. I’d log off my laptop and stumble to bed only to be tortured by an insistent voice going on in my head. My phone was my companion during those moments. Sometimes I’d forget that I had written the story on my mobile until much later, only to realise the work already had a few thousand words when counted.
The way I rationalised that period was, my brain waited until all my defences were down before it started transmitting.
Nowadays, I tend to write in the morning until school’s out (with other chores, duties and obligations thrown in for variety.) Depending on how much I do, I might work for an hour or two after the kid’s in bed at eight.
The switch in hours was rough for about three weeks but now it’s fine. I can’t imagine working far into the night anymore, no way. So many times I thought I was alive but I was just going through the motions, like a zombie. Lack of sleep is terrible.
AM: Your short story “Candy Girl” (also published in Apex Magazine), was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Tell us a little about the creation of that story, and how it found its way to Apex Magazine.
CE: Given the period it was written, “Candy Girl” probably happened during one of my graveyard shifts, though I cannot recollect the specifics. There have been too many stories in between — I probably submit about an eighth of what I write. I was doubtless tired and irritable. Periods of creation can be times of personal discomfort for me, one that either breaks through my default procrastination, or else causes me to want to escape my present state, to write my way out of it.
Sleep deprived and sometimes suffering from insomnia, I’d pore through Apex Magazine, shuddering and exclaiming … I loved the uncluttered background, how its clean whiteness lulled you into a false sense of security and then down, down, dooooowwwwn the rabbit hole you went. It was exhilarating. I’d probably been reading Apex for a year before I submitted anything. Something crap, which was rejected and rightly so. I waited a couple of months and tried again. This time not only was it accepted, but the editor at the time, Sigrid Ellis, sent me a delightful email about it, which I still cherish.
AM: Your short story “The Fixer” recently found new life as an interactive story at sub-Q magazine. Did you need to make any changes to the story to make it interactive? What types of stories take best to being “interactive-ized”?
CE: I tend to think of IF [interactive fiction] like watching a film, albeit one with many possible endings. With that in mind, I would say IF lends itself well to cliff hangers, decision stories, you know the ‘will she, won’t she?’ type scenarios, fast-paced or slow burning it doesn’t matter but there must be a big pay-off at the end. Colourful stories, creepy stories, stories that rely on a depth of great feeling.
The EiC Tory Hoke is a fellow ‘Lunaite,’ that is to say, we have Luna Station Quarterly in common. She loved the creepy elements of the story when it was first published and so when she started Sub-Q magazine, she approached me about turning it into an interactive experience. She’s fun and thorough, like a journalist, meticulous and double-checking everything. The right sounds, the right atmos, the right music, the cultural tone. I can take no credit for any of the work that was done apart from writing the original piece, really. But I will say that the experience was comfortable for me because of her sensitivity to my culture, to telling the story right. “The Fixer” was written for my blog after all, where there is a huge Nigerian and Igbo community, but Tory did not modify the story to fit a ‘western’ audience. Instead, she threw open the doors and invited them in. I’m grateful for that.
AM: I read on your blog that you now own some traditional Igbo instruments, including an ubọ and ogene. As a (very) amateur musician, I’m fascinated with different types of instruments from all over the world. What can you tell us about these instruments, and about Igbo music?
CE: The ubọ is a thumb piano but it isn’t plinky. The metal keys are set into a wooden frame which in turn is fixed over a bowl-like gourd so the sound resonates. The ogene is a metal gong that comes either singly or in joined pairs, that’s played with a stick. Because the gong is tapered, it gives varying sounds depending on where you hit it. Google has photos, if anyone is interested and you can even find videos on YouTube of what both instruments sound like.
I’m not sure what I can say about Igbo music that wouldn’t sound clichéd. The internet is littered with our sound so have a listen to heavyweights like Celestine Ukwu, Chief Osita Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, or even the contemporaries like Phyno and Flavour N’abania.
Back home everyone can play something. I sing a little, but I cannot read sheet music. Only people who are trained back home can read the darned things, but everyone can play something, even if it is just an ichaka (a gourd shaker) and to time too. We can carry a rhythm and that’s all you need. Everyone takes an instrument, one person will start, then next person will follow and the next. My child who will not sing for anyone, loves this game, hearing how the different beats come together, listening out for his cue and jumping in.
AM: What’s next for you? What writing projects are you currently working on, or plan to work on?
CE: I am currently working on a novel about a group of girls on a quest. At least that is what I think on a good day. On a bad day, it feels as if the girls are working (my last nerve!) me. I’ve been planning it since the beginning of the year, made several false starts which would have disqualified a sprinter from their race (and numbering about 12-16,000 in total) before the ‘real writing’ started in September. Since then, I have started from scratch about four times (33,000+, 38000+, 53000+ words, respectively). I am a mess. Hopefully this incarnation is it. I am currently at forty-one thousand words plus and enjoying the ride. I remember reading a whole post in Chuck Wendig’s ‘Terrible Minds’ blog when I was on the 5th go and he said something about letting it get messy and ugly and then going back once it was finished. Boy, should I have listened.
I’ve finished a novel and a novella before which is probably why I did not heed his words (merely chuckled at the wit and went my way) but one never stops growing in this writing business. I’ve learned the hard way. Now I am leaving it well enough alone.
After I am done, and it is all edited and tidied up, I hope to do a collection of short stories based on things I’ve had published as well as new material. But let’s finish this novel first. I’ve got wonderful, experienced, professional beta readers lined up.
Also a vat of gin, because nothing numbs the pain of editing better than that.
AM: Thanks Chikodili!