Wednesday 5 October 2022

Interview with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, editor of Bridging Worlds

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an African speculative fiction writer, editor, and publisher based in
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki at the 
2021 Worldcon in Washington, DC.
(portrait by Richard Man)

Nigeria. Among his numerous honours, he has won the Nebula award and is a multiple Hugo Awards finalist. This spring, he published Bridging Worlds, a non-fiction anthology with 18 essays, interviews, and reflections from Black writers examining the challenges of creating art during a pandemic. Ekpeki, who recently returned from Worldcon, chatted with blog contributor Olav Rokne in September.

How did Bridging Worlds come about? When did you first have the idea to put this together?

While in the middle of a project, the thing that always comes to mind is, what next? And that’s how it was. I was in the middle of editing the Dominion anthology when the idea for Bridging Worlds came to me. The experiences were immense and intense. Working with Zelda Knight, and so many other writers to compile, collate, their works, crowdfund for and produce the book. And while I was at it I thought if people only knew what we went through, how this felt. And I thought why shouldn’t they? And I knew each of the creators had a story to tell, the story of the story, the reality of the fiction they wrote. It was the middle of the pandemic year. They already told me those stories. Why they couldn’t send in their stories on time, or this or that which happened. And I thought, there’s the next project. Why don’t we tell these stories? And that’s how the Bridging Worlds anthology was born. Out of an intense need to not just tell our stories, the stories that we dream up, but the stories of ourselves. Of how we tell our stories. Black, African stories in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

What was your mission in getting this together?

The Black, and African experience is one that’s often minimized and overlooked. It usually takes more effort in a world that marginalizes us. And the world often doesn’t see or understand the effort it takes to create Black excellence or even just Black art, or anything African. The pandemic was no different. It marginalized us just as much as anything else. We died more, suffered more, we lost more. And in the midst of this, we created. Putting this together was so we could document some of that effort and those experiences. So the world could see, have a visible source to go to for those experiences. And the very publication process of this was part of that story.

I note that it’s available for free online; was this an attempt to get the word out more widely? Was there a specific audience you wanted to reach with this?

Ahhh. Every creative loves to be paid. No less marginalized ones during a deadly pandemic, the likes of which its deadly effects hadn’t been seen since the world wars. And with the work that went into collating, gathering and putting out the book, it’s definitely not by choice that it’s free. Black and African creators especially at a time like this, being the demographic hardest hit by the pandemic strongly deserved to get paid. And they were. From the contributing authors of essays, interviews, whatever they contributed, to the copy editors. The book however was made free after the depredations of nearly every force out there that sought to prevent the book from seeing the light of day. 

Both personal and institutional, there were many hindrances. From Amazon to Smashwords to Draft2digital seizing the proceeds from the sale and throwing the book out of their platforms, shutting down our accounts, to review bombing on Amazon and Goodreads, to death threats and online harassment. The only recourse was to make it free altogether. So it wasn’t to get the word out more widely, but to enable it to be born at all into the world, and see the light of day. In the end we had to do a crowdfunding drive to even pay the authors after our funds were illegally detained. As at the time of my writing this, up to 500 dollars of mine is still being held illegally by Smashwords/Draft2digital for no other reason than as they themselves admitted, that I’m Nigerian. You can read about the Amazon and Draft2digital issues there.

Meanwhile the book was made for anyone with an interest in the source and process of Black and African speculative fiction creation, in one of the most gruelling times we have faced in these modern times.

It strikes me that your previous anthology Dominion was extremely successful. It seems to me like it would be tempting to take the easy route and follow that up with something very similar. One of the things that impresses me about Bridging Worlds is that you’ve taken a risk. Could you speak to that risk? To the fact that you’re tackling new ground here?

I consider myself a literary explorer. I want to enjoy and experience things across the entire gamut of the literary, starting with the speculative. That is why I am engaged in a wide range of activities like writing and editing, long and short fiction, non-fiction, slush reading, publishing, conrunning, organizing awards, presses, etc. Even in my fiction, you’ll notice this. O2 Arena my Nebula-winning story is mundane sci-fi as Geoff Ryman coined, where my Nommo-winning “Witching Hour” is fantasyish. “Mother’s Love, Father’s Place” is a historical fantasy and “Destiny Delayed” in Asimov’s and Galaxy’s Edge published this year is a genre blender. My latest story “The Magazine of Horror”, yet unpublished is epistolary, written as a series of letters between magazine editors and a submitter. 
Non-fiction anthology Bridging Worlds
includes 18 essays and reflections
on creativity in a pandemic.
(Image via

My editing is the same. After Dominion, an original fiction anthology, I undertook to do the first-ever Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, a Hugo, Locus, WFA & BFA finalist. It was a reprint anthology. And next was Bridging Worlds, an original non-fiction anthology, then I edited several collections with Interstellar Flight Press before returning to editing original fiction with Sheree Renée Thomas and Zelda Knight again in Africa Risen. I believe in exploring, charting and discovering new courses, to challenge myself to growth as you cannot find without risk. Rather than stagnating on the capitalist, hollywoodish attitude of being safe and dying on the altar of ‘never change a winning formula.’ The truest wins, are yet undiscovered and continued progress and the ongoing growth of the genre hinges on going outside our comfort zones to find what’s different, new, needed.

When you set out on this project, did you have a list of authors you wanted to speak to in mind? Was there anyone who you were particularly pleased said “yes” to participating in the anthology?

Well some of the contributors to Dominion who I interacted with already, then players I was aware of their immense work in and contribution to the Black and African speculative fiction space. Mazi Nwonwu of Omenana, Sheree Renée Thomas for her work across the genre editing and community building, esp as the first Black editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Zelda herself, my co-editor for Dominion who had been editing several mags and presses for half a decade before we worked together. Chimedum Ohaegbu of Uncanny, Shingai Njeri Kagunda and Lisa Yvette Ndlovu of Voodoonauts, Milton Davis who has done extensive work in the indie sphere, Eugen Bacon, Wole Talabi and Geoff Ryman amongst others. Virtually everybody on the project was truly special in their own way and had contributed immensely to the project.

One of the things I took away from reading this was Wole Talabi’s observation that the rise of hybrid and virtual conventions was breaking down some of the barriers that authors outside of the USA had in terms of promoting their work. To what extent do you think this is true?

I think it’s true to a very large extent. I talk about this myself. It created a bridge to the sff world that had formerly been unavailable. Many people underplay the effects of cons to the development of an sff creative. But it plays a huge role indeed as I talk about on my Twitter thread here. Ironically, with you.

Could you speak a bit to the distinctions between SFF from Africa and that from the Black diaspora? And why is it important to platform both?

Africa means different things to so many of us. And all forms of it and us are valid. So I always try to create that balance of voices and equal representation of Africa in all my projects. From Dominion to the Year’s Best, to Bridging Worlds, to Africa Risen. Africa as we say is not a monolith. The difference is in the flavours of our identity. And it can manifest in so many ways. But ultimately I consider us all part of a whole. And I believe in building bridges that connect and highlight those differences while celebrating them. That’s a major part of what my work is about.

In your interview with Chimedum Ohaegbu, you ask What are your thoughts on the current state of Black and African speculative fiction on the continent and in the diaspora? I’d like to direct the same question to you?

I believe that African speculative fiction is strong. Stronger than it’s ever been and rising faster everyday. There is a lot of work to be done. A lot of gaps to be covered. A lot of firsts are still happening everyday. Recently, Nalo won the Sturgeon award, the first Black person to do so. I and Sheree Renée Thomas who edited Nalo’s Sturgeon winning work in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction will be the first Black finalists for the Hugo award, best editor short form category. I’ll be the first African-born Black writer to win the Nebula award and be a Hugo finalist. And so on and so forth. A lot more boons and deals could and should happen, to open for African writers in the continent and diaspora. And I am hopeful that as these firsts begin, more will follow until the floodgates are entirely thrown open.

One of the things I particularly liked about Bridging Worlds was how the essays were ordered and how the experience of reading it is structured. Nikhil Singh’s essay starts off the book with an absolutely gut-wrenching look at the stories of people who are among the most marginalized global citizens; a deeply felt piece of writing. Then we get some personal stories about how writers worked to stay creative, and then interviews and thoughts on people helping each other. The whole thing ending with Nicole Givens Kurtz’ metaphor laden piece about surviving and her final parting words I am here. I am alive. Treading water. Could you share some thoughts about how you selected the pieces in the book, and how the experience was structured?

It was more a selection of the people than the pieces. Having worked with a lot of writers in the field, I hand-picked those I identified had stories that the larger industry needed to hear. And so they crafted the stories that later appeared in the anthology after their selection. I also worked closely with them and a copy editor to ensure they were at the right place, that we were all satisfied with. Perhaps there’ll be another volume of the book, with an open call for essays as well this time.

What makes you proudest about Bridging Worlds? What choice that you made brings you the most joy?

For me, it’s the formulation of the idea, firstly. That’s where everything begins; as an idea, as a dream. Without that, nothing can happen. But if you can first dream it, then everything is possible after. A book like this, on this topic and form needed to exist. That and being able to follow through with the idea till it came to fruition, despite all the obstacles we faced with bringing it to conception. I’ve afterall had a number of good ideas. But not all of them were opportuned to see the light of day. Some died in the tunnels to being. I am exceedingly proud of the fact that this one could be carried to term.

The past two years have seen your works reprinted, published in one of the largest-circulation SFF magazines, and recognized by the two most-established SFF awards. What’s next for you? What are your next goals as an author and editor? (Am I out-of-line to be hoping that a novel is on the way?)

A novel isn’t on the way. It’s already here. I am done with the first draft of my novel, and already working on a graphic novel and some other works. I am also putting together a collection and some other special projects still in the works, that I hope will alter for the better, how we see and receive genre and Black/African speculative fiction forms. So collections, anthologies, novels, novellas, short fiction, everything is in the works. And also more non-fiction.

In your most recent few stories, you seem to be increasingly playing with the malaise of capitalism run amok. Why is this such fertile ground for storytelling? How much of Destiny Delayed should we read as poetic realism, and how much should we see as fable?

Well I’d say they are both actually. My stories are both rooted in the imaginary and real. And I believe that one of the biggest problems of the world today is greed. Not lack of but deliberately inefficient allocation or what is hoarding of resources. I believe mastering the malaise that is toxic capitalism will solve so many of the world’s problems and allow us to focus on solving problems that make humanity better instead of just what gives individuals more and takes takes away from all humanity. And I show the harm in toxic capitalism, hoping that the ugliness of what I show the world can make it turn away from its ugly path. You could say I’m hoping to change the world, make a better reality with my fiction.

Over the past three years, there’s been a clear evolution in your writing towards more formal narrative structures. What are your personal goals for your work as a storyteller?

At heart, my goal has been to tell stories, in all forms. Short fiction, long fiction, short non fiction, long fiction, writing, editing, panels, etc. I’m certain phases my work has moved through certain forms. But the goal remains the same, to tell stories that delight and instruct. That contribute to humanity effectively. And for that I’m willing to take my work through all the iterations of the art of the literary that have been discovered and not.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. I’d really like to see this book get on the Hugo ballot next year.

We can hope. And nominate. Thank you as well for doing this.

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