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Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Black Women Horror Writers: Nuzo Onoh's Unhallowed Graves
Nuzo Onoh is a British writer of African heritage from the Igbo tribe in what was formerly known as The Republic of Biafra. During their civil war with Nigeria, Onoh had several family members die in the conflict. That war had a great impact on her writing style. For people whose lives have become full of such brutality and carnage, their stories become full of tales about death and the afterlife.
Unhallowed Graves is a well-paced read, soaked in folklore and dotted with unexpected twists. These stories are of vengeance and the power of the dead to affect the living from beyond the grave. And they use this ability to the fullest. Onoh also doesn’t shy away from the gritty, nasty details when creating trauma to put her characters through. (Two words: corpse water. *shudders*)
I find it refreshing to read a horror tale where all of the characters are aware of what brings evil to your doorstep. For me, that makes a writer have to push and stretch their creativity and plot line in order to deliver the fearful scares more so than the story where one person is a non-believer.
The three novellas in Unhallowed Graves are elegantly written horror. While there is a subtle hand crafting the stories, they do not shy away from visceral descriptions of violence and stomach-churning description. Unhallowed Graves is an example of the short form of horror packing a powerful punch.
A bit about each novella:
The Unclean: Beautifully tragic opening. My allegiances changed several times during the course of this tale. It is especially potent for women as the story is set in a society where a woman’s worth is only measured by her ability to provide her husband with sons to carry on the line. It is a real occurrence for many in the world. Reading about the lengths Desdemona goes to in order to procreate is heartbreaking.
Night Market (Oja-ale): This is the cautionary tale. An English man takes a high-ranking position in Nigeria and brings his wife along. Of course, he ignores the warnings of his driver and the other locals, allowing his wife’s cardigan to be stolen by…something. The story chronicles his deception and attempts to regain the item. But once something goes up for sale in the Night Market, the owner is never the same…
Our Bones Shall Rise Again: Inspired by a true story—famous Igbo Landing hauntings of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia where hundreds of men and women drowned themselves rather than be taken as slaves. In Onoh’s vision, we are given a beginning and an ending to this tragic story. "Bones" is full of male and female witch doctors and their sorcery—attempts to preserve the characters’ way of life. Some may find this a difficult story to read as it shows the native tribe’s distrustful response to Westerners and their religions.
I appreciated that not all of the women in the story were physically beautiful. Onoh doesn’t hesitate to show women’s deformities, going so far as to celebrate them as positives in a culture where it is difficult for women to hold positions of power.
While I interviewed Nuzo by email the first time she appeared on this blog, I thought something more personal should follow. Since I moved to England last year, I haven’t been able to find many local authors to talk with and discuss inspirations. So I emailed Nuzo and asked if she would be receptive to a telephone interview as we are both in England and I didn’t have to worry about time zones and such. She readily agreed and we set a date to speak.
I’ll admit I was nervous. I love Nuzo’s work and I wanted to make a good impression on the author. We’ve all heard those stories online of authors behaving badly.
I needn’t have worried.
Talking with Nuzo was like talking with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. We fell into a comfortable conversation from the start. She is a warm, intelligent person with a positive outlook on life, the publishing industry and horror. “I love the support you get from strangers; it inspires you to keep going.”
When I asked her what made her decide to write Unhallowed Graves, she said, “I want people to recognize African Horror as a genre and get beyond their negative perceptions of the continent.”
Like many women authors, including myself, she’s received some questions about her decision to write horror. “People say to me: ‘Everything about Africa is horror. Why would you want to write about it?’ I tell them that writing and reading is about escapism. That’s why I write about it. Escape into fantasy.”
Onoh’s African horror is rich with culture and folklore, but there is a hefty dose of realism blended in. As we spoke about our individual upbringings we were both fascinated at the connection between African culture and the culture of blacks in the American South. Many times we were able to call up similar references of stories told to us by family members. The tales had variations, but the creatures, the warnings—some subtle and some not so—were distinct parallels.
The strongest link was the Igbo/Gullah-Geechee connection. Nuzo is of the former and I’m of the latter. In "Our Bones Shall Rise Again", she takes the details of the Igbo landing and makes it her own. If you’re unfamiliar with the Igbo landing and what is considered by many to be the first freedom march in the history of America, see the link here. She creates a beginning for it, told from the local Igbo point of view and brings the story to a stunning conclusion.
Nuzo and I spoke for an hour, ending the conversation with the promise of getting together for lunch when our schedules permitted. It was wonderful to talk and discuss our work, our influences, and our hopes for the future of horror and those who write it.
I will leave you with Nuzo’s words for women of color who love horror:
“Horror should be more inclusive. Lose the shame and self-consciousness. Claim it!”
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