Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with Nuzo Onoh
Nuzo Onoh is a Nigerian-British writer of Igbo descent. She is a pioneer of the African horror literary subgenre. Hailed as “the Queen of African Horror”, Nuzo’s writing showcases both the beautiful and horrific in the African culture within fictitious narratives.
Nuzo’s works have featured in numerous magazines, podcasts, and anthologies, and she is listed in the reference book, “80 Black Women in Horror”. She has given talks and lectures about African Horror, including at the prestigious Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, London. Her works have also appeared in academic and feminist studies such as “Routledge Handbook of African Literature”, “Horror Fiction in the Global South: Cultures, Narratives and Representations”, and “Women Write About Comics”. Her works have been longlisted twice by The British Science Fiction Association and by NOMMO awards and recommended by The Locus Magazine Reading List. Nuzo is the first African horror writer to have featured in Starburst Magazine, the world’s longest-running magazine of Cult Entertainment. Nuzo holds a Law degree and a Masters degree in Writing, both from Warwick University, United Kingdom. She is also a certified Civil Funeral Celebrant, licensed to conduct non-religious burial services. An avid musician with an addiction to JungYup and K-indie pop music, Nuzo plays both the guitar and piano and holds an NVQ in Digital Music Production from City College, Coventry. She currently resides in The West Midlands, United Kingdom.
What inspired you to start writing?
My mother was a former headteacher and raised her children with books, especially the Ladybird fairytales series and both the brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson fairytales to mention but a few. Coupled with the folktales I enjoyed during the Tales-by-Moonlight sessions in my childhood, a passion for story-telling grew in me and as early as eleven or twelve years old, I started dabbling in writing my own stories. It wasn’t until the age of fifteen, when I read Amos Tutuola’s famous book, The Palmwine Drinkard, that my love for horror-writing fully blossomed. It was a book that retold all the wondrous fables I’d heard in our Tales-by-Moonlight sessions, and my excitement was so great that I wanted to write my own book with some of the stories he had missed out in his wondrous book.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I always felt a delicious thrill whenever we gathered to listen to the nightly Tales-by-Moonlight, which were mostly ghost stories and stories of witches, Mami-wata, monsters, transmogrifications and wondrous animals. I would seek the nearest warm bodies and press myself close to them to ensure I was safe from the night terrors that might manifest from the terrifying stories narrated to us. Yet, with masochistic grit, I returned every night for more horror stories and thrills, safe in the knowledge that my fellow victims were nearby and nothing really bad could happen to me. That thrill followed me into my adult years and like a junkie, I sought horror in every aspect of my life, from books, films, stories, cemetery visits and finally in my daytime job as a civil funeral celebrant, licensed to conduct non-religious burials.
Do you make a conscious effort to include African diaspora characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
Generally, I write the stories my characters dictate to me and should those characters be African diaspora characters, then I’ll write their stories for them as they tell it to me. So far, almost all my characters have been African characters. The only African diaspora character that has ever narrated his story to me is Oba, the greatest medicine-man in the twelve villages and beyond, before he was treacherously sold into slavery and died by suicide in the famous historical event at Igbo Landing, situated at Dumber Creek in St Simon’s Island, USA. On that infamous site, the Igbo slaves made the ultimate sacrifice in May 1803, opting for mass suicide by drowning rather than be taken into slavery. I narrated Oba’s tragedy in the story, Our Bones Shall Rise Again, which featured in my novella collection, Unhallowed Graves.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Horror-writing has taught me that horror doesn’t originate from the supernatural realm as I believed in my youthful days. Rather, true horror in all its vile manifestations, lies in the heart and actions of mankind. Writing horror stories has therefore become a medium for me to highlight some of the evils of mankind as a form of advocacy, without the preachiness of non-fiction.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
The vile racial and sexist stereotypes, (to mention but a few negatives that used to permeate the horror genre) are gradually disappearing from the new works on offer. This is no doubt due to the waning dominance of white male horror writers and the emergence of diverse authors from all nationalities and orientations, who have revolutionarised the genre and its old tropes and brought something fresh and exciting to horror fans. I believe that in time, regional horror from diverse writers will become the mainstream, rather than the fringe, as readers become used to different and exciting voices from outside their familiar world.
How do you feel the Black community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
I’ve seen more black writers, especially black women writers, enter the horror arena and own their spaces with absolute dominance. It is a trend that I believe will continue to grow as the world recognises and welcomes the great contribution black writers now make to the genre. The old negative racial stereotypes that demonised, demeaned, and relegated the black community to inconsequential afterthoughts in horror works, are now thankfully, a thing of the past. The growing influence of black writers in the genre pool will continue to ensure that the Black community is positively represented in horror works with leading and significant roles.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
- Akasha in Queen of the Damned
- Chris Washington in Get Out
- Candyman in Candyman
- Blade in Blade
- Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed
- Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
- Marie Laveau in Jewell Parker Rhode’s Voodoo Dreams
- Angela Toussaint in Tananarive Due’s The Good House
- Ku and Doh in Eugen Bacon’s Ivory’s Story
- The nameless protagonist of Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard
…And so many, many, more too numerous to mention.
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
First two names need no introduction, Octavia Butler and the horror-empress herself, Tananarive Due. Then, Eugen Bacon, the multiple award-winning African-Australian writer. Next, the quartet of Nigerian authors, Wole Talabi, Tobi Ogundiran, Irenosen Okojie, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Finally, Nalo Hopkinson, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Helen Oyeyemi and Nnedi Okorafor.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Write your story and believe in your work. Take pride in your achievement without making financial gains the yardstick of your success.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
The same advice I gave to horror authors, but with the added encouragement that they should not give in to the soul-crushing rejections from the publishing industry, which is still mainly dominated by people who do not understand, appreciate, value or encourage black writers and their works. Just keep writing, believing and pushing. Our ancestors are awake. Your time will surely come.