I’m pleased to announce my new story in Breathe FIYAH (an anthology of flash fiction produced in collaboration between FIYAH and Tor)
Flash fiction has been one of those categories that I’ve squinted at from afar with suspicion, because how well can you tell a good story in so few words? But when I saw the call for this anthology, and its accompanying prompt, I decided why the hell not?
I traveled 500 years into the past, and rewrote history with a single letter, creating a new timeline in which we did not lie prone and helpless but came swinging with the wrath of the gods. And damn it if I don’t want to live in this world for the rest of time.
You can read it here. Do check out the other stories. They are (pun intended) fiyah!
As a child, rummaging through the house for buried treasure was a favourite pastime, an exercise which ranged from digging through the cracks in the settee for long lost trinkets: combs, toy cars, dismembered action figures, dried chicken drumsticks (I heap all the blame on my sister for that one) to sneaking into my parents’ bedroom and poring over my father’s medical textbooks. The massive tomes with full color pictures of patients instantly captivated me and I found myself fascinated with the ways sickness could warp human features into something other. It was, well, horrifying. But that didn’t stop me from looking at them again. And again. And again.
It was during one of these treasure hunts that I found my parents’ secret stash of movies (no, not those movies). I popped in the first cassette into the VHS player and watched a now familiar opening scene: a car full of friends rolls up to a holiday cabin in the woods. It was The Evil Dead. I watched, terrified and yet morbidly fascinated (much as I had been with the medical pictures) as the evil claimed the friends one by one.
Needless to say I scarred my young mind by watching it, and endured several nights of nightmares. But like the books, I kept returning to the movie again and again, until I knew every minute of it by heart, until my dreams were a never ending reel of possessed clocks and rapacious trees and demons boiling out of the depths of hell.
That was the first cassette.
The second was an Old Nollywood movie called Diamond Ring 2, in which an idiot teenager and his friends rob a grave, stealing – you guessed it – a diamond ring off a freshly interred corpse. The vengeful spirit puts the foolish boy into a coma and gives his family 24 hours to find and return her ring or forfeit his life. I haven’t watched that movie in eighteen years and I still remember the soundtrack. Yeah.
Every culture has its ghost stories (which is a catch all for legends and tales bordering on the horrific) and growing up in Nigeria, I heard my fair share of ghost stories. But these weren’t tales we whispered by the light of campfires (why would you leave the comfort of your home for the cold uncertainty of the wild???[the wild is filled with a certain subspecies of humans with a penchant for body parts]); the tales were told in the cold light of day, in between mundane tasks and conversations, in the matter-of-fact tone of one commenting on the weather, which made it its own special brand of terror.
When I was ten we moved from the rented apartment we’d lived my whole life to our own duplex. And as I sat with my siblings watching Shrek on the new TV, behind us my parents chatted with their friends. I heard my dad say about the old house: “they say the landlord seeded the compound with the bones of some dead girl, buried her skull in the roots of the palm tree.” I whipped around and gawked at him, and he very patiently repeated what he’d said. I flashed back to all the times I’d sauntered past that palm tree, all the times I’d rested under it in between playing football with my goons and said, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“Did you really want to know?”
Did I really want to know? No. Would it have made a difference if I knew? Most definitely. But that didn’t stop me from thinking of all the times the palm branches had scratched against my window, and wonder if it wasn’t the spirit of the girl pleading to be set free.
Secondary school introduced me to horror in its literary form. After the initial Harry Potter frenzy, I happened upon a Stephen King book in the library: Misery. I enjoyed it so much that I hid it where no one could ever find it, and stole to the library whenever I could to read it. Up until that point I’d only seen horror movies, become overly familiar with the beats, so to speak. But reading Misery opened my mind to a whole different kind of terror. With a movie, you’re more or less stuck with the director’s vision of the events and characters and setting etc (which is not necessarily a bad thing); with a book, you are the director of your imagination. And oh, doesn’t imagination like to run wild? Reading Misery, Paul’s pain was my pain, his terror was my terror, and the evidently unhinged Annie Wilkes was the stuff of nightmares.
But what really fascinated me was how simple words strung one after the other could light up the cinema of my mind, and evoke visceral reactions even more lasting than some of the movies I’d watched. It’s not surprising, then, that when I finally put pen to paper in the hopes of becoming a writer, what came out was a horror story.
The oldest and perhaps most visceral of human emotion is fear and I found catharsis in the ability to master my fears, in the ability to dream up dreadful situations and explore them on my own terms. If horror is fear of the unknown, then I gain power over it in the knowledge of the outcome, in an almost clinical detachment as I watch my characters navigate horror.
Creators of horror are rarely – perhaps never – scared by the stuff they create, because the horror is theirs, and they’ve seen it in its underpants (hell, they bought the damn underpants); the terrified are the readers who are kept in the dark and watch with soiled crotches bated breath the characters navigate horror.
Do I still look twice at the shadow in the corner of my room? That depends on a host of things, chief among them being my mental state at the given time. But best believe that by the time I put pen to paper I will have known that horror by its name, and bought it some damn underpants.
Friends, I am beyond thrilled to announce that I am now represented by John Jarrold of John Jarrold Literary Agency! Whew! Typing those words has got to be one of the more surreal moments of my life. The journey has been a long one – and is nowhere near over (still gotta publish that book) but this is a significant milestone, one I’d began to doubt would even happen.
Shall I regale you with the journey? Yes, I shall. Indeed, I shall.
In the Spring of 2018, I was scrolling mindlessly through Twitter when I came across a tweet by Stephen King. He had retweeted a video of Tomi Adeyemi (she of Children of Blood and Bone fame) unboxing the author copies of her book amid tears of joy, with the caption “Isn’t this terrific?” Two things happened to me then: 1) I recognized Tomi’s name as Nigerian and 2) the fact that Stephen King, an author I’ve read and adored since my childhood, was celebrating her. It was a wake-up call for me, that if she could do it …
See, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and had written several novels in secondary school, even cultivating loyal readers among my classmates. After graduating secondary school, I queried a thriller and a horror novel, but I didn’t know what I was doing; they were first drafts and they stank, and my poor heart could not handle the rejections after all the love and adulation of my friends, so I put writing on hiatus for a while.
Spurred by Tomi Adeyemi’s success, on July 1 2018, I started the first draft of the book that got me my agent. Six months later in January 2019, I had a complete draft. I jumped into a second draft almost immediately and was done by May. Then, with the high of completion, I cobbled together a query and synopsis and fired them off to ten agents.
The rejections poured in.
Words like “wasn’t right for me” and the stale, impersonal language of form rejections flooded my inbox. But at this time I had already been active in the world of short stories and had received so many rejections that they did not bite as hard (you could say I neutered the beast). So I shrugged my shoulders, confident that I had a good story, and fired off the next batch of queries. Over the course of the next two months, rejections trickled in, and though I had neutered the beast, it was, unbeknownst to me, a regenerating beast, and it sank its freshly grown canines into my neck, and injected the nectar of doubt into my bloodstream, so that I started to think: maybe I’m just not good enough. Maybe the book is trash. Maybe –
An email in my inbox. Another rejection.
But this wasn’t another factory-manufactured form; the agent said something along the lines of “while your credentials (read: short fiction publications) are impressive, I didn’t feel drawn into these sample pages to request the full manuscript.” I had a eureka moment. The query and first few chapters are very important, the first step in piquing an agent’s interest. So I went back to the drawing board, perused the internet for winning queries of popular books and modeled my query after them. I also completely rewrote the first chapter.
By September ending I participated in Pitch Wars and out of four mentors I chose, two requested my full manuscript. I was thrilled! My query and first chapter worked! I sent out my manuscript to both mentors and spent the next month in a haze of dread and anticipation, hoping one of them – or both! – would pick me.
They didn’t. But one of the mentors got back to me (which she absolutely didn’t have to) and gave me detailed feedback. At this point though, I was emotionally and mentally drained. I contemplated abandoning the project altogether and moving on to anther one.
But this story. THIS STORY. I believed so much in it and I think, in then end, that was all that mattered.
I decided to give it one last try. From January to March 2020 I rewrote the first 1/3 of the book (about 35,000 words) and on March 8, sent out the first batch of queries. One day later I got a full request. Two days later, a partial request; one week later, a full from the agent who requested the partial. Boy, to say I was excited would be an understatement. But as this was my last hurrah for this project, I did not wait but kept sending out queries.
On May 18th, I sent John a query and he replied a few minutes later (not an an autoreply) that he had received it and to touch base if I hadn’t heard from him in two weeks. That was a first. The next day he replied that he had “thoroughly enjoyed these sample chapters” and asked to see the full (what??? oh my God??) Upon receiving the full, he replied that he would be in touch within seven days.
Friends, two days later, on May 22nd, I recieved an email:
Dear Tobi Just finished – I love it. And I would be extremely happy to represent you. I love the story, the characters, the feel of the book, your voice…
I could hardly believe it. This thing that I’d dreamed of for so long was finally happening. I emailed John straight away with my questions, to which he promptly answered with infectious enthusiasm. Then, per the rules of the game, I told him to give me one week to give the other agents with my manuscript the opportunity to bow out or counter-offer. Most respectfully bowed out, but one agent got back with the kindest rejection. She enjoyed the book, but didn’t feel enthusiastic enough to champion it.
Hey, no hard feelings.
So, with a wide grin on my face, I emailed John a signed contract. I am so excited for this new step in my career, and can’t wait for the world to read what I have cooking.
I took part in the wonderful Cymera Festival where Shoreline of Infinity put the spotlight on BAME writers. I, along with some wonderful writers (Zen Cho, Asith Pallemulla, Robert Rene Galvan) read from my work. I read from my story, publsihed in Shoreline of Infinity 18 “Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll”.
The entire event was streamed live, and is now available on Youtube
Here’s a brief rundown of how I wrote this story. There’s potential spoilers here, so if you haven’t read it, and don’t want to be spoiled, go here.
A question was all that really set off this story: what happens if men gained such power as to rival that of the gods? What happens if men grew so powerful that they could – gasp – kill gods? And if so, why would they do that? What followed was weeks of brainstorming as a whole new world formed in my mind as I sought to answer the question. I soon realized, however, that this question was not one to be answered in 5,000 words; it was going to be a sprawling fantasy of epic proportions.
But I needed a test story, if you will, to see how well this world holds up. Enter Guardian of the Gods.
As opposed to the planned epic (I am now in the initial drafting stages), this was really an examination of one character and her needs and wants, and how it plays into the greater cosmic game. Ashake has lived all her life in the mountain-temple, together with her fellow acolytes, taking instruction from the priests on how to commune with the gods in a divine back and forth (in Yoruba cosmology the priests of Ifa cast cowries across divination boards to decipher the will of the gods concerning a person or certain events).
What follows is a slow unraveling and discovery, as the world she knows is yanked from beneath her. This concept is one that has always fascinated me, We all live in little bubbles, and most of what we know has largely been externally influenced, from the news to basic tenets of culture, passed down over the centuries, and for the most part we are told things and we take them as truth. But what if the truth you know is not actually truth? What if this has all been specially curated by unseen forces to keep you locked and docile, your independent thought clasped in chains or deliberately steered in a different direction so that you stumble, ignorant and frustrated through life?
Well that got deep real fast, haha.
Anyway these were the questions burning in the back of my mind as I wrote this story. I initially planned for Ashake to confront these “unseen forces” in her world in an epic battle, but decided that would take away from the story, which is much more quiet, and primarily about how she comes to terms with what she is, and her role in the grand scheme of things.
Hey friends! First, can we take a moment to appreciate that cover art?? It’s absolutely stunning and just exudes unapologetic, glorious, wonderful BLACKNESS. The artist is Dominique Ramsey and you can check them out here.
Ok, now that that’s done, I’m super excited to announce the publication of my new story Guardian of the Gods in FIYAH! this fine, fine magazine of black speculative fiction. I’ve always wanted my work to appear here, and I couldn’t be prouder of this story. I think it’s my best yet, if I do say so myself. Do give it a peep, and of course, buy the issue to support black speculative fiction.
I wrote this story late last year (I’m thinking October) in the middle of writing the first draft of my novel. It helped me flesh out some necessary details, and get through that oh so dreaded writer’s block.
I’m really bad at surmarising my own stories (er, which writer’s isn’t? Hehe) but here’s a review I feel surmarises it fantastically.