Q&A with Wole Talabi

Although he doesn’t often draw directly on current events, Wole Talabi’s first tale for Asimov’s, “An Arc of Electric Skin” [in our September/October issue, on sale now], was born partially from his anger about real-world injustice. Below, the author discusses this influence, explores his personal history with SF, explains the changeable nature of his writing style, and more. Read on!

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

WT: This story, like many of my stories, germinated from two seeds.

The first: In 2019, I read an interesting paper in a journal—Frontiers in Chemistry—where a team of scientists in Italy described the successful use of heat treatment to increase the conductivity of melanin by several orders of magnitude. You can read it here.

I found the paper fascinating. And I remember wondering if there would ever be a way to apply the process to the melanin in human skin and how painful the process would be, assuming someone could even survive it.

The second: In October last year, millions of young Nigerians took to the streets and the internet to protest the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police notorious for abuses and extra-judicial killings. The #EndSARS movement quickly expanded to include demands for good governance. On 20 October, the government responded by sending in the army to a major protest site at the Lekki tollgate. They opened fire. At least 25 people died. Probably more. I observed the news online from afar, feeling sad and powerless and angry. Very angry.

I had already started trying to write a story based on the first seed, but it never really came together the way I really wanted. It was when the two seeds met that the main character being willing to endure pain to gain power to strike back against a government determined to crush its own people came to me fully. I had the final version of the story done a few weeks later.

I dedicate this story to the memory of all the young Nigerians who lost their lives in the protests last year.  

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

WT: I toyed with a lot of alternative titles, but this was the one that resonated the most. “An Arc of Electric Skin.” I think it has a nice ring to it.  The word “arc” has multiple meanings, one of them referring to a bright electrical discharge that can burn and cause damage, and the other referring to the change/transformation of a character through a story. Both apply to this story, I think. Especially considering how the main character gets his “electric skin,” why, and what he does with it.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

WT: Along with F&SF and Analog, Asimov’s is one of the great three legacy SF magazines that I really wanted to sell stories to when I first started seriously writing, partly because I grew up reading anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov (especially The Hugo Winners), which featured a lot of stories from those magazines (and many others which are sadly no longer around), and also partly because the three magazines are great in different ways and do have different tastes. To me, this was an Asimov’s kind of story because of the magazine’s focus on “character oriented” science fiction stories: a description which I believe this story definitely fits, given the two seeds I mentioned earlier.

I dedicate this story to the memory of all the young Nigerians who lost their lives in the protests last year.  

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing? Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?

WT: I don’t usually allow the news and current events to influence my stories, not directly anyway, even though I am sure they sneak in from time to time. I tend to have certain themes I return to frequently—the nature of the mind and its relationship with technology, personal loss, and the desire to change the world have been mentioned frequently by reviewers and interviewers. But sometimes, I do take direct influence from current affairs. Twice it has happened, in fact. In the story “If They Can Learn,” which appears in my collection Incomplete Solutions, and again with this one, as I mentioned earlier.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

WT: That is a great question. I think almost any science fictional world could be good (or at least interesting) to live in, since, like our world, your happiness level will depend primarily on who you are, who you are surrounded by, and what technologies, resources, and opportunities are made available to you. Out of pure philosophical curiosity, I think I’d like to live in the world of China Miéville’s Embassytown because I think it would be fascinating to engage directly with an alien race so different from us in thought and language.

AE: What are some of your favorite science fiction stories?

WT: I have far too many favorites to even attempt to list here but off the top of my head, I’ll mention three stories I love: Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist,” Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” and B. Kojo Laing’s “Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ.”

AE: If you were faced with a new reader wanting to check out your work, how would you describe your style to them?

WT: I’m not sure I really have a writing “style.” My writing tends to be more idea-driven and character-driven though, and I pick the writing style I think would best reflect the way I’ve chosen to explore the idea. Sometimes it works and I pull it off, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I enjoy the experimentation with various styles in service of a concept. So, to someone unfamiliar with my writing, I’d say if you’re a fan of idea-driven or concept-driven prose, you might like my stuff. Also, try three stories at least before deciding either way. On a more technical note though, I’m a huge fan of poetic prose, palindromes, alliteratives, and acrostics, and I personally use them whenever I get the chance and if the story permits. I also really like it when an author uses a unique, constrained structure to build a good story—for example, C.C. Finlay’s amazing “Time Bomb Time,” in Lightspeed, which works as a story when read both from beginning to end and from end to beginning. I might attempt something like one day myself.

AE: What are you reading right now?

WT: I’m currently finishing Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s David Mogo: Godhunter, which came out back in 2019. I picked it up didn’t get around to completing it. It was a busy year. I am also simultaneously reading the collection Black Sci-Fi Stories, which was just released, and which I also have a story in. I’m enjoying both, especially Godhunter. Suyi actually first shared a story (I think it was called “Pure Black”) featuring this character with me all the way back in 2015 and it’s a lot of fun for me to see his world and character fully evolved and realized in this exciting novel.  

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

WT: Right now, I am working on a contemporary fantasy novel about a succubus and a nightmare god in a fictionalized version of the Yoruba pantheon, which is operated like a corporate business. It’s an expanded version of my short story “I, Shigidi,” which also appears in my collection Incomplete Solutions. It’s been quite a lot of fun to write and I really hope readers find it fun and exciting to read as well once it’s out there. I can’t wait until I have a release date ready to announce so stay tuned.  

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

WT: I have always been an engineer and so inevitably, it has always affected my writing. In fact, my father was a chemical engineer and my mother had a degree in English language and literature so one could argue that I was sort of genetically predisposed to enjoy science fiction. Science fiction, and in particular, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series also played a big part in my decision to become an engineer. So, for me, engineering and writing have always affected each other and probably always will.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

WT: You can find me online at wtalabi.wordpress.com and @wtalabi on twitter.

Wole Talabi is an engineer, writer, and editor from Nigeria. His stories have appeared in such venues as F&SF, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld. He has edited three anthologies of African fiction: the science fiction collection, Africanfuturism (2020); the horror collection, Lights Out: Resurrection (2016); and the literary fiction collection, These Words Expose Us (2014). Wole also cowrote the play Color Me Man. His fiction has been nominated for several awards including the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Nommo Award, which he has won twice (2018 and 2020). The author likes scuba diving, elegant equations, and oddly shaped things. He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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