Heaven is a busy market and in Osemegbe Aito’s Petrichor it’s not always clear if Paradise is a better alternative to hell or perhaps organized religion has been selling the whole idea of unbridled well-being wrong. A careful petition, Aito presents us with Rachel and her cast of supporting figures – all hellbent on getting her to. But is she happy now?
Black Letter Media: We are, of course, not without one-word titled works from the continent: Pepetela’s Mayombe, Flora Nwapa’s Idu, Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Bessie Head’s Maru… Whether to invoke a sense of pride in a specific place (Mayombe), to over-familiarize the story subject (Houseboy), or to further cement the centrality of the narrative around a leading character (Idu/Maru), with your story, the relationship between narrative and title is slightly complicated – we’re never sure Rachel’s impending cure might be a figment of her own imagination, whether she really has reason to delight in this serene moment that accompanies her discharge from heaven?
Osemegbe Aito: The smell of wet sand after an evening downpour is the smell of hope, a promise of continuity, and an assurance of life. Perhaps, a life of fulfillment and happiness shouldn’t be questioned; we shouldn’t be allowed to say, ‘Suddenly, things are starting to go on so perfectly, so, maybe I’m stuck in a dream, or in a virtual reality.’ No, we should just revel in the bliss as our protagonist has done. In this Petrichor story, we see the period before the rain and the drama surrounding it, we are right in as the rain falls and after the rain, we follow the protagonist into utopia; hardly matters whether the real world has decided to be nice to her or whether she’s just in a perfect world of her own imaginations, a virtual reality. The most important thing here is that she is happy, and her wants are getting fulfilled. If there’s a single word that can perfectly describe this story, if there’s a smell that connotes entry into a bright new day, it has to be this petrichor.
BLM: “Petrichor” is marked by a need to find answers, cures, solutions. Even the anarchist Fighter Man isn’t exempt from wanting a piece of heaven. Was it important for you to talk of heaven shorn of religiosity, but still reconfigure heaven as on earth and not some steam room beyond the clouds where god has been holed up all this time?
OA: People want a place with no evil, pain or suffering and for so long, Heaven has promised this. What then happens to the promise of this intriguing afterlife, and to the foundation of religion, if people can get perfection right here on Earth? Would the lure of a heaven afterlife still hold so strong? Would its precepts still drive society’s ethics?
BLM: Male authors have been writing female characters since forever, of course, but I’m probably not the only one who thinks the results have been mixed. If the writer is not instilling some ideal notion of femininity via his female protagonist, he is imposing masculine characteristics on her. Why did you choose to write from Rachel’s perspective and not, say, Elijah Elijah’s?
OA: It is true that some male authors instill some ideal notion of femininity on female characters. It seems silly but I don’t blame them, they are a reflection of society. What I do not agree with is imposition of masculine characteristics on a female character; what if the character smokes cigars and cracks her knuckles when anxious? I think there are human characteristics and humans display what they want, irrespective of popular behaviour, hence, we should perhaps let these characters be. I chose Rachel not only because she has a richer story to tell but also because she has a more objective perception of the issues surrounding Heaven.
BLM: I get that African speculative fiction seeks to repudiate misrepresentations about the continent, and we do see a lot of imaginative work being done in this vein; but I worry sometimes that with labels (and “Petrichor” does provoke this debate in me), we are often unaware that the wine is old even if the bottle looks new: when we call these stories fantasy or science fiction or magic realism or horror, whose vocabulary are we applying and is such said with an awareness that Africa is not without storytelling traditions that speak to these labels?
OA: African speculative fiction seeks to repudiate misrepresentations about the continent? No, I don’t think there is consensus on this. But assuming you are right, what do you propose? That we do away with the labels? I think there are core issues that have given rise to these labels and in trying to escape labelling, we may be misrepresenting. One indeed has to tread carefully. And talking of old wine in new bottles… Africans have been writing speculative fiction stories for a very long time and we simply called them stories, tales etc. Growing up I read stories of ghosts, flying tortoises, water spirits, earth spirits, fire-spitting man-gods, rain-provoking gods, etc and then we didn’t have semantics place labels across. Interestingly, many Africans believed these speculative items as true and real so that the writing was just a depiction of reality. Africa is not without the storytelling traditions that speak to these labels but how do you call someone’s reality a fantasy? Perhaps, I should say, Africa has lived in a speculative world for so very long.
BLM: Well, of course labels come with their own baggage, their own sterile tropes – shouldn’t the idea be that we go beyond pigeonholing writing; whether “Petrichor” is falls under SFF or realism does not interest me much; if anything, I am especially drawn to a piece of fiction when it complicates whatever label it is said to fall under, no?
OA: I think only few writers think of such labels during the creative process. Publishers, critics, reviewers are the ones that have this pigeonholing to do. It surely isn’t without cause. For the publishers, it is necessary to target the exact audience for maximum impact and that’s when it matters whether a story is SFF or realism. In reality, most fiction cut across labels and if you find one that sits only within one label, one can be sure that some artificial doctoring has taken place.
BLM: I sometimes think of gun-toting angels in “Petrichor” as indicative of a minimized world, like a prison farm; for Elijah Elijah, as was for Rachel’s father, as is for Scarf Woman, it’s as if they are all prisoners appealing for parole – what use do you think is the plethora of voices you employed in this story? So many people are speaking at the same time, one after the other, over each other, and yet we still hear Rachel above the din.
OA: It indeed is indicative of a minimized world. Yes. The plethora of voices in Petrichor served as an omniscient tool especially as we also needed to follow the narrative from Rachel’s point of view. It allowed us get far enough into the motive.
Osemegbe Aito, who hails from Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, works as a sales professional during the day. His work has appeared in Munyori Literary Journal, Brittle Paper, and Kalahari Review; a short story, “The List”, was shortlisted for the 2016 Writivism Short Story Prize.
This interview is the second of three to be co-published with JamesMurua.com. Copies of “The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story!” can be preordered here and here; we recently announced the winners for the third volume – read all about it here.