Telling Your Story Regardless
by Nuzo Onoh
A while ago, a lovely literary agent had this to say about my manuscript when I contacted him for representation. “It is impressively wrought and fully realized. I am sorry to say that I don’t have a clear vision for how to break it out in a very crowded and challenging market for fiction.”
Ouch! Needless to say, I was gutted by the rejection. Without him telling me, I knew without vanity that my story was indeed impressively wrought and fully realised, but just like several other agents before him had stated, they all lacked the courage to take on something so different from the current market trend, that it was simply easier to pass.
Did I sit down and fold my hands and cry, chuck my manuscript into a drawer and leave it to collect dust and wallow in hopeless despair? Hell no! What I’ve done is take control of my writing and my destiny. I knew I had a story to tell, a rich African culture to share with a wider audience through the medium of horror.
Growing up, my earliest African horror influence was a book by Amos Tutuola titled, The Palmwine Drinkard. The book was a brilliant narrative of folklore, told in the authentic pidgin English of the average uneducated Nigerian, and it resonated so much with me that I knew I wanted to write and tell my own story, one laced with African lore but embodying all the modern elements of a good horror story. I wanted to write African ghost stories, supernatural narratives that will induce feelings of dread, suspense, terror, revulsion and shock, stories that are unsettling and unexpected, yet showcasing African culture and lore.
In time, as I started discovering other works of regional horror, from Japanese horror to Scandinavian horror, I realised there was no market for African horror in the literary field, even though there were a few results for African horror film, thanks mainly to the Nigerian Nollywood industry and the South African horror film fest. It wasn’t because Africans weren’t writing horror; rather, it was simply because no African writer had opted to market their work under that genre. Worse, the popular press had already cannibalised the phrase so negatively, that a google search for “African Horror” inevitably came up with negative results about the African continent, covering stories about wars, famine, Aids and every other evil they could report. Needless to say, similar or worse events taking place in Europe and America were never covered under the heading of “American Horror”, “British Horror” or “Spanish Horror” etc.
So, when I started writing my stories, I decided to reclaim that heading and turn the phrase, “African Horror” into something horrifically positive. Firstly, I set up my own publishing company, Canaan-Star Publishing, UK. I had no idea about publishing. It wasn’t one of the things we were taught during my masters degree programme in Writing. But I was determined to tell my story nonetheless and so, spent endless hours poring over internet articles on publishing and marketing.
My first African Horror book, The Reluctant Dead, was finally published in 2014 and I undertook a vigorous marketing strategy using the phrase, “African Horror” for my book’s category. It worked. By the time I’d published my third book, The Sleepless, in 2016, not only was my name coming up in google searches, but other African writers were now using the same category to market their work! I have since been invited several times to either give talks, deliver lectures or contribute to anthologies by people who googled the phrase, “African Horror” and discovered my name.
So, if you have a story to tell, if you hear the voices of those characters who won’t give you any rest till you tell their stories, then just write. Just write regardless of rejections, regardless of financial constraints, regardless of self-doubt and regardless of the commercial market. Just write because if you don’t, you’ll never know what could have happened if you’d taken the risk and followed your dream.