Michael: I try to encourage cross-pollination between Reckoning contributors whenever I can, but this interview between Justin Howe and Innocent Ilo, I am very happy to say, came about with barely any intervention from me; all I’ve really had to do is sit back and share in the fruit.
Justin: Tell us about yourself?
Innocent: My name is Innocent Chizaram Ilo and I write to make sense of the world around me.
Justin: All the characters in “To the Place of Skulls”, except the narrator, find dead bodies bearing their names. Is this then a ghost story? Other aspects resemble folk tales where the hero journeys to the land of the dead. How do use genre in your stories?
Innocent: Genre, like language, is a thing I play with. With “To The Place Of Skulls”, I was clearly exploring boundaries. I wanted to represent the harsh realities of the Niger Delta region and at the same time achieve a gonzo texture. The character Saro-Wiwa is named after a well-known poet and environmental activist who was hung by a military government who saw his environmental activism as a threat. And in the story, Saro-Wiwa is still represented as a poet. What I wanted to achieve was to give these dead heroes a new life.
Justin: Everywhere in the story we see how the oil industry stamped its shape onto Oloibiri only then to discard it. Yet the characters manage to resist despair. Is this due to their youth, their friendship, or something more?
Innocent: One thing being young affords you is the discarding of fear. Fear means nothing. Risk becomes an adventure. The characters are bonded by their youth, friendship and also in their ability to dream and believe in dreams.
Justin: The characters walk through history. The narrator speaks of the stories his mother tells. What’s the power memory holds and how can it help us confront and potentially overcome disaster?
Innocent: As a writer of speculative fiction, memory has always fascinated me. While working on “To The Place of Skulls” I wanted to achieve a kind of resonance, something close to rewriting history or predicting an imminent future. Fiction, among other things, is a way of reclaiming pasts and forecasting futures. I believe the dystopia-ish disaster in Oloibiri (which draws closer every passing day) can be averted with this.
Justin: How does Olobiri’s fate inform your own perspective on technology, the environment, and the future?
Innocent: Oloibiri’s fate is a clarion call to all; the government, oil companies, the world, that we need to do better. That we need to reconsider what are the tradeoffs for technology. That we need to effectively match our development in the future with sustainability.
Justin: Who are creators (contemporary, historical, at home, or abroad) you look to for inspiration?
Innocent: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Innocent Acan, TJ Benson, Noviolet Bulawayo, Helon Habila, Yiyun Li, Curtis Sittenfeld, John Steinbeck. I can’t even exhaust the list.
Justin: What’s the world like outside your window right now?
Innocent: The world outside my window is one of normalized fear where people have learnt to live in the face of social injustice, highbrow discrimination and marginalization. Aba, the city where I live, is not anything like the oil town, Oloibiri, but it’s still a place where the government wakes up one morning and decides to throw people out of the public service because they are women and “non indigenes”; people who are not originally from the state.
The world outside my window is a world where the freedom of speech is threatened. Any form of resistance or criticism against the government will soon be branded “hate speech” and be punishable by death.
The world outside my window is one where only the defiant survive.