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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Could Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death be HBO's next epic hit? 

Okorafor may be confident in HBO’s ability to adapt her novel, but she concedes that there can be a downside to film and TV reworkings of literature

A common theme of slavery and oppression has run through the work of Nnedi Okorafor. Jim C. Hines
A common theme of slavery and oppression has run through the work of Nnedi Okorafor. Jim C. Hines

When you dedicate your entire life to telling stories, there can be few things more frustrating than not being allowed to tell your own – particularly when that story is as exciting as having your award-winning novel optioned for a TV adaptation by HBO, with Game of Thrones’ George R R Martin serving as executive producer. The show has been mooted as a potential replacement for Martin’s own ratings-topping show when it finishes next year.

And that is exactly what happened to American novelist Nnedi Okorafor, when last month she was finally able to break her silence with the tweet: “My novel Who Fears Death has been optioned by HBO and is now in early development as a TV series with George R R Martin as executive producer.”

The moment was clearly one of relief for the author: “I haven’t even been able to talk about the fact this has been going on for like a year,” she says. “I was holding it in and I was just so relieved to be able to say what I was finally able to say, which admittedly wasn’t much.”

The relief was short-lived, however. Now, naturally, Okorafor is severely limited in what else she can give away.

“It’s so frustrating that I can’t tell you more,” she admits. “There was such a relief when I was finally allowed to share the news, but now it’s back to frustration at not being able to say any more about it.”

Okorafor can at least reveal that she is excited by the news and that she thinks HBO are the ideal people to adapt her novel, an award-winning tale of treachery and magic in a post-apocalyptic Africa.

“HBO is just the best place for telling a story,” she asserts. “Who Fears Death is not an easy story to tell. It’s a very heavy, heavy tale, but I know HBO can do it.”

Okorafor may be confident in HBO’s ability to adapt her novel, but she concedes that there can be a downside to film and TV reworkings of literature, particularly when it comes to young-adult and children’s fiction, an area she has also worked in extensively.

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Read more:

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“From an author’s point of view, most authors want their books to be turned into films. We all want that. Films are good,” she says. “But sometimes I do find it a bit worrisome when these books go to films and watching the film is replacing the reading of the book. Look at Harry Potter even. It’s one of the most read books of all time, but how many kids read the book versus saw the movie? The films are awesome, sure, but it is a bit problematic. The films made of some of these books are often highly simplified, streamlined versions of the novels, and if the child is not [also] reading the novel, they’re missing out on the nuances. It can be complex.”

Okorafor has some time to wait to, hopefully, be proved correct that HBO’s adaptation will pass the test, but the author has plenty to keep her busy in the meantime, not least writing her first comic book. The five-issue Antar the Black Knight is due to be published by IDW early next year. It may seem strange for a multi-award-winning novelist to move into the traditionally less-highbrow world of comics, but Okorafor is dismissive of those who see the move as a step down.

“For me, I just tell stories,” she insists. “It all comes from the same place, I just do it in different ways. I’ve written for children, for young adults, for adults, science fiction, fantasy, a blend of those, things you can’t categorise. I’ve written plays, screenplays, everything except poetry – that’s the one thing I can’t do.”

Okorafor’s defence of the comic-book form is doubtless in part because she’s an avid comic reader herself – she cites Craig Thompson’s Habibi and Damian Duffy’s Kindred as among her favourites.

“There’s a way of telling a story in comics that you just can’t do in prose, just like there are ways of storytelling that you can only do in film and there are ways of storytelling that you can only do in prose,” she says. “I love exploring those aspects, and if anyone wants to see writing a comic as a step down, then that’s their limited perspective. It’s more; it’s always more to do something fresh.”

There’s an apparent theme to Okorafor’s reading, and writing, habits – Kindred is a tale of slavery, while Habibi tells the story of two escaped child slaves. Oppression is also a key theme of Who Fears Death – lead character Onyesonwu is the child of a woman from the Okeke tribe who was raped by a member of the lighter-skinned, “superior” Nuru tribe who routinely oppress the Okeke. Antar, the hero of Okorafor’s comic book, is another slave, and it seems clear that telling the stories of the voiceless is important to Okorafor.

“One of the things that first made me start writing at all was the need to bring certain narratives to light that just weren’t being told,” she explains. “Especially when it came to African characters from an African perspective, told in a unique, realistic way where they’re positive and negative and neutral all in one story. That’s something that just isn’t done and it really is one of the main things that brought me to writing in the first place.

“I think storytelling within, and between, regions can be a real bridge between cultures. I mean real storytelling, not just dry surface ideas and clichés, but looking at cultures and digging deep into stories and developing dynamic characters. It can really educate and bring people together, and that’s what I want to do with all my work: build bridges.”

The book Who Fears Death is available in stores now. Antar the Black Knight is due to be launched at Middle East Film & Comic Con in Dubai in April