Jordan Ifueko Talks with Roger

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Jordan Ifueko brings her Nigerian heritage (and twenty-first-century sensibility!) to bear in her first novel Raybearer, a high fantasy set in a dangerous and complicated world.

Roger Sutton: How much of this story is based on traditional Nigerian motifs and stories, and how much of it is Jordan?

Jordan Ifueko: That’s a complicated question for any American child of immigrants, in that you constantly feel that you have a limb in several different worlds all the time, and you belong in all of them and in none of them. The way I describe this book is that it’s some of all of my cultural influences. I grew up with a lot of West African folktales. It’s a little hard to classify something as Nigerian when it comes to things that are older than colonization, because that “line” that was drawn around Nigeria is really arbitrary. My mother’s side is from the Yoruba tribe, and my father’s side is from the Bini, or Edo, tribe. There’s a lot they have in common, because historically the Yoruba and Edo both had empires of their own that were all along the west coast. The Yoruba Empire at one point stretched all the way past Ghana, down past what we think of as Nigeria now. All of that is to say that there is a lot of West African storytelling, or that style of storytelling, in Raybearer. You find out about the existence of griots, who are of course real in West Africa. They’re very revered historians and storytellers, and still have a very important place in society, even though now there are written ways to take down records. At one point it was mostly oral tradition, and these people would memorize massive histories.

RS: I don’t know how people did that.

JI: They had to memorize them in a beautiful way, too, because they were orators. Sometimes they were also advisors to kings of regions, and in some regions you weren’t allowed to contradict a ruler directly. Instead you had to tell them a story, to try to subtly advise them if they were about to make a terrible decision or if they were being unwise or cruel. That happens in Raybearer. I adapted griots to be a little different in this world. They are members of priesthoods, but they do much the same thing. Each of them plays a talking drum; in West Africa, griots can play many different instruments, but in Raybearer, everyone has at least a drum. The more stories they tell, the more the drum absorbs those stories and becomes part of the griot. People telling stories and singing all the time is a very Yoruba thing. When my mom used to tell me Yoruba folktales, they always involved lots of sound effects. You can’t just say, “The turtle walked over to the river.” You have to say, “The turtle walked,” and then you say something like, “Kadu kadu kadu kadu,” the way that animal might walk.

RS: Reminds me of Verna Aardema, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears. But the world you’ve created in Raybearer is a very twenty-first-century fantasy with lots of complicated details and magic. How did you think of all these things?

JI: I imagine a lot of it came from reading. I was homeschooled until high school, which left a lot of time for books. I’m of a divided mind about homeschooling. I think it can be done really well and really badly. I do believe that it benefited my brother and me in particular because we both happen to have niche passions. If you get all your schoolwork for the day done in, say, three hours, you can spend the rest of the time reading or making up stories or whatever else. For my brother it was video editing. He used to film everything, and now he’s a very successful cinematographer.

RS: And you were writing and reading?

JI: Yes, that was definitely my passion. It isn’t just books, either. I was one of the first online generations, so I had access to all of these different forums. When I was a teenager, streaming got big — so watching Studio Ghibli, things like that.

RS: Their stories all have a very mythic quality laid over them. There seem to be whole worlds there, in Ponyo and Princess Mononoke.

JI: Absolutely. Many children today, not just the children of immigrants, have this very global experience of storytelling now. A kid is likely to have to read books from the stolid, white, Western literary canon for school, like Huckleberry Finn; then they’ll come home and watch hours of Japanese anime; and they might go to a comic-con dressed as T’Challa from Black Panther. It’s beautiful, in my opinion, but it does make the question of representation more complicated. I felt pressure as an author to try and over-Africanize my work.

RS: Really?

JI: That’s the way people kept marketing me. I knew, even when I was pitching my book, that it’s easier to put this into a genre if you can say, “This is a West African story.” But it’s many things. I’m West African, I’m American, I’m Californian. I feel like a conglomerate of all of those things. I grew up reading British literature because Nigeria was a British colony, so my parents had loads of those books in the house. With Raybearer, it’s hard to divide out what comes from where. There are specific cultural aspects, like griots, that are from West Africa. But their mythology, dating system, and beliefs — it’s a mix. They personify world elements — Empress Sky, Queen Earth, King Water — but the Yoruba is way more specific. And that gets even more complicated, because Christianity and Islam are both huge parts of Nigerian culture. Both came from a form of colonization, but there’s definitely a Nigerian-specific understanding of those beliefs. I grew up in a Christian home, and I identify as one, so those myths for explaining the world also influenced my writing when I make up god systems and things like that.

RS: You say that so blithely. "When I make up god systems…"

JI: I have always loved mythology. As a kid, that was one of my favorite things to read.

RS: How did you start in creating one? What came first?

JI: I remember that being one of the most organic processes of this book. There were a lot of things I had to be really intentional about. Like, okay, I have this protagonist, and I know she has an unhealthy and yet pure attachment to her mother; I know this, I know that, but I need to come up with a solid plot. But with the origin story — I just thought about all of the different mythologies I know.

RS: Did it grow as you went?

JI: I knew that I wanted their understanding of the creation of the world to be a romance between forces, and that everything in the world was born out of that romance. There’s King Water and Queen Earth, and all of their children are things like plants and hills and animals. And then there’s the pelican, who flies over worlds and shakes stories from its wings.

RS: And that precious oil.

JI: Right. The people in Raybearer revere pelicans, so they take oil from pelicans’ wings and use that to anoint, and to sometimes seal promises in a divine or magical way. Humans come from that union of the pelican and earth. Humans are made of clay of earth and blood, this divine blood.

RS: What do you say to Christians, by the way, who feel that this kind of fantasy novel turns people away from Jesus?

JI: I would generally ask them to examine their own biases. My opinion, culturally, is that I know lots of Christians who have no trouble studying Greek mythologies, because that’s part of the Western canon of literature.

RS: Right.

JI: But to then say that fantasies or magics based on nonwhite cultures like West Africa are somehow more dangerous — I don’t think that’s fair or consistent. A lot of Christians who are afraid of Harry Potter, for example, are completely fine with Lord of the Rings because that’s something they grew up with.

RS: Right, and Tolkien was Catholic.

JI: I do respect the preferences of parents. They might say, "Oh, it looks like the book has magic in it, and I’m not okay with my kid reading that. Books, thankfully, are around for a while, so if this kid wants to read my book later, they can."

RS: Or under the covers. That’s what I always recommend. If your parents don’t want you to read a book, just find a way around them. I’m really into disobeying one’s parents when it comes to reading.

JI: My parents had strict standards around magic and things like that. I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter. Now I make my living as a fantasy writer, so there’s that.

RS: How do they feel about this?

JI: They’re very proud; they’re very sweet. I know they aren’t comfortable with some aspects of the story. I empathize with them in particular because they were raised in places where witchcraft means something very real. I guess I just respect that a little more than coming from a place of fear of the unknown.

RS: Something Debbie Reese points out in terms of Native American material is that one person’s mythology is another person’s religion.

JI: Exactly. And honestly, that’s another reason why I didn’t delve into actual Orisha mythology in Raybearer. Of course you can incorporate fantasy into fiction based on religious aspects — I would never say that nobody should. Goodness knows there’s plenty of fantasy about Christian stuff — angels and demons and things like that. But because I didn’t grow up with Yoruba beliefs, it’s something I would’ve wanted to make sure I knew a lot about if I were going to represent it in any way, let alone faithfully. That definitely makes it more complicated when a fantasy religion is based on real religion. The god system in Raybearer is unique to Raybearer and is influenced by many different cultural and religious influences.

RS: I was hearing a hint of C. S. Lewis when you have Dayo say to our heroine, “We live there all by ourselves, and train to rule Aritsar, and go on adventures. I’ll see you every day. Forever, until we’re dead.” There’s a sentence like that in the first book, where they’re all going to become kings and queens of Narnia and live happily ever after. Did you read Lewis as a kid?

JI: Lewis is a big staple of homeschool education. I wasn’t thinking of Narnia when I wrote that, although I can certainly see the analogy. When I started this story the lines were a lot clearer, between this good and rightful kingdom facing this threat from the unknown. You have to defend the kingdom, and the good kings and queens of our good kingdom, because of their divine right to rule. I started getting serious about writing books when I was thirteen, so basically this story grew up with me. Now the book very much questions the rights of rulers, the right of empires to exist, and the blood on which they’re built. There is no such thing as a righteous empire (at least not one ruled by men!). I think that Dayo’s optimism is both his strength and his weakness, and that excerpt probably reflects that. “It’s okay, we’ll all be friends, and everything will be okay forever, and this is the way it’s always been, the way it’s supposed to be.” It was a little hard to write his character because there’s an optimism in him that can be willful blindness.

RS: I like that our viewpoint of the good and bad characters gets shifted. Initially they all seemed lined up pretty well, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, but then as you read, you discover that nobody is wholly one or the other. It’s not just a question of someone masquerading as a good guy. The heroine’s mother is a really complicated person; she’s not just this evil witch.

JI: I’m fascinated by her. What I wanted to make clear is that her love for her daughter is genuine, but it’s a narcissist’s love for an extension of herself. Which is still a real love; but it’s one that can be very damaging and dehumanizing to the object of that love.

RS: Oh, yeah. I know you describe her otherwise, but in my mind’s eye, I couldn’t help but picture her as the Baroness in The Sound of Music.

JI: That’s funny, because the older I get, the more I like the Baroness. As an adult, you might rewatch a movie and feel like someone is actually more reasonable than you thought they were as a kid. She was engaged to the Captain!

RS: How much fun is it to write a sentence like “My mother was the devil, and I her puppet demon”?

JI: It’s a lot of fun. That’s probably one of the oldest sentences in the book, which is unsurprising, because I was a very dramatic teenager. I owe a lot to the dramatic influences I grew up with. I was a big Charlotte Brontë nerd, and still am.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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