Tales Mama Would Tell

Originally published at Fantasy Faction to accompany the press release for Lost Gods

When I was a kid my mother would tell me and my siblings fables, these sort of half made up Nigerian folktales-come-bedtime stories that often began and ended with a fantastical twist. Like the tale of how the sky came to be so high; which was apparently due to an overeager tribeswoman pounding yam so hard the shaft of her pestle bumped against the roof of the expanse overhead.

Or the tale of how the tortoise ended up with its segmented shell – an old West African fable I later learned had been popularised by its appearance in Chinua Achebe’s classic 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart. And then there was my personal favourite, the tale of how the elephant got its wrinkles, which I’d almost ruin for my brother and sisters every time, giggling so much in the knowledge of how it was going to end that they could hardly hear the telling.

Back then I’d spend my days hoping for my mother – a single parent immigrant working two jobs and studying – to find energy at the end of her long days to tell me and my siblings another tale about these worlds and lands that were as different from the one we were living in as her native tongue was from the language we now spoke.

Looking back, it was probably what first drew me to the idea of the unseen. The knowledge there was a somewhere I belonged to, that was part of me, but that I was still yet to encounter – there when my mother spoke in her first language, or told one of her folktales about that sun-scorched homeland – mother tongue and native tongue, fantastical and real, each running parallel to the other.

And so when I started writing it was this feeling I reached for. And why not? After all, the sort of mental straddling involved in belonging to a diaspora pretty much mirrors that of the fantasist anyway. The immigrant and the dreamer are brothers, each of them residents of two worlds, their reality refracted into here and elsewhere – which became a theme I wanted to explore in my novel, Lost Gods.

The book tells the story of Neythan, an adolescent assassin being hunted by the Brotherhood who adopted, raised and trained him. There’s action. Lots of it. Blood? Lots of that too, from almost the very first page. Not to mention a healthy smattering of betrayal for good measure. But on another level, the book is also the story of an adolescent boy with forgotten origins he feels estranged from, who uncovers a parallel world whilst trying to make sense of his place in the one he’s already part of.

I won’t pretend I was clever enough to do it deliberately, but, looking back, the pursuit of a sense of belonging and home that permeates the story does, in many ways, play allegorical mirror to the second-generation immigrant experience. In the same way that culture, for the diasporic, is split, parsed by the decoupling of place from heritage, and the tension that ensues between the two; Neythan too finds himself wrestling to reconcile the competing interests of two worlds – a trope, incidentally, found in a fair bit of African folklore.

Head of an Oba from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Take the mythology surrounding figures like Mwenembago in Bantu religions, for example. Or the many convoluted tales that make up the Edo origin myths of Nigeria and Ghana. Each of them, like my mother’s stories, and, who knows, perhaps even my novel, were always about more than entertaining. They were, like all great stories, about trying to explain the world, and our place in it – a trait that places them squarely in a long tradition of poets and authors stretching from Aesop and Homer, to Hans Christian Andersen, Tolkien, and George R.R. Martin. All of whom sought to not only provide a way of escaping to new worlds, but a way to examine and reflect our present one.

Lost Gods, in a way, is my attempt to do the same. The story takes place within a cosmopolitan pseudo Middle-Eastern/African context, against the backdrop of a three-century old empire known as The Sovereignty. Priests have become outlaws, religion forbidden, both halted to end the centuries of conflict they’ve caused, whilst rule is maintained by a king of kings known as the Sharíf, and the Shedaím; the secret brotherhood of assassins deployed at his command. But when Neythan, a member of this brotherhood, is framed for murder, he pursues his betrayer. What was, for Neythan, a once clearly ordered and simple world gets pretty chaotic fairly quickly. But then, swords and crossbows aside, who doesn’t look around at events in the world today and recognise that feeling.

I guess – similarly to the dreamer and the immigrant – life and fiction are brothers too. Like the American fantasy novelist, Lloyd Alexander, once said: “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It is a way of understanding it.” I like to think Lost Gods, like my mother’s folktales, is a fun way of doing a bit of both.

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