Moses Ose Utomi
Moses Ose Utomi is a Nigerian American fantasy writer, who weaves his unique cultural heritage with the academic chops an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a dash of the wandering martial artist, living extensively across the US (most recently Honolulu). His work has been published with Tor and Fantasy Magazine, among others, but his most successful work to date has been his debut novella, Lies of the Ajungo (which, I recently reviewed at Black Gate), and is the first part of a trilogy of exploring his unique secondary world, the Forever Desert. Moses was kind enough to meet up for a long, rambling Zoom interview, where we discussed everything from the novella and its sequels, to identity, the role of violence as means of society change, world-building, and how Moses ‘signal-switches’ in his mind when writing adult vs. young adult fantasy. There was a lot of great stuff, but I’ve tried to pair it down to the most best — suffice it to say that, as shows in his fiction, Moses’s thoughts range wide and deep and it was a great chat!
GM: Moses, thanks for doing this and thanks for writing such a great novella!
MU: I’m glad to be here and glad you enjoyed it!
So let’s get to it… there’s a lot packed into 88 pages including not one but two twists, the second ‘reveal’ which, I confess, hit me in the gut.
The Lies of the Ajungo (Tor.com,
March 21, 2023). Cover art by Alyssa Winans
It’s a powerful story about identity and lost identity but what’s interesting is that no sooner do you ‘’get it” then we are into the Afterword where you talk a little about the experience of being the American-born and raised son of Nigerian immigrants and how that tied you to, but kept you slightly apart from, both worlds. I wonder if you can tell me a little about how that impacts the City of Lies.
Sure. There’s this “African” proverb — one of those proverbs everyone attributes everywhere but no one really knows where it comes from — that “until the lion has its day the hunter will always be the hero.” And I think being from two cultures forces one to see both the hunter’s history and the lion’s history.
I think that is where most of my stories come from. Most of what I read are hunter’s stories, and that’s okay, but I’m like, ‘but I come from a family of lions, I know that’s not how the hunter was, that’s not how he made war.’ And so, I think that is a big part of everything I write. Certainly in this story, Tutu grows up thinking he is the hunter, that he knows a story, that he knows the truth, and learns well that’s certainly one perspective on the truth, one version of things that happened but maybe not the one that’s the most honest or valuable — and over the other books we’ll perhaps see how that lesson is then complicated more. Is the truth that Tutu comes to the whole truth? So I think that tension drives the story.
What I thought was so interesting was the idea that Tutu himself believes this mythos they fed him. That’s another look at colonization, no? “Your story is the one I give you.”
Yeah, for sure. My parents came here, and remember it was pre-internet, so they almost literally thought the America of 1970s had streets “paved in gold.” Of course, it didn’t. It was just another place. But that’s the story they were told. And what do you have to go by? Movies. Postcards. Which are also myths. And that’s the same thing here: Tutu has been fed a narrative, a myth, and he doesn’t have the resources or the capacity to question that myth at the start of our story, he accepts it because it is the only answer he’s even been provided.
One thing I am excited to explore across the trilogy is where did this myth come from? How did the City of Lies really get to be this way and the Forever Desert take its form? And… okay, you’re the very first person I am saying this to; I’ve been harboring it in my heart, but… there’s an inclination in readers at the end of a book to accept easy answers, especially in our genre where you have mythic themes.
So you end Lies and it’s easy to say “Wow, these leaders, they were really cruel.” Well, yeah, but where did they get their message from? How did they get this way? They didn’t emerge at the start of time. Someone fed a story into their brain that led them step by step to where we meet up with them. Hopefully, I ultimately give a full picture of the story of the Forever Desert that tells what’s really going on.
At least from a certain point of view…
So really, the character of the trilogy is the Forever Desert itself.
Absolutely. I treated this like I am writing a folk history, and what is history but the story of a place and the people who live there? How those lives intersect and build off each other? I read an interesting story by a former soldier in the Afghanistan occupation who explained that early in the invasion he was deep in [non-Pashtun] lands, and tribesmen were trying to understand what his soldiers were doing there. He was trying to be very reasonable, explaining about Osama bin Laden and how he had attacked our country and was hiding in the hills and so forth.
They could understand all of that, but when explained how now America was going to help Afghanistan they literally said ‘what’s Afghanistan’ and he realized…’oh right. These people have never even been to the closest city, let alone Kabul…Pakistan is closer, and it is over a range of mountains. The idea of Afghanistan means virtually nothing to them, there is just their village, and their tribe’s lands, and the lands another group has that may or may not be at peace with them.’
These people had lived on that land before there was an ‘Afghanistan’ and maybe had a different name or conceptualization for it. For most of the world, through most of human experience, most people live history locally and through a mix of living memory and folklore.
So when I’m telling this series I’m trying to tell the history of this place: the different names it may have gone by, the different ways people may have thought about it, the different groups who may have called it home, or tried to claim it from others, and so forth. All these people are part of the tapestry and so Tutu, much as I love him, is ultimately a footnote.
I mean, an important footnote, to be sure. Speaking of folklore, when I reviewed Lies of the Ajungo here at Black Gate I noted that it feels very folkloric in theme and narrative voice. As the son of Nigerian immigrants, were you exposed to a lot of African folklore or myth, or was that something you had to discover on your own?
I was. My Mom was a librarian, so she grew up around literature, but she was very nuts and bolts. It was my Dad who was the storyteller — he grew up embedded in our cultural tales. But even then I didn’t hear my Dad’s stories as a Nigerian but as part of a diaspora — as someone hearing stories removed from their land, their cultural immersion, huge parts of their context. So I hope there is something I replicated that creates that sense of a ‘story told’ and that is the folkloric quality, but you’re not going to be able to Google up a source for every name and go down a rabbit hole. It’s more organic than that.
Do you feel that this one step removed made the stories you were told less rich, or less coherent? More importantly, there’s some great African writers publishing — how is your background guiding you to a different narrative work?
I’m American, so I was seeing Nigeria and the Nigeria of those stories through my father, not through the world around me, which was 1990s America, right? Which can be a bit of a privilege in this publishing world: it’s probably easier for me to translate my African-ness to an American/Western audience because I grew up here. They have a lot of hurdles I don’t have to overcome. Writing about other cultures and making it relatable is its own act of translation, and any good translation must be fluent yet relatable.
Where did the idea of the Forever Desert — a world understood only through thirst and a constant battle for water — come from? Was this a traditional story you adapted as well?
No, not at all! This probably isn’t the answer you were expecting: my childhood. I drew inspiration from the very arid and water scarce Sahel region, which part of Northern Nigeria sits in, but my family is from the south of Nigeria, where it is quite tropical. They hadn’t lived in a desert until they came to Las Vegas. They did not grow up in a desert or thinking about water shortages, I did!
In fact, I didn’t realize how unusual that was until I went to university out east and realized ‘oh, you all never talk about water, or water shortages. You just assume you’ll have it. Rain doesn’t destroy everything because your land can’t drink it.’ It was the first time I realized I was from a desert.
So, as much as the idea of the Sahara is ingrained in American consciousness as ‘Africa,’ the experience of the desert, and thirst, and water being precious — that’s your American heritage coming into play, not your African!
Sorry to disappoint!
Not at all; it shows how worldbuilding is a summation of our experiences and ideas. This is also a fantasy and there is definitely magic in this world. There are many takes on magic in fantasy right now, from a definite pseudo-science with clearly defined rules, to a subtle ‘did that just happen’ to a wild, chaotic power of the select few that always carries a cost, and everything in between. Some authors see magic as a solution to problems the same way a hard SF author will use tech, others see it as never the solution. What role does magic play in the Forever Desert?
The initial writing was just ‘what fits with the metaphor of the story.’ I grew up on the really hard magic systems, but that wasn’t the way I wanted to go with this — I didn’t want the magic to solve problems, necessarily. Violence certainly solves a problem for Tutu, and the magic becomes a tool for violence because Tutu is a 13-year-old boy who does what many 13-year-old boys do when finally given overwhelming power — he starts breaking things.
On the idea of summation, the finale of the novel very much is based on Tutu being, well, 13, but imbued with power and the will to use it.
Yeah, there were many ways someone else might have handled what he learns, but he’s 13 years old. He chooses violence. And well, as I said, violence is an answer.
So let’s talk about that, since we’re both martial artists and part of the idea behind martial arts is not just the study of violence but the rationale behind its use. This is a violent novella and there’s no real short sell on this — in some parts violence solves problems that crop up here just as surely as they do in a sword & sorcery story. Is there a take-away for readers here?
Pauses) This one is hard… not because I don’t have opinions, but because I have my goal as the writer and then what you derive as the reader is equally legitimate, so long as you aren’t reading anything I write as justifying bigotry or victimizing one group as punishment for what happened to another; those ideas are objectively wrong and not in my writing. Any other interpretation you want? Cool. I don’t know this world better than you do just because I wrote it — because I don’t know the things you bring to the experience of it.
That said… and I guess this has to be a little political… the modern world, by which mean the modern Western world, which is a cultural empire, right?… has done what I think most empires do… and that is malign the idea of violence as barbaric and unnecessary. “Civilized people” are above that.
But the truth is that when we are dealing with governments and oppression — violent oppression and suppression, which is what this story deals with — violence is one tool that exists. It may not be the best tool, but it is an undeniably important tool and one that sometimes is indeed the only solution. Are the violent choices Tutu makes the best ones? Well, the reader can decide, and you can see the shadow his choices cast in the second two volumes.
I already mentioned that I found the term ‘Forever Desert’ intriguing, since it can be both forever in space and time, and in a setting where the people have lost their history, and those who leave the City of Lies never return, the boundaries of the desert and what lies beyond is unknown, both are true. Considering the mutilations the Ajungo require of their subject peoples, was this another way of looking at colonization?
(Nods) Yeah, of course. To lose your tongue is to lose your narrative, your history, to tell your story as you know it. And that’s the thing empires do, right? Even the (relatively speaking) benign ones — they control the narrative of the people they rule so that it does not run contrary to, challenge the authority of, or steal glory from, the empire.
Really effective empires, I’m thinking Rome or Great Britain —
Or the US.
Point taken, especially since I was going to say, effective empires cleverly have a way for a certain cadre of the subject peoples’ elite to ‘buy in’ and become part of the Empire’s higher echelons. It creates a narrative of egalitarianism — and maintains the status quo. I don’t want to spoil Lies, but certainly chapter one makes it clear that the Oba of the City of Lies continue to rule and get to keep their tongues. They could pass on the real history and yet…
Exactly. They just maintain the narrative.
Coming to this revelation through the ideas of a 13-year-old hero, plus not one but two significant plot twists, all in 88 pages, is a lot to demand from a novella. Yet the novelette and novella is really the ‘origin’ form of SFF and it has been great seeing it undergo a renaissance. Why did you choose novellas for the stories of the Forever Desert and how did that impact world-building?
As you said, the story is written to have almost a folkloric quality; the kind of tale you might be hearing from your grandfather generations later. That sort of tale tends to be poetic, but not long; you don’t have that fat fantasy quality of crossing the desert and here are all the amazing things we saw and did; instead you have ‘for 30 days they crossed the burning sands, and their suffering was great.’ The focus is crisp and centered on those things that inform the plot: the novella is perfect for that.
As for its impact on world-building, well it makes it very simple in a sense. I need to do it, of course, but there’s more acceptance of archetype. Tutu’s world is a desert, right? So, there must be snakes and scorpions, some must be poisonous. But a poisonous snake wasn’t relevant to the story, so I didn’t need to know what that snake looked like or was called.
Novellas make me think of the old Spider-Man 2 game for the PS2. Great game. It recreated the entire city of Manhattan to swing through, but you couldn’t go into every building — you could only enter specific, story-related buildings at specific times. World-building in a novella is like that: the whole world is there, but we’re only opening a few doors. Everything else is basically a prop. I love the big, epic fantasy books that let you go into every room, but that wasn’t what I needed to do here.
The Truth of the Aleke (Tor.com,
March 5, 2024). Cover art by Alyssa Winans
I believe I saw the sequel, Truth of the Aleke, comes out next spring.
Okay, so that is in publishing terms, right around the corner, is there anything you can share?
Without spoilers, I can say that this second novella takes place 500 years after Lies, where the City of Truth has been under siege for over three centuries by a mysterious Cult of Tutu and its leader, the Aleke. Seventeen-year-old Osi is a Junior Peacekeeper in the City who rises to the occasion when the Aleke commits a massacre in the city and steals the city’s magical God’s Eyes. Osi is then tasked with a tremendous responsibility — destroy the Cult of Tutu, bring back the God’s Eyes, and discover the truth of the Aleke.
As with Lies, this will both be a standalone work and set up the third and final volume, which will again time jump 500 years.
A thousand years of time? Will we at the end understand why the Forever Desert is the way it is?
Absolutely! If I do it right, the reader will finish the series with a full understanding of the Forever Desert.
I’m going to touch on a ‘third rail’ topic, if you’ll let me, and try not to shock either one of us in the process.
Go for it… I probably should have asked what it was, first, but oh well.
OK, so I’m a White, GenX second gen American asking this question to a Black, Millennial whose parents are African immigrants…
How do you see the idea of OwnVoices? Do you agree that writers should only write about their own culture? And in a genre with so much secondary world development, what does that even mean?
Wow, yeah, that’s tough. Let me try and say something coherent… I might have to meander a little to get at my point.
Zoom doesn’t mind — it’s a paid account. Meander all you like.
(laughs) So, there’s the reflexive side to this, where, on the one hand, I represent a demographic that is among the least represented in the publishing world. So, if I see a story touching on Black America, or Africa, etc., from someone outside those worlds there is the emotional response of ‘Really?’ That’s the human side of the matter, and a lot of OwnVoices, is, I think, driven by that. Frustration that as a minority you won’t even be given a chance to tell your story.
But I also believe in the sanctity of creative freedom. Writing is thinking, and I don’t believe in telling people what they can or cannot think about. I think many of the failures of books written from perspectives that don’t align with the author’s identity are failures of craft — poor research, lazy language, reductive characterization, etc. — moreso than a fundamental inability of the author to empathize with and render the subject. Which happens. Even the best authors have bad books.
At WorldCon last year I listened to a relatively well-known Asian-American author complain that they were pressured by their previous publisher only to write Asian fantasy and SF, which seems like ghettoization all over again. Maybe one that comes with an advance and royalties, but all the same.
Right! That’s the other side of the coin that I’ve definitely heard about.
Also — and this is an idea that is embedded in Lies — I really do believe in blaming systems more than individuals. In that sense, I’m not so interested in putting the onus for perfect representation on authors. The onus is, in my opinion, on publishers. Let artists do art. Publishing, as an institution, has far more tools and finances available to find diverse, authentic, high-quality writing.
Isn’t this where research matters? As a former journalist — and acknowledging that the profession is sometimes shockingly bad about this — one of the points about foreign correspondence is to try and open foreign viewpoints, events, and their impacts on the ‘global village’ to the home audience. Of necessity, you rarely have a reporter who can be from every place or even every region, though hopefully they build increasingly more familiarity with the area they are embedded.
In theory, yes. Though growing up in a Nigerian-American household and seeing the wild inaccuracy in how Nigeria was portrayed in news reports, media, etc., makes me hesitant to accept that solution.
Of course. So, since we have said writers should write, but authenticity matters, and really this is about fantasy, how can we pull this all together?
I think the first thing is as a writer ask yourself: ‘What is the story I am trying to tell?’ Then ask, with an honest mind and heart, ‘Am *I* the best one to tell it?’ If you feel the answer is *yes* then believe in yourself and write it, and if you fail or realize that you misjudged, that’s part of the risk of art, unfortunately. At least you did something you believe in, and your art probably improved. That said, the closer you hew to the real people, places, and experiences, the less room you have for error.
On the other hand, take Forever Desert. This is my world, shaped entirely of the stories and experiences that shaped me. So the style of the authenticity is different: I am trying my best to present a version of my parents’ stories from Nigeria (and Edo culture, more specifically) told to their American son and filtered through his very American upbringing and storytelling tradition. Because I have no shame in admitting that the stories of the continent are not mine to tell. I can only tell stories that, in some way, belong to me.
But that’s the beauty of secondary worlds – they can be a fusion of experiences that creates something unique to the author. There ought to be enough pie for everyone. But that’s back to the wisdom of publishers. Speaking of which, in the most ham-handed of transitions, one of the things that publishers keep inventing and reinventing is genre and sub-genre. Although your first novel was also fantasy, it’s YA. Can you tell us a little about that and how you switched to adult fantasy!
Daughters of Oduma (Atheneum Books, February 7, 2023). Cover by Laylie Frazier
Sure. Daughters of Oduma is a very different story. It has an all-female cast, quite a bit less graphic violence, and uses pidgin in dialogue. It’s coming from a different place in my head than Lies. But I didn’t really approach the writing of it differently, other than perhaps how I refined the theme in revision. I just told the story as it came to me. I actually wrote the first several drafts fully intending it to be an adult novel. YA is, to me, a business label, not a creative one.
When I was growing up, I just read whatever caught my eye at the library. And that might be: My Teacher is an Alien or the Dragonlance Chronicles or Little House on the Prairie; and frankly lots of things besides that in retrospect was definitely NOT targeted at 10-year-old Moses. But it was less about whether it was appropriate for me to read and more about whether I was capable of reading. If you had told young me to read a book especially for ‘young adults,’ I would’ve raged hard against the machine. A large part of the pleasure I got from reading was that I never felt like a kid — that is, bound by rules and untrusted with responsibility and a dozen other things — when reading.
Which isn’t saying that I think there is no such thing as YA, not at all. It has become a style, for sure, even if I struggle to accept it as a full genre unto itself. There are a lot of writers out there who are very invested in the idea of a YA style or genre, and are experts in the craft of writing YA, but I’m not one of them (laughs).
So I’ve seen a couple of younger editors say that ‘head hopping’ – third person narrative is out and they want to push first person narration. You wrote Lies in third person, do you have a thought on this.
Yeah… These are the sorts of pronouncements that the industry creates for itself that is based on… nothing. What, if one day every first person narration disappeared do you think everyone would decide ‘oh, I hate third person. I am going to quit reading?’ Of course not! I like first person, and you know what, I love third person limited. And different stories want different narration styles.
If you were going to pin me down to where this sort of thing comes from, I’d say editors read a lot more manuscripts and books than the average *reader*, and they spend their time talking to other editors, so they get fatigued by seeing this or that. It is a projection, but the idea that ‘the market wants first person’… or whichever thing it will be tomorrow… the market doesn’t get to decide until after the books are published, do they?
We’re at that point where I ask what’s next for Moses — what should we be expecting?
I’m finishing the Forever Desert trilogy right now and oh my jeeves, I am so excited to reveal the big picture to you all. There are things here — the ‘big things’ — that have been living in my head almost from the beginning that I have told no one, so to be finally getting it down, actually setting those words down, it’s very powerful for me. I hope it will be for the readers, too! I also have a sequel to Daughters of Oduma coming out, and of course, I already have the next set of ideas in the works!