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Ignyte Interview Series 2021: #PublishingPaidMe- Tochi Onyebuchi

Author Photo: Christina Orlando

The Ignyte Community Award celebrates the Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, Tochi Onyebuchi is an author and an advocate for equality and inclusion in publishing working with L.L. McKinney to advocate for publishing transparency through #PublishingPaidMe. We are delighted to have him as a finalist for the award and have interviewed him about his work.

You began #publishingpaidme, along with L.L. McKinney, as an initiative to provide needed transparency in the discrepancy of advances paid to Black and other historically underrepresented writers, and white writers.  Was there anything that surprised you about the response to #publishingpaidme?

L.L. and I spoke as it was happening and after, and one of that first day’s biggest surprises was how widespread the disclosures became. I think we both expected the discussion to be confined to our little corner of SFF YA (Twitter). But we both knew we’d hit an inflection point when Roxane Gay revealed her advance totals. Personally, another surprise was when marquee white authors shared their numbers. Gillian Flynn, Emily St. John Mandel, and others. Beyond those disclosures providing very necessary data points, they were instrumental in showing the divide, which is what we were after all along. It wasn’t enough for authors of color and specifically Black authors to be revealing how grossly underpaid we were (and are) for our work; we needed the upper end of the distribution to reveal just how wide the gulf really was.

What are your thoughts on how the initiative has evolved?

It came at a very interesting time, perhaps by necessity. Publishing companies (I’m speaking mostly of the Big 5, soon to be Big 4) had already been paying lip service to equity in their practices and employees within those companies had been making a Sisyphean effort to render concrete those platitudes so I do believe groundwork had been laid by employees of color at these places. But institutional change in this space often feels like watching dust shift on the back of a Titan. Maybe there’s no connection between the way #publishingpaidme blew up and Lisa Lucas and Dana Canedy rising to high positions in publishing, becoming decision-makers, but maybe there is, however attenuated. What truly mattered to me was the micro-level. Authors were now armed with information, and that information asymmetry always left us at a disadvantage in negotiations. Now we could say, “look, here’s my white peer in exactly the same situation as me or who has underperformed compared to the metrics that apparently matter to you, Massive Publishing Entity; I want comparable money.” And we’d have the data backing us.

You have a civil rights law background and have always advocated for equality and inclusion. When did your first activism efforts begin? 

Law school, I would say. The spirit or emotional impulse had been in me for some time, but it wasn’t until law school that I began to see injustice in terms of systems. This isn’t to credit legal instruction in the United States (which is very much invested in reaffirming existing power structures) but rather my classmates and colleagues in public interest who nudged me by their example into the work I ended up doing during and after school in the realm of incarceration. I also attended law school at an immensely tumultuous time. The summer after my first year, while I was in the West Bank, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson at the beginning of my 2nd year with Eric Garner choked to death earlier that same summer. In my final semester, Freddie Gray died in a police van after his arrest. I also happened to be in Paris for the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the siege at the Hypercacher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes. So both countries I lived in at the time were in the midst of very violent paroxysms. While I did important and meaningful work at law school within the legal system, I think the first rally I spoke at and had a hand in planning was an anti-police violence rally in the fall of 2014 in solidarity with the activism surrounding Michael Brown’s death happening in the US and all over the world. All this was happening and because of where I was in my personal and professional education, I saw connections. These weren’t isolated incidents, they were symptoms of a thing. And it’s that sensibility I’ve taken with me into my subsequent personal and professional pursuits.

What would you like to explore next with your writing?

This is actually a very meaningful question for me at the moment and something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. Riot Baby stared the American carceral complex in the face while touching on the police state and medical racism. And Goliath is, in many ways, a book about environmental racism and anti-Blackness. I’ve a book after that that I’m currently working on in which I hope to look at/dive into anti-Blackness in the classroom setting. And I think that will have completed a spiritual trilogy of sorts. But pressing my face up against the barbarity of American racism and anti-Blackness for so long…well that Nietzsche quote about monsters and the abyss comes to mind. Back in high school was when I first developed a fascination with the world outside of the borders of the United States. This morphed into me majoring in Political Science in college with a focus on International Relations and Political Economy. The fiction I wrote at the time was very much flavored by that. I’d like to return to that space. Inhabit other countries, draw from different wellsprings. Not long ago, I read a book about the personal and political interrelations between Chinese and Russian revolutionaries in the early-to-mid 1900s, and that feeling of thrill and wonder…it felt good to do that again. To learn new things. It’s necessary work excavating the horrors of the white supremacist experience as lived by non-whites in the US, certainly. It’s also exhausting. I think there’s a reason Colson Whitehead decided to publish a heist novel after going back-to-back with The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys.

You also have a Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting. How has that influenced your fiction? Is there a work, one of your own or one by another creator, that you would like to adapt into a screenplay?

Oh, that MFA has been so instrumental! Before film school, I didn’t really know technically how a story was constructed. Everything was self-taught. I learned by reading and emulating as painters do to discover their own voice. But it wasn’t until film school that I learned what a three-act structure was or how to track emotional beats. I’d been winging it (and quite well), but now I had a much better grasp of how to actually build a thing, what to pay attention to. I learned words and terms for what I was already doing and that laid the foundation for me to do it more and better. That program also gave me two whole years to focus on nothing but writing. I didn’t have other obligations like chemistry class or sports. I was going to the theater instead of acting. So I could work with minimal distraction. I was also performing the activity I loved more than any other in the world. And I got to do it in concert with absolutely brilliant and supportive peers, another unicorn-esque factor of my experience.

We have heard that you love anime. Tell us about one of your favourites.

I can’t do just one, I apologize! But in 2020, the two hottest shows that aired were Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack on Titan. Easy. AoT has been an astounding experience to go through over the years. (I recently binged the whole series in preparation for the finale next winter.) I’m also enamored of My Hero Academia. The stories are so well told and the way characters are juggled is expert. If I were to dig in the crates a little, I’d say some of my biggest influences have been Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (the original movie was groundbreaking; the show brought things to a whole other level) and Gundam Wing. The latter made such an impression on me that I wrote a whole love letter to it set in Nigeria. Death Note is also a personal favorite, as is the original Fullmetal Alchemist. Many prefer Brotherhood, but the darker tone of the original struck me in the way very few pieces of art have. I’m also a part of the OG Toonami generation, so DBZ, Outlaw Star, Sailor Moon, Tenchi in Tokyo, YuYu Hakusho, all of those were part of my diet. I recently revisited Neon Genesis Evangelion and actually appreciated the original ending. I’ll admit that some of that appreciation came from the fact that I could compliment the events in the finale with End of Evangelion, which gives us an exterior view of what’s happening almost simultaneously. Finally, it would be absolutely criminal of me to omit the GOAT Shinichirō Watanabe, mastermind behind both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. (He also directed two of my favorite shorts in The Animatrix!) If that man gave us nothing else, he’d still be one of the most influential storytellers in my honest opinion.

What has made you hopeful over the past year?

Two things, one cultural and the other overtly political: Culturally, being in the thick of anime TikTok and the world of Black GameTubers and other GameTubers of color really filled me spiritually. To see entire communities spring up around these content creators, entire ecosystems, was magic to me. It felt like constant celebration. And it reminded me that this, too, is life. The political thing made me most hopeful is actually a relatively recent development though many have paved the way for it over the past half-century or so, and that is more open advocacy for the rights of Palestinian Arabs. Within my lifetime, it was considered verboten to even voice the sentiment that they were deserving of the human rights afforded to much of the world’s population. They were the one group, it seemed, that it was universally frowned upon to support. Organizations and individuals were constantly denied funding, educators were removed from their positions, writers and politicians were castigated, student groups were shut down. But the attention paid to Sheikh Jarrah in 2021 and the subsequent attack on Gaza was accompanied by increasingly vocal calls for the political rights of Palestinian Arabs and recognition of the constant and almost comprehensive injustice they’ve been suffering. I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime, and I can’t imagine what it means for people who’ve been fighting for decades to see just such statements made. That more than anything has reaffirmed my belief in the very idea of progress.

What does it mean to you to be considered for the Community Award?

It means the world. I would have been content if the #publishingpaidme initiative proceeded with my name falling into obscurity. The work was the important thing. The movement was the important thing. But I’ve seen the frustration in activist communities sometimes when their efforts go unacknowledged or without proper attribution. Someone’s always saying “no one is talking about this!” or “why doesn’t anybody care about this” when the truth of the matter is that people have indeed been making it their life’s work to ameliorate the situation surrounding the “this” of it all. I think the very administration of a Community Award is perhaps the most meaningful part. In this industry, it seems the only thing that gets paid attention to are the metrics of performance. Sales, awards, bestseller list appearances, movie options, sales again. And equity work almost always goes unsung until it’s time for someone’s Lifetime Achievement Award or some career recognition when they’re in their 80s and at the end of their output. There is the constant admonition to give people their roses while they are still alive, and it is so heartening to see that being made live and real and tangible.

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