Lagoon

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Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Africa (Nigeria)

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’ll be looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

What’s it about?Lagoon

A massive object crashes into the sea just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. In the ensuing chaos, three unlikely friends must come together to stop their beloved city (and potentially the world) ripping itself apart – and, instead, point it towards a new, hopeful future.

What did I find out?

As I’ve started work on my own novel, I’ve been wrestling with the concept of the chapter. In my first bash at getting words on the page, I wrote what I’d initially plotted as the first two chapters – but when I totted up the word count, I realised it fell way short of the words I imagined these chapters would contain. So, at best, these were perhaps mere ‘scenes’, not ‘chapters’. I got a bit fed up and started to believe myself incapable of ever writing anything novel-length.

However, on reading Lagoon, in which some of the chapters are less than a page long – some are just a few lines – I began to take heart. It’s not necessarily the length of the chapter/scene that matters, but whether it’s conveying what it needs to convey. Maybe I will have many short chapters – or maybe, when I embark on the inevitable rewrites as the story develops, I’ll find that these short scenes can be expanded after all.

Either way, Lagoon has reassured me that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to be taken to the writing of a novel. I’m looking forward to finding my own way.

What do I now see differently?

[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]

It’s clear fairly early on in the novel that this is a story about aliens: specifically, a ‘first contact’ narrative, where aliens land on Earth and attempt to make contact with the humans. It’s notable for being set in Lagos, Nigeria, not one of the major Western cities; and what’s particularly interesting is that there is a specific reason given in the plot for this: it’s not just because the author wanted to write about Lagos (although undoubtedly this is also the case).

The point is made that, because of the more unstable nature of the government and authorities in Lagos, the aliens have a greater chance of connecting with the general populace. In, say, New York City, there would be a much higher likelihood of the whole operation being efficiently taken over by the military and shut down before any of the civilian residents had a clue something was amiss.

The novel’s depiction of Lagos, however, shows us a very different society, one with distinct cracks in its governance, through which the aliens can present themselves directly to the people on the streets. The subsequent social disorder can then, thanks to social media, be broadcast around the world. It’s a very different outcome than if the aliens had been carted off to Area 51 at their first appearance.

This made me realise that narratives we (certainly in the West) take for granted, such as the assumption that aliens will always go to the United States first as it’s the most powerful nation, are not necessarily so. We need to present alternative visions of what might happen, not just to give voice to those who are often overlooked, but because these voices might, actually, be speaking a greater truth.

How will this inspire my writing?

Lagoon features three main (human) characters and a number of supporting characters, all of whose tales are interwoven to illustrate the effect of the alien arrival on their city. The narrative skips from one perspective to another, but the reader is always clear on whose particular story is being told at any given time, and who the central figures are.

As I’m currently juggling a number of different characters in my own novel, it was enormously helpful to be reminded of the importance of this. In the plot’s current format, my scenes (or chapters!) will skip from one perspective to another in a similar way to Lagoon – so I need to remember that I must always make it clear whose story I am telling at each point, and how it contributes to the central character’s own tale.

A musical interlude

I’m delighted that the song that sprang to mind to accompany this novel is one of my old favourites: This is the Sea, the title track from the album by the Waterboys. What a great song to start the year with!