Endnotes from Oon: 6 interesting finds during worldbuilding research

Plus: Black Boy Joy is now out in the world! 🎉

Part I: Ottawa

For those who saw my announcement in last month’s letter, I have now physically moved my body and belongings to the Canadian capital city of Ottawa. So far, I’m still at the stage of unpacking boxes, coupling furniture, and stepping in and out of government buildings, so I’m yet to see the city proper. But here are my early impressions:

  • Ambiance: I think this may be a Canadian city thing, but the first time I took to Ottawa’s streets in its Byward Market area, I immediately felt like I’d stepped into a European city. From the architectural mix (Regency-meets-modern-meets-heritage home, like the photo of Sussex Drive above that houses the national gallery of art) to the river-in-the-city, to its uncountable parks and green spaces, it’s very different from all the US cities I’ve visited—and I visited a bunch across regions while on tour. Ottawa—and again, I’m guessing many Canadian cities—simply feels not-North-American-y. In some moments, it breathes and acts like the capital of Canada (massive ancient government buildings!) but seems to carry the spirit of humbler origins.

  • Greenery: For a city city, Ottawa is intentionally green. Not just in terms of sustainability practices, but actual flora: plants, trees, flowers, gardens, etc. This is where I feel it deviates from my time in the UK. Once you cut past the large roadways, every corner seems planned to insert some greenery into itself.

  • Sleepy town: I hear this is perceived as a sleepy government town. Well, if the little dash of boisterousness I’ve experienced so far what is perceived as sleepy, then I don’t want to be awake, thanks.

  • Patience is a Canadian virtue: OMG, Canadians are so good at taking their time! So much patience! And with smiles too! The semi-American and full Nigerian in me wants to scream every time. If, like me, you’re used to getting things immediately or at snap-of-a-finger speed, strap in for a slow unlearning.

I suppose I’ll have more stuff to say in the coming weeks. But for now, on to the month’s letter.

Part II: Endnotes from Oon: 6 interesting finds during worldbuilding research

One of the most-asked questions I get during book talks is: What interesting stuff did you discover while researching for your worldbuilding? I’m never sure how to respond because I don’t keep a list and there’s a ton of them. But today, I’ll try to offer 5 of them. Here they are:

  1. The ancient craft of Jaliyaa: Most of you know that the main character of SOTS, Danso, is a jali. That is not a randomly chosen word. Most know this role of West-African singer-storyteller-poet-historians as “griots,” but that is only the same word with a colonial French root. The Mande word for it is “jali/jeli” (djali, djéli for French inflection). Across West Africa, bard-type scholar-historian-storytellers are described with various terms. If you’ve ever seen Ablaye Cissoko play the kora or Bako Dagnon sing, then you’ve witnessed a jali in action. In Nigeria, I’ve mostly encountered Hausa and Yoruba jalis, often doubling as praise-singers. In Benin where I’m from, most of the indigenous music takes on a call-and-response storytelling quality, as do many of Nigeria’s ethnic groups.

  2. Falling from a height: In the early chapters of SOTS, two characters fall from a height. One easily picks themselves up, the other takes months to recover, and never uses their legs again. I went seeking a rational explanation for this, and found a paper that explained how age, fall height, ground type and body part of impact determine the damage of a fall’s impact. A fall on one’s feet or buttocks, apparently, is unlikely to cause death, even with increased height. But any upper body part hitting the ground first is almost impossible to recover from.

  3. Traditional African medicine: In Bassa, there are bone-setters, physicians, herbal healers, etc. Most of the methods these practitioners apply, I gleaned from several papers on traditional African medicine. Do you know that some of these plants and practices, now termed “alternative medicine,” have just as scientific methods and effective potencies as Big Pharma’s products? We’re talking medical potions, surgical operations, amputations, etc. Traditional African medicine tends to take a holistic approach—mind, body, spirit—which is unsurprisingly the basis of more popular approaches today. Though the spirituality aspect tends to cause people to shy away (see Christian incursion below), in principle, there’s little difference between this and praying for healing from one’s hospital bed.

  4. The history of drawing: Because Danso is also a scholar, one of my research points was to find out how drawing (and in tandem, writing) came to be. I found this nifty website that’s really a free textbook detailing the origins of drawing and the tools used. You’ll notice the Bassai write with charcoal styluses, which they darken in a fire each time they want to write. That idea came to me only after skimming this material.

  5. Traditional funeral rites of a Benin Chief: In SOTS, a high-ranking Idu noble is buried at the Great Dome, and the rites seem like a string of convoluted activities. But not too much of it is far-fetched. I borrowed most of it from the seven-step funeral rites of a Benin Chief, which you can see with the link above.

  6. A timeline of African Empires from the 1st to 15th Century: While trying to find the earliest records of written literature on the African continent, I stumbled upon a compendium of events in African city-states as far back as 300 AD. We’re talking during Rome’s extensions into Northern Africa and long before Bantu migration. If you ever want to catch up on things like the Christian incursion through Ethiopia or growth of the trans-Saharan gold trade, use this link above.

Part III: All the latest

  • Black Boy Joy hits shelves today. If you’ve got that child or nibling or friend or parent who could do with an ode to Black boyhood in their life, point them in this direction. They’ll find it here. The New York Times say so!

  • Son of the Storm was a Kindle Daily Deal over the weekend at $2.99, and hit the #1 Bestseller spot in its category as a result. We even got blessed with an orange banner, whoop! The e-book’s back at $4.99 now, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting it (or telling your friends) if you haven’t already.

  • I just turned in edits to Minecraft: The Haven Trials yesterday. Can’t wait for you folks to experience this awesome story about friendship and perseverance. December 7 can’t come early enough! (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you might want to read last month’s letter!)

Part IV: Where to find me in the coming weeks

  • Wed Aug 11 @ Kepler’s Literary Foundation, 5PM PDT: I’ll be talking about Black Boy Joy with Kwame Mbalia, Phenderson Djéli Clark and Tochi Onyebuchi.

  • Wed Sep 1 @ Second Life Book Club, 12PM SLT: I’ll be in conversation with host Draxtor on this virtual reality alternate world book club.

  • Fable.co: The fantasy book club I discussed in my last letter will launch this month with Son of the Storm. Sign up if you want to be a part of it!

Part V: Recs roundup

  • 📺 Watching: Stranger Things rewatch (Netflix; still dope, though in retrospect, Season 3 was a mess); Ted Lasso S02 (Apple TV+; as funny and heartwarming as ever); Never Have I Ever S02 (Netflix; head-scratching but still hilarious); Gunpowder Milkshake (Netflix; DNF because a huge mess, though fun visuals)

  • 🎧 Listening: Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (Scribd; one of the best MG titles I’ve read in a while); Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (Scribd; had so much fun listening to this, and please more Xiala & Serapio!); “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X (because I love it when confident Black and queer Gen-Z boys take on the world).

  • 🌐 On the interwebs: A surprisingly important website, Support Black Authors, which rounds up new releases from Black authors every month so you don’t have to go looking (like this list for July). Also, if you can, go support the kickstarter for Death in the Mouth: Original Horror By People of Color. Lastly, if you’ve ever wondered why the younger generation loves labels so much, this piece from @zenerations might help.


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