Exclusive Interview: “Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon” Author Wole Talabi


The British Museum houses a great many treasures, things that some people would like to steal. (Or steal back as the case may be.) But in his new fantasy novel Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Wole Talabi doesn’t present the perfect heist, he presents a fantastic one (get it?). In the following email interview, Talabi discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, as well as why it had to be the titular artifact that might get heisted.

Wole Talabi Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon

Photo Credit: Ola-Tokunbo Aworinde


I’d like to start with some background: What is the Brass Head Of Obalufon?

So the Brass Head Of Obalufon (also known as The Bronze Head from Ife, even though it’s not actually bronze; it’s mostly copper and zinc) is a 14th or 15th century sculpture of a Yoruba king that was dug up (by accident, apparently) in 1938 in Ife, the home of the Yoruba people and taken away. It’s now housed in the British Museum. It’s a beautiful piece of art. When it (and other related objects) was first discovered, the craftsmanship of the objects was so impressive that many European historians refused to believe it was the work of any African culture, some went as far as to say it must have been the work of a lost Greek colony, perhaps even Atlantis. Hilarious really. The head is fascinating. It’s a lovely part of Yoruba art and culture and history and technology and I wanted to make it a central object of a fantastical story.

And then what is your novel Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon about, and when and where does it take place?

The plot of Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon revolves around a heist to retrieve the brass head from the British museum, but of course there is much more to the story. Especially in the why of things.

For the novel, I really wanted to explore the nature of religion and belief and reinvent the wonderful and underrepresented Yoruba pantheon for a modern audience. In it, I reimagine the pantheon of Yoruba gods as running a “spirit company” much like a modern corporation that trades in faith and belief, with a CEO, HR, Accounting, and of course, minor gods such as my primary protagonist, Shigidi. Shigidi is a disgruntled nightmare god in the Orisha spirit company, who feels purposeless and listless and is reluctantly answering the prayers of his few remaining believers to satisfy the demands of the company board and maintain his existence. He drinks to numb the pain. Once day, on a routine job, he meets Nneoma, a succubus with a long and secretive past, and everything changes for him as he attempts to leave the spirit company but instead gets sucked into complex web of global spirit business schemes, revenge, and a heist that takes him to the very heart of the British Museum and the essence of his own godhood.

The story takes place across multiple continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia. It primarily takes place in 2017, but it spans a wide swath of time. Some scenes take place as far back as 1021 CE. And there are sections that occur in periods I can only describe as outside the conventional conceptualization of time itself.

Where did you get the idea for Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon?

The book is the culmination of several different ideas I have had for a long time. I have always been interested in the nature of faith, religion, and mythology. Particularly Yoruba mythology but all mythologies really (and gods / creatures from other pantheons make an appearance in the book) and in the commodification of those beliefs (something I grew up around; as we say in Nigeria, church business is big business). Because Shigidi is a minor god in Yoruba mythology, I wanted to take him and turn him into an unexpected anti-hero.

I wrote the first short story featuring the novel’s secondary character (or co-protagonist really) Nneoma back in December of 2015 and she was inspired by both Judeo-Christian mysticism and classic Nigerian movies about dangerous, beautiful women that turn out to be spirits or strange creatures — movies like Nneka The Pretty Serpent. So, I put the two of them together and I started writing short stories featuring both Shigidi and Nneoma in 2016 (some of those elements are also in this novel) but I always wanted to tell a bigger story with them as the main protagonists.

I suppose you could say the final spark that set the whole thing alight came when I went back to London for the Caine Prize ceremony in 2018 (I was a nominee), and I visited the British museum again. All my ideas coalesced there, and I came up with the idea for the novel.

And how often, when asked that question, have you been tempted to say, “Well, a couple years ago, I broke into the British museum, but when I put my hand on the real Brass Head Of Obalufon…”?

Ha! Surprisingly, that is not terribly far from the truth as I just mentioned. The final spark for the idea did come to me a few days after visiting the museum. I didn’t touch the brass head…unfortunately. Or perhaps fortunately. If I had, I might have had to write the novel from a holding cell. I did want to touch it though, mostly to take it back home to Ife. And a lot of what became this book came from that desire.

So, is there a reason why you chose to center this story about the Brass Head Of Obalufon as opposed to some other artifact? Obviously, this would be a very different story if you based it on one of the Egyptian artifacts in the British museum, but I’m curious why, of all the African artifacts they have, you chose this one.

It had to be the Brass Head Of Obalufon. Because of the connection it has to the Yoruba people. I crafted my story in the spaces between known Yoruba history and mythology. Being Yoruba myself, I have a deep connection to both, and I don’t think I could have written a story about any other object or any other pantheon in the same way. In the end the story isn’t so much about the British museum but about the Brass head itself, its history and the gods linked to it.

It sounds like Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon is a fantasy story, but more of a fable / folklore kind than, say, The Lord Of The Rings or Conan The Barbarian.

I’m not sure I’d call it a fable or even folklore. It’s certainly inspired by fable and folklore but also so much more. There are myths, legends, ghosts, demons, giants, corporate entities, magic that parallels science…it has many elements: historical elements, romance elements, action elements, it’s a heist story… Aleister Crowley even appears as a side character. I admit, it’s hard-to-categorize. I suppose the most general term to describe it is as contemporary fantasy or even godpunk. Something like a globe-trotting Nigerian stepchild of P. Djeli Clark’s A Master Of Djinn and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Speaking of other books, I’m curious what writers may have influenced Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon. And I mean just Shigidi, not anything else you’ve written.

I have written a lot of short fiction, mostly science fiction, which, if you press me, I would say is my core genre. But I have always loved fantasy; in particular modern / urban / contemporary fantasy as opposed to epic fantasy. I love to see fantastic elements made mundane in the modern world. And I have written fantasy stories before. In fact, I just had one called “Saturday’s Song” published in Lightspeed a few months ago that features Shigidi as a side character (it’s a bit of a prequel). So while I don’t believe Shigidi was directly influenced by anyone in particular because the idea has been in my mind for so long, I do think it’s a story that is in conversation with other stories. For example, The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross; Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe; Anansi Boys and American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

How about non-literary influences; was Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

Absolutely. While I was writing the novel, I watched and rewatched a lot of heist movies. I had already seen many of them because I watched a lot of international cinema when I was younger and in fact, I wanted to be a film director in my teens (ha!). But when I wrote Shigidi, I went back to films like Set It Off, Ocean’s Eleven, Rififi, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, Inception, and many others, picking up a general sense of what made a good heist story work and while I didn’t pull anything directly from any of them, I hope that sensibility I tried to pick up filtered its way into the final story.

Along with your own short stories, you’ve also edited some anthologies, including Africanfuturism: An Anthology. Do you think working with other writers on those books influenced Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon?

Not particularly. Africanfuturism was the third anthology I have edited (I’m currently editing a fifth), and it had a very specific purpose: to showcase the kind of stories Nnedi Okorafor (who also has a story in the anthology) defined in her blog post “Africanfuturism Defined.” Essentially, African science fiction. Shigidi is a very different story from the kind of work I edited for Africanfuturism.

Now, Hollywood has been on a bit of a fantasy kick lately, thanks to The Lord Of The Rings movies and Game Of Thrones. Do you think Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon would work as a movie, a TV show, or a game?

Shigidi would definitely work on the screen, big or small. As I mentioned before, I wanted to be a film director when I was younger, and a lot of my writing style is influenced by cinema and anime almost as much as it is by literature.

The book also has a lot of action that would lend itself well to the screen. There are car chase scenes, big fights between powerful gods, lots of interesting locations. You can actually read the opening chapter of Shigidi on for free to see what I mean.

So, if someone wanted to adapt Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Shigidi, Nneoma, and the other main characters?

For Shigidi, I’d probably cast someone like David Ajala (who is British but of Yoruba Descent) or Mike Colter (of Luke Cage fame). They both have the big bulky and muscular look of Shigidi’s latter form. They both can rock the shaved-head-and-beard look (absolutely necessary). And they both have experience with fight / action scenes in TV shows (Ajala was in Star Trek Discovery). Other good choices would be Idris Elba or Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Mostly for the same reasons, even though they are a bit older now and I think Shigidi needs to have a young-but-world-weary-eyes look. In any case, they are all fantastic actors that can carry emotional scenes.

For Nneoma, as a succubus, she’d have to be played by someone that oozes surface sex appeal but simultaneously carries a lot of emotional depth in her eyes and looks like they could fit into the world at any period effortlessly. So, I’d probably go with someone like Janelle Monáe [Glass Onion], Teyonah Parris [The Marvels], or Zoë Kravitz [The Batman].

I would also love to see someone like David Tennant [Doctor Who] play Aleister Crowley, and Morgan Freeman [Se7en] to play Olorun (the Supreme god of the Yoruba people). Although if I could convince someone to let Yoruba movie legend Jide Kosoko play Olorun, that would be awesome too.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon?

While the undergirding of the story is serious, full of history and mythology and comments on love, capitalism, and faith, the book doesn’t always take itself too seriously. I wanted above all else to write a book that was fun to read. Don’t be surprised to find yourself chuckling.

Wole Talabi Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon

Finally, if someone enjoys Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon, what fantasy novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read?

I already mentioned some of the books this novel is in conversation with, so those are good books to read if you like Shigidi, as they share elements and sensibilities, but I’ll add one more just to keep things interesting: The Library Of The Dead by T.L. Huchu. It’s the first of three books in a fun urban fantasy story series that take place in a post-catastrophe Scotland. It features a brash and bright teenage Zimbabwean protagonist, Ropa, who makes a living communicating with spirits as she gets sucked into a mystery to save missing children. The story is fast-paced, full of offbeat characters and its take on both Zimbabwean and Scottish magic is fresh.



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