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Nnedi Okorafor’s novels are universally loved. She builds her fictional worlds and fashions her characters from the most unusual elements. Getting lost in Okorafor’s fiction world is delightfully bewildering. At the center of her stories are powerful female characters. They are familiar but also awe-inspiring, relatable but also heroic.

When German illustrator Greg Ruth was asked by Cult Books to design the cover for the German edition of Okorafor’s major titles, he knew right away that it would be a challenge to channel the beauty and brilliance of her work.

Ruth gives a beautiful account of his artistic process here. In the excerpt below, you can read the stunning step by step account of how he came up with the cover of Lagoon, Okorafor’s alien-encounter novel.

The first trick was to think about how to make aliens visible on the cover without showing “aliens”, and then meant teaching myself how or if I could draw flowing ink as if dropped in water on paper with a pencil and convince the eye it was liquid captured in a single image. I brought a few clear glasses to the studio, filled them with water, and dropped small portions of heavy cream in, and watched what happened. I did it a few times to get a sense of how the physics of that moment worked and then started sketching. It took days. This drawing above was the most time eating drawing I have ever done before… until I did the next one.

Having felt like I got it right enough to hit the full one, I did, and screwed it up by drawing in eyes and a face within the inky cloud… and it came off looking like a bad 1980’s promo to a prime time David Copperfiled magic showcase. The problem was letting the technique get in front of the character—and the woman in this novel was the entire axis of the story—so I decided to lean on one of my more recent tropes of “ghosting” the alien murk into the face of this strong woman and see where that went. It went pretty well actually. Sharyn November managed to get it in front of Nnedi at this stage and based only upon one of my obscured instagram WIP pics, she expressed a level of enthusiasm rare to this world. We began communicating and coordinating in a way also rare and fantastic. You have to understand, it is the common practice in our thing to keep the writer and the artist away from each other. There are a number of reasons for this and most of them are good, and really you only need one or two of em to justify it. This was the exception to prove that rule. I finished the piece adding some color and some spaceu-starlike dots to further the sci-fi angle a good bit, scrapped the necklace, designed the type and Andreas crafted the final layout and we were done and ecstatic about how it turned out. Nnedi and I shared this images as they came all over the usual social media thunderdomes, and the reception was wildly fun and enthusiastic. And experiment in private from a safe distance suddenly became an international confab spanning three continents. I had run across the toad in the street with my Rover and it hopped up and started break-dancing like Michael Jackson and Fed Astair had a baby, and it was a total surprise.

Ruth went on to share different versions of the images. Each of the portraits were drawn by hand using graphite on paper. Are they not stunning! 

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Onyesonwu from Who Fears Death

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This is an earlier draft of the cover of Who Fears Death. It ended up not being used.

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The Book of Phoenix.

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The Book of Phoenix in the draft stage.
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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

2 Responses to “Greg Ruth Does Something Amazing with Okorafor’s Female Characters” Subscribe

  1. Alero 2016/12/05 at 03:51 #

    Lovely images. You should do a ‘Best Books of 2016’ Post – something along the lines of what The Guardian and The New York Times do every year. Ask your editors and/or contributors to send in entries. It’ll be a great way to introduce readers to some amazing books by African authors published this year.

  2. Mar 2016/12/05 at 10:44 #

    Thank you for sharing this :-). Nnedi Okorafor’s books are among my favourites, and these images are so fitting…
    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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