When a visa delay forced Africa’s fastest man, Ferdinand Omanyala, to arrive in the U.S just three hours before his World Athletic Championships race, Nigerian science fiction writer Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, bitterly reflected, “How Africans always have to be 1000x better to just be on the same starting point. Come from the greatest adversity, get locked out by racism and the establishment, and still manage to be world-class and perform at the highest levels with the best and win despite everything.” Barely a month later, it would be his turn.
Ekpeki recently announced that he would not be attending the 80th World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Chicago on Sunday, September 4, because the U.S Mission Nigeria had turned down his visa request. In a new development, the American embassy granted the African futurism star another visa interview after initially advising that an appeal would be considered if the circumstances of application had changed. Finally on Tuesday, August 30, Ekpeki was granted a visa to attend Chicon 8, just in the nick of time.
Building on a historic awards, Ekpeki is up for two Hugo awards in the short form and editing categories. The Hugo Awards, widely considered to SF’s most prestigious, are annually adjudicated and hosted by the World Convention. Ekpeki is also scheduled to read and speak at the event but this career high was in doubt after the failed the first visa request. “Why I won’t be attending Chicon 8 – Chicago Worldcon 2022. I can’t. Got denied visa to the Worldcon by U.S. Mission Nigeria today. & it’s not the denial that’s an issue, but the how,” Ekpeki wrote on his Facebook recently. “This is despite being quite literally the most awarded SF writer, editor and publisher on the continent. I was a finalist in The Hugo Awards this year in editing & fiction categories.”
Ekpeki announced that he had a new visa interview on August 29. There was an outcry within the SF community around the world, with concerned individuals engaging the U.S mission and other American officials for Ekpeki’s case to be reconsidered. The feeling has been that the first decision bordered surprising indifference to Ekpeki’s achievements and the importance of the awards.
Ekpeki sounded out the prejudice, disregard to privacy and classicism he reportedly witnessed on his first application. “They only really seemed to care about 2 things; am I a student. That wasn’t even a question. It was a leading, reaching statement. I am a student? I said no. Second one, have I ever travelled abroad? To the US? No. Europe? No. Do I have family in the US? No. & That was it. That was literally it. The end!” he said. “I then realized that all the lengthy conversations I witnessed were with people who answered those two questions affirmatively.”
Ekpeki raised $7 000 to attend the Hugo Awards ceremony in a GoFundMe drive ran for him by Jason Sanford. He said that attachments detailing his work with writerly notables, including Tananarive Due Sheree Renee Thomas, Steven Barnes, Tobias Buckell, Akua Lezli, Hope Chinelo Onwualu, Maurice Broaddus and Wole Talabi, as well as the importance of the event, had gone unnoticed.
While Ekpeki hints at narrowly focused visa interviews, other U.S visa problems can be explained by American authorities’ more than particular interest in applicants. Academics who have missed their teaching schedules in the U.S suggest that political positions or travel history to countries dimly viewed by the prospective host have resulted in such delays and denials. For many African creatives, intellectuals and athletes, the perceived indifference of U.S missions has played a role. A lockdown backlog has also reportedly slowed applications.
U.S cultural institutions
While art and sport are the place where racial interest can be neutralised in theory, blatant disenfranchisement of talented Africans through visa delays and denials may be a form of racism. African writers, including Walter Dinjos and Rodney Ihezue, have been affected by U.S visa issues in recent years. The problem also runs deep in the science fiction community.
Ekpeki’s nominated novelette, “O2 Arena”, also won the Nebula Award in May, making him the first African winner of the prestigious prize in that category. Published in Galaxy Edge, a speculative fiction magazine, in November last year, Ekpeki’s biopolitical dystopia is also a British Science Fiction Awards and Nommo finalist this year.
In 2023, Oghenechovwe will be guest of honour at an International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) conference.