»A century ago, scientists theorized that a habitable planet existed in a nearby solar system. Today, ten astronauts will leave a dying Earth to find it. Four are decorated veterans of the twentieth century’s space race. And six are teenagers; graduates of the exclusive Dalton Academy, who’ve been in training for this mission for most of their lives. It will take the team 23 years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years spent in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no possible rescue should something go wrong. And something always goes wrong.« Temi Oh’s first novel Do You Dream of Terra Two?, asks which visions of the future we share. Current Akademie Schloss Solitude fellow Enos Nyamor talks to Temi Oh on space travel, dreams, identity, and the places we call home.
Enos Nyamor: In your novel Do You Dream of Terra Two? you explore and even dramatize space travel. Given this is your first work, does it reflect some of your ideas on the intersection of space and time, both as obsessions of this century?
Temi Oh: Space travel and the cosmos are quite universal human fixations. Almost every culture has its stories about the sun, the stars, and the heavens. They are bound with our notions about life, death, and destiny. For the past century, a country’s space program has also been utilized as a tool to demonstrate its economic and technological power.
When I began writing the novel, the Mars One project was gaining widespread publicity. Applications had opened to the public to take part in the privately funded mission to set up a human colony on Mars by the middle of the century. Although the project has now been abandoned, I was interested in examining the type of people who might choose to leave the Earth, their family, and children behind forever to settle in the inhospitable desert of mars. The mission seemed risky and totally unappealing to me, but, the more people I talked to, I began to realize that the prospect of going to space, of being among the first to set foot on an alien planet, of making history, is worth almost any sacrifice to a lot of individuals.
»Space travel and the cosmos are quite universal human fixations. Almost every culture has its stories about the sun, the stars, and the heavens.«
EN: I find the setting of your novel to be exciting, because it projects an uncolonized location, as well as the fantasy of movement in the space vessel. Is this setting also symbolic more than literal?
TO: I remember watching this dark comedy on Channel Four called The C Word about a woman who was diagnosed with cancer. At one point in the episode, she tells another patient that having cancer was like »going into space and coming back again.« I think that she meant it was a profoundly isolating experience that disrupted her life, and that she had emerged from it with a radically altered perspective on humanity and mortality.
In my novel, space can also be interpreted as a physical representation of loneliness. A lot of the characters are battling with mental illness, grief, childhood trauma, and notions of their own mortality. Their mission to Terra-Two requires each of them to confront these issues in their personal journey and when they emerge on the other side, they are also transformed.
EN: Extending discussions of movement, I understand your parents are originally from Nigeria. And so it can be accurate to say you, as an individual born of migrant parents, are a product of migration. Does this unique and hybrid identity reflect on your work?
TO: I think that it certainly does. My mother came to school in the UK when she was nine years old. By the time I was born, my grandparents had been here for decades, and yet they will never stop calling their village »back home,« it’s the place they want us to carry their bones when they die.
I think that when you spend a long time away from the place you call »home« it can begin to embody a psychic space. For some members of my family, when they think of Nigeria, they think of the naive happiness of childhood, and for others they think of family, or duty, or their own guilt because of broken promises.
In my book, my characters are further from home than almost anyone has ever traveled and they battle homesickness in different ways. Many of them are, like me, part of a second or third generation living in the UK’s African or Asian diaspora and they are conflicted, as I am, about where to consider home.
I’m so proud to be a Nigerian. When I think of Nigeria, I think of family. I think of my mother and my mother’s mother and all of their half-brothers and cousins spread across the globe. But, when I return to Heathrow or Gatwick airport from anywhere in the world — get off the tube and see the red buses crashing through gutters and puddles of oil-slicked rainwater — I can’t help the reflexive part of my heart that leaps at being Home. As much as your family intellectually reminds you where you »come from,« you don’t always have control over when your heart tells you that you’re »home.«
»I began to realize that the prospect of going to space, of being among the first to set foot on an alien planet, of making history, is worth almost any sacrifice to a lot of individuals.«
EN: Moreover, within the context of the debate on the concept of Afropolitanism, which literally refer to Africans of the world. Do you consider yourself an Afropolitan, considering your ancestry and somehow hybrid identity as a Nigerian-British?
TO: Yes, I love the term »Afropolitan« and believe that it’s an easy way to summarize these facets of my identity. I’m a Nigerian born in Britain, but for a lot of my adolescence I traveled to visit my mother in Nairobi and Accra. She has decided that she is Kenyan because she loves the country so much, but her cousin, who lives in Texas, is a proud flag-waving American who publishes patriotic tweets every Fourth of July. Watching all of them, it occurred to me that we have some freedom when it comes to deciding who we want to be and what we want to call ourselves.
My husband’s family come from England, Scotland, Amsterdam, and Australia. If I asked them where they are from, they will each tell me a completely different story.
When I have to tick a box, I’ll say British-Nigerian. Although, over the past few years my husband and I have noticed that despite our different backgrounds our childhoods were remarkably similar. We both went to school in the suburbs of London, both hung out with our friends in the arcade by Leicester Square on the weekends or, rollerskated down the boulevards in Hyde Park, took buses everywhere until we were 16 because bus travel was free. I’ll play a song from when I was thirteen and he’ll sing along. »We’re Londoners,« we’ll tell people whenever we leave, and it always makes me wonder about what differences really matter.
EN: It is also interesting to gain insight into your work process as a novelist. What values influence the composition of your characters? And do these characters have identities rooted in historical legacies of colonialism, oppression, and intimidation?
TO: I wanted the crew of the Damocles, the spaceship, to be from diverse backgrounds. So there is Harry Bellgrave, the rich boy whose brothers rowed in the Beijing Olympics. Poppy Lane, who grew up on a council estate and initially volunteers for the mission in order to escape an abusive and unhappy family, but as she watches the Earth disappear she begins to regret her decision to leave. Kenyan twins Astrid and Juno Juma are the opposite of one another. Astrid is enticed by a group of religious zealots who believe that Terra-Two is the lost garden of Eden, while her pragmatic sister believes that she can learn from the mistakes of the past and create a »perfect society.« As their journey progresses and the crew fight to survive in the hostile environment of outer space, Astrid begins to wonder if her fantasies of Eden are just that. And her sister questions if it’s possible to create a utopia on The New Earth if she cannot even inspire harmony among her crewmates.
»In my novel, space can also be interpreted as a physical representation of loneliness.«
History leaves us with scars, and Juno as a young British-Kenyan woman is aware of the harm that colonialism has brought to her family and ancestors. At one point, she considers that she is leaving an earth where slavery, war, and climate change have caused and will continue to cause generations of suffering. She thinks that physically leaving the earth behind is also her chance to leave this historical baggage behind, but on her own »colonization« mission she discovers that this is impossible.
EN: In Do You Dream of Terra Two?, the characters are twisted and not necessarily impressionable. What this mean is that the characters are almost plain and disagreeable. Is it valid to say that this work was a psychoanalysis of space travel, as opposed to imagination on advanced technologies?
TO: »Plain and disagreeable!?« I don’t know if I should be offended on their behalf! I didn’t strive to make them all likable all the time. My hope is that no one, in the end emerges as the »hero« or the villain. But that each character has virtues and elicits our sympathy at some point in the story, especially when reading a chapter from their point of view. In that way I was hoping that my novel might reflect something true about life. We all think that we are the heroes of our own story. We all think even our more extreme actions are justified or justifiable and what we lack for each other is empathy.
EN: You first studied neuroscience at King’s College London and then switched to creative writing. What inspired this almost drastic transition?
TO: It does seem drastic on paper. But I’ve been working on one novel or another since I was a teenager. I started writing Do You Dream of Terra Two? just before I began university and worked on it on weekends, and throughout the summers while studying for my degree.
I loved neuroscience and thought I might try to pursue the subject to Master’s level, but when I reached my final year I saw these paths diverging. I imagined continuing with science and never getting around to trying to finish my novel and publishing it, I thought I had to do something to tell the world that what I wanted to be was a writer. So, I deleted the half-written personal statements for MSci courses on my laptop and applied to Edinburgh to do an MA in Creative Writing.
EN: Besides, from the title of your novel the word »dream« emerges, and it can appear as the anchor that holds the narrative together. How do dreams and reality influence human actions, and do you take this as a starting point in this particular work?
TO: It seemed likely to me that, if an Earth-like planet were ever discovered, certain individuals might build up a mythology around it. A few of the characters in the novel draw historical parallels between their own Off-World Colonization mission and the voyage of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims or the descendants of Abraham and their Old Testament quest for the The Land of Milk and Honey.
»History leaves us with scars, and Juno as a young British-Kenyan woman is aware of the harm that colonialism has brought to her family and ancestors. At one point, she considers that she is leaving an earth where slavery, war, and climate change have caused and will continue to cause generations of suffering.«
Although some of the crew are dismissive of the idea that their mission is the fulfillment of a prophecy made by an astronomer a century ago, an increasing number of them find it necessary to believe it. In order to go on this journey and to sacrifice everything that they are required to, these characters have to hold onto a narrative of why they are going and what the journey is worth. It has to be alluring and they have to believe as wholeheartedly as they can in it. Which is kind of what a »dream« is.
EN: The ending of your novel is also a beginning of another story. Can readers expect a sequel to your first sci-fi novel?
TO: No, I am working on another science-fiction novel, but it is not about this character or Terra-Two. The crew suffer on their journey, they have given up everything that they love in order to go to Terra-Two. They have seen satellite images and heard stories but no one has actually been there. To go and to keep going requires an act of faith and at the end for the book, I require the audience to make their own act of faith in order to follow them there.