- “The Handling of Power”: An Interview with Nancy Farmer
Nancy Farmer lives in a weird and wonderful land between imagination and reality. She has a chilling knack for excavating magical beliefs whose purported death has been exaggerated and for anticipating technological transformations whose impact on humanity is often unduly dreaded. Best known for her National Book Award winner The House of the Scorpion (2002), Nancy is the author of several other works, among them Newbery Honor Books The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (1994), A Girl Named Disaster (1996), and a widely popular mythopoeic fantasy series The Saxon Saga (2004–7). Nancy’s most recent books include The Lord of Opium (2013), a long-awaited sequel to The House of the Scorpion, and A New Year’s Tale (2013): a delightfully unclassifiable dystopian biofiction based on the character of Nancy’s brother. Set in the context of the near-future collapse of the social security system, A New Year’s Tale is full of poetic beauty matched by razor-sharp extrapolation from current trends to possible future outcomes.
Whether set in the past or the future, her novels are informed by a nuanced understanding of cultural difference, love of the natural world, and interest in advanced technologies. Nancy’s science habits, clearly at work in her writing, result in books that are meticulously researched and profoundly engaging. Before she became a writer, Nancy studied chemistry at University of California Berkeley and worked for the Entomology Department. She then spent seventeen years in Africa, first working to control waterweeds on the Zambezi River in Mozambique, and then doing research on tsetse flies in the dense bush of Zimbabwe. It was in Zimbabwe that Nancy fell [End Page 100] in love with African stories and culture. She also fell in love and married Harold Farmer, a Namibian-born writer and professor of English at the University of Zimbabwe. When they returned to the United States in 1988, Nancy worked in the genetics department at Stanford, but was unable to stifle the writer within. On the day she quit her job, Nancy received a letter from the National Endowment for the Arts awarding her a grant that would help her become a full-time writer. She has never looked back.
The following conversation with Nancy and Harold Farmer was recorded on October 6, 2014 at the University of Minnesota.
To anyone reading your African novels it is striking how your stories are structured on African spiritual beliefs in ancestors and ghosts, invisible powers and worlds, and spiritual entities like the Njuzu, Ngangas, or Mvukis. Can you tell us what specifically captured your heart in African spirituality and why this worldview informs so many of your novels?
I lived in Africa a long time, seventeen years. I would say for the first ten years I didn’t pick up very much. It was all around me, but I didn’t know what I was looking at. For example, I was working on Lake Cahora Bassa, controlling waterweeds, and one of my coworkers was a man called Mulazani. He would have witch doctors visiting him all the time because he apparently had many enemies and so he hired the witch doctors to do something or other to these people. I saw all this going on but I didn’t really understand it. Mulazani also told me a lot about African religion, but again I didn’t know what I was listening to. It’s a complicated system. Only later on, when I moved to Zimbabwe and wanted to write a story about Africa that would be intelligible to American readers, did I realize that I should learn something. So I sat down and I got about four hundred different books to pick up as much as I could as to what the religion really was. I discovered that it’s not a mythology but really a living religion. So when I did the African stories, I immersed myself in it. One of the first things you realize is that African spirituality is based in the spirit world of the ancestors. The...