First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon

Sumiko-and-Oghenochovwe-at-WorldCon-0922, First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon, Culture Currents
San Francisco Bay View Writing While Black columnist Sumiko Saulson gets their copy of Galaxy’s Edge containing Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s Nebula-Award winning novelette O2 signed by the author.

by Sumiko Saulson

Hugo-nominated author Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is a rising star in the literary arts. The Nigerian science-fiction, fantasy and horror author and editor received the Nommo Award for Best Short Story for “The Witching Hour” in 2019. 

Since then, he’s gone on to be nominated for a dozen or more awards and won at least four, including his groundbreaking win in the 2022 Nebula category Best Novelette for his story “O2 Arena.” In May 2022, Oghenechovwe became the first African-born Black author to win a Nebula award. Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor won for Best Novelette back in 2015 for “Binti,” but she was born in the US. 

Like many conventions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA)’s 57th Annual Nebula Conference was held entirely online. The award ceremony can be seen online on YouTube. Oghenechovwe was up in the wee hours of the morning in Nigeria awaiting the announcement of the award. 

Arley-Sorg-with-Oghenechovwe-Donald-Ekpeki-at-WorldCon-0922, First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon, Culture Currents
Arley Sorg, gay and black, a reviewer at Locus, and editor at Fantasy magazine with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki at WorldCon 2022.

It’s often difficult to make a transcontinental video conference connection, and unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, he was unable to get on camera to accept it. He was stunned when he learned he’d won the award. “It’s unprecedented on this continent. It’s not something that happens here. It was an extreme shock, winning. To my surprise, history happened,” said Oghenechovwe.

Nominated for Hugo Awards in two categories – Best Novelette for O2 Arena and Best Editor, Short Form for The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction – the author made a bold plan to fly out to Chicago for WorldCon this Sept. 1-5, 2022. If he won, he intended to receive the award in person. Now a Nebula Award-winner and the most awarded speculative fiction author on the continent, his fans and connections both personal and professional encouraged him to crowdfund his way to the convention. 

“I raised money on GoFundMe to the tune of about $7,000. We crowdfunded it in less than two days. That was the first step. Then I had to try to get a visa. Getting one from Nigeria to the US is like winning the grand lottery, or having lightning strike you five times in the same spot.” said Oghenechovwe.

Despite his achievements, he had great difficulty acquiring a visa. There is often a more than two-year wait to acquire a visa from Nigeria to the US. Visitors’ visas are much more difficult to acquire than student visas. His initial interview came to an abrupt end when the US Embassy learned that he was not married and did not plan to attend school in the US.

Emmanuel-Henderson-Oghenechovwe-and-LaShawn-M.-Wanak-at-WorldCon-0922, First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon, Culture Currents
Rising star Alabama running-back Emmanuel Henderson with Nebula-Award winner Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and fantasy and science fiction author LaShawn M. Wanak.

“I wasn’t considered. They have certain criteria, certain boxes that if you tick, they believe you won’t run away, having connections at home like family, and property. I am literally the most awarded speculative fiction writer on the continent, so there’s no way I am going to abandon my career and start hiding out illegally. I would be making public appearances in the US, doing readings, doing panels and going to events. It’s literally impossible for a public-facing person to hide, and at this point in my career, I am going to be very public. But they denied me. My interview lasted less than 30 seconds,” said Oghenechovwe.

This very nearly ended Oghenechovwe’s plans to attend WorldCon.

“I had to start a whole-ass global campaign against the US Embassy and the Department of State. Some of the guest writers involved – John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, the Science Fiction Writers Association, WorldCon and the entire Speculative Fiction body, which pulled in a number of politicians, senators and ambassadors, I mean there were literally senators across the Democratic and Republican divide reaching out on this issue, talking to the Embassy, writing to them to guarantee that I wouldn’t run away,” said Oghenechovwe.

Would he be allowed a second interview on time? With WorldCon just weeks away, he was now dealing with a major time crisis. Oghenechovwe and his supporters anxiously awaited news. Finally, the Friday before the event, the invitation to interview a second time arrived, just 10 days before the start of the event. His interview took place the following Monday. Scheduled to travel on Wednesday, he received his visa on Tuesday – barely on time. 

Maurice-Broaddus-and-Oghenechovwe-Donald-Ekpeki-at-WorldCon-0922, First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon, Culture Currents
Horror, fantasy, science fiction author and Apex Magazine editor Maurice Broaddus with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki at WorldCon.

Then, overtired and overstressed, he missed his Wednesday flight and had to rebook for Thursday. Both the last-minute second interview and the last-minute airline rebooking were very expensive.

“I had to do all of that within a matter of days. The pressure is mind-bending. I missed my flight, I had to book another one, which was really expensive, and it was my first time traveling. I was managing everything on the go. The flight itself wasn’t easy. It took about 24 hours, and the plane stopped on three different continents. It was a long flight, it was physically breaking. Then I arrived here, and I had to face immigration again. I already had the visa, but still had to get interviewed, interrogated and explain what I’m here for all over again.” said Oghenechovwe.

Chicon 8: WorldCon 80 was the eighth time the World Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention had been hosted in Chicago, and the 80th World Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention overall. Chicago is the historic location of the second WorldCon. Started by speculative fiction author Issac Asimov, the first WorldCon took place in New York, but it was with WorldCon 2, in Chicago, that it became an annual event. 

2022’s WorldCon started on Thursday, Sept. 1, and ended on Monday, Sept. 5. Due to the visa hassles and flight change, Oghenechovwe missed the first day and a half of the convention, including panels and personal appearances he was scheduled for.

Oghenechovwe had been receiving death threats for a while related to WorldCon 80.

“I arrive on Friday, and miss half the day. I am exhausted and wanted to make some of the panels I was slated for. Just fresh off the plane, tired and nervous, I get an email from the WorldCon organizers that they had received a death threat for me and the other guy [Patrick Tomlinson], that they are going to come and shoot up the place because of us, and kill us. So as soon as I am able, I should come to convention security, and see hotel security and they are making plans to make everything safe. I just can’t tell you how that felt after I’d been through so much just to get there,” said Oghenechovwe.

Oghenechovwe had been receiving death threats for a while related to WorldCon 80, while Patrick Tomlinson had been the victim of a four-year-long cyberstalking and bullying campaign. Doxxing is a cyberbullying technique that involves publicizing people’s home addresses, phone numbers and other personal information. Swatting is another form of extremely dangerous harassment, where cyberstalkers call the police, SWAT and other authorities and submit false reports in order to cause armed law enforcement to show up at the victim’s houses.

Cyberstalkers had swatted Patrick’s home four times before WorldCon, had stolen his identity and started credit cards in his name, and filmed themselves trespassing on his property. His security camera caught one of them on camera vandalizing the side of his house and his motorcycle. 

The cyberstalkers live all around the US and some of them are abroad. They are able to send people to various conventions, at which they have taken photos of Patrick and posted them, bragging about stalking him. One drove five hours to a bar where Patrick goes to and was hanging out there drunk, waiting to beat him up. 

Oghenechovwe-Donald-Ekpeki-at-book-signing-at-WorldCon-0922, First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon, Culture Currents
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki prepares for his book signing at WorldCon.

Several of them had taken to using the forms on the websites to harass Black people, especially Black women, disability advocates and members of the LGBTQ community, pretending to be Patrick. Since the website forms allow them to use any name or email address, they used the names and email addresses of Patrick and his wife on the forms to falsify their identities.

“It’s the same group of cyberstalkers. They have been sending death threats through email and voicemail for years now. Oghenechovwe was recently roped in because they saw that we’re friends online and I was lobbying for his visa,” said author Patrick Tomlinson.

Some other Black authors, editors, activists and community leaders these cyberstalkers have harassed using this technique include Ijeoma Oluo, Imani Cezanne, Diana Cejas MD, Justina Ireland, Aja Romano, Ola Ojewumi, Marvin Toliver and Kalynn Bayron. Usually, they send harassing email messages directly to the targets, to cause anxiety. But this time, they sent a message directly to WorldCon.

“I tried not to let it affect me,” said Oghenechovwe, “but you always wonder. I was going through my panels trying to enjoy the convention, but getting this maddening feeling every time I was on the panel, wondering, is somebody going to jump through the audience and mow me down? 

“Sometimes, I would recognize someone who had been around me more than once and feel this spike of anxiety. It’s a convention, so there are a lot of people who will be in the same places more than once. I tried not to let it mar my enjoyment of the event, of meeting people and being on panels.”

Since WorldCon, Patrick Tomlinson has experienced another false call to the police by cyber attackers. According to his Facebook post: “Another false call was made, again impersonating me, claiming I was high on drugs and had just killed my wife, and our home address was given.” 

Oghenechovwe-Donald-Ekpeki-book-signing-at-WorldCon-0922-1400x1050, First African-born Black Nebula Award winner faces death threats & hostile embassy to attend WorldCon, Culture Currents
People line up for Hugo-nominated author Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s book signing at WorldCon 2022 in Chicago.

Very recently, an article covering the situation went up in the Houston Press. It was taken down in less than 24 hours because the journalist who wrote the piece was harassed. Someone texted his personal telephone number with a message showing his home address, as a doxxing threat. 

This shows the extent cyberbullies will go to in order to hound Black authors as well as our allies. It also shows how dangerous it is just to report on the situation.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki made it to WorldCon, and, while he didn’t win any Hugo awards, he was able to be physically in the presence of other nominees and winners. Reflecting upon this, he posted: “There’s a win in most losses. You just have to find it, take it and keep going.” 

For the up-and-coming young Nigerian author, wins are many. He will be the 2023 International Association Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) Guest of Honor, the first African-born Black, and the youngest ever Guest of Honor. Despite all of the stumbling blocks, Oghenechovwe seems positioned to take the little rocket ship on his Hugo awards pin and shoot right on up to the stars.

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson (they/them or ze/hir) writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. Their latest novel, “Happiness and Other Diseases,” is available on Mocha Memoirs Press. Winner of the 2021 Horror Writers Association Richard Laymon Presidents Award, 2017 Afrosurrealist Writer’s Award, 2016 HWA Scholarship from Hell, and 2016 BCC Voice Reframing the Other Award, their monthly series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts and other segments of arts and entertainment. Support them on Patreon and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.