I remember the day I walked through Foyles bookshop in Tottenham Court Road and literally stopped in my tracks. I’d spotted Do You Dream of Terra Two? on a shelf in the distance and was trying to discern whether the cover truly featured a Black girl in an astronaut helmet. I ran over. No, I wasn’t hallucinating; she was really there. It sounds ridiculous, I’d read a million books set in space, but I’d never seen a Black girl on the cover of a space adventure before. I’d never seen not even close. My eyes zipped down to the author’s name. Temi Oh. My heart gave a leap of excitement. I was 98% sure the author was Nigerian.
I put Google straight to work and a few weeks later I was sitting in a West London coffee shop with Temi Oh, gushing over that arresting cover.
“You don’t really get a lot of control over the cover as a writer,” she’d admitted. “I told them I definitely want a Black woman. I was really happy especially as I spent a lot of time making up fantasy covers when I was younger.”
Temi Oh wore a floral dress that mirrored the cheerful spring weather, her hair was braided and her face wreathed in smiles. The coffee shop was noisy and busy but amid the bustle she talked affably about studying neuroscience, writing a book about six teens who travel into space and making her mother proud.
Temi Ochibodu grew up in Clapham, South East London, the eldest of four children. She was second generation British, her grandmother having moved to the UK on a British Council scholarship decades earlier. Her mother relocated to the UK aged nine, and her father came years later when he arrived to study for his masters.
She attended Bishop Thomas Grant secondary school in Streatham where she became known as Temi O, “there was another Temi in the year, she was Temi A and I was Temi O.” She earned a scholarship to do her A-levels at Emanuel School, an exclusive, 400-year-old educational establishment in Battersea. Nigerian parents are notoriously adverse to allowing their children to study arts subjects but Temi successfully negotiated one onto her schedule. “My mum was really lenient. She said you can have art if you do the other ones. You know, all three sciences.” She took A-levels in chemistry, biology, physics and art before applying for a degree in neuroscience.
I ask if she ever considered doing an arts degree. “I don’t think there’s any way I could have been like ‘I want to go into writing’. It’s not that our parents don’t value art. I guess they didn’t have a lot of money so they were like ‘I want you to be able to look after yourself.’”
She went off to Kings College London to start a BSci in Neuroscience. And while she studied, she began writing a novel about six teens training for a twenty-year journey to the far flung planet Terra Two where they hope to find an alternative for humans stuck on a dying earth.
“Uni is really intense during term time, but half of it is not term time. You have really long holidays. So I wrote a lot during the holidays.”
She makes it sound easy but anybody who’s ever held down a part-time job while studying for a degree knows it’s a fierce juggling act. For three years she successfully shuttled between her two loves, science and art, but as her BSci drew to an end she hit a crisis point. Her mother – a scientist in her own right having earned a PhD in biochemistry at only 24-years-old – advised her to apply for a Masters in science.
“I remember thinking, ‘what if I’m just on this path that’s going to take me further and further away from being a writer?’ I had basically finished my book. I didn’t know if it would get published or anything, but I didn’t want to close doors. If I did a Masters or PhD I‘d just be really focused on that and years might pass. I thought, ‘I have to make a move that says I want to be a writer’.”
Art trumps science
She decided to be bold and applied for a Masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh university. She won a place on the program and found a part time job in the gift shop of a zoo to help with living expenses while she redrafted her novel. Six months later “after we had our last lectures and we were supposed to start working on our dissertations” she began sending her manuscript to agents. She’d decided to follow writer lore and send it off in batches. She sent it to five agents and got five rejections. The disappointment was palpable.
“It felt like a punch in the stomach every time I got one. It’s a really horrible time for anyone who’s going through it. It would ruin my day.”
Concerned there might be a flaw with the manuscript, she decided to make some changes before resending. A friend on her Masters course read it and told her the opening needed to be more engaging.
“I sat in my living room, took off my shelf all the books that had really interesting beginnings, read them and then wrote down what made the beginning interesting. I came up with bullet points then tried to put all of them in the beginning of my mine. And then I sent it off again.”
This time she got two requests for her full manuscript. Which quickly led to two agent offers. She chose the agent who said the book needed improvements.
“She said: ‘I like your book but there are all these changes that I want to make and I think we need to change the ending.’ That made me want to go with her because I felt that it needed some changes.”
Together they worked on three deep rewrites. At last it was ready and her agent sent it out to editors, a process called, ‘being on submission’. A month later Temi was at work when she got an email from her agent saying ‘possible offer’. Simon and Schuster were considering buying her book.
“There was this nook near the fire escape where I was standing, near my office when she told me. Now whenever I walk past it I feel this shiver of gladness. I’m like, ‘that’s the place I became a writer!’”
The dream becomes reality
Since scoring her book deal, Temi’s life has changed in some pleasant ways. For instance, now when she tells friends and family she’s writing they take it seriously.
“I always felt like writing was my job but nobody believed me. You’d say, ‘I can’t answer the phone because I’m writing and people would say, ‘oh okay then, ignore me’[cocky sarcasm]. But now they’re like: Oh okay, you’re writing, good job!’ [reverent tone]”
Though she’d like more time to write, she’s not aiming for a career where she writes full time.
“Because I’m kind of extroverted I get really lonely when I’m at home all day so I’m trying to figure out what’s the right balance. I’m working part time now but whenever I have writing days I always feel really happy when I get back to the office and I see people. I don’t think I could ever do it full time. I’d get too lonely.”
Do You Dream of Terra Two? was an NPR favourite book of 2019 and won the American Library Association’s Alex Award in 2020. It looks set to be a book with longevity. Temi is pleased to part of the change that’s happening to science fiction.
“There are loads of male, science fiction authors in the canon that I love who are really technical and who spend a lot of time talking about the technical side of space. Back when I was working in Waterstones I thought it’d be nice to read more of these books about space that have female point-of-view characters. I didn’t come across that for years.”
If you hop over to Temi’s Instagram you’ll see that she recently finished her second novel. When I spoke with her it was still a work in progress. The upside of my tardiness for you is once you finish reading Do You Dream of Terra Two? she might well have released book two.
Find more of Temi Oh’s work:
She wrote the foreword and contributed to this anthology that brings a fresh perspective to topics that range from dystopia, apocalypse and gene-splicing to cloning and colonization: Black Sci-Fi Short Stories
She also contributed to an anthology celebrating Marvel’s Black Panther and his home of Wakanda: Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda