Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is hardly short of positive reviews at the moment, but I just wanted to drop a few lines about her 2005 Young Adult novel Zahrah the Windseeker, which I picked up this month.

The book sees thirteen-year-old Zahrah venture into a forbidden jungle on a quest to find the antidote to a poison which has claimed her best friend Dari. On Zahrah’s travels there are encounters with giant scorpions, psychic baboons, and a city of gorillas, as well as the small-mindedness of Zahrah’s native town to contend with.

There’s been a lot of praise for both the Afrocentric sci-fi setting Okorafor has imagined, and for Zahrah herself as a strong, yet vulnerable and credible, heroine. However, what I really loved about this novel was its focus on the importance, and future of, the book.

The charming, rebellious Dari whom Zahrah must save is a hero precisely because of his bookishness. Dari may not be up to the jungle quest which Zahrah undertakes, but his thirst for knowledge, driven by reading, helps to upset the stagnant and self-satisfied society which Zahrah challenges.

An erratically functioning ‘digi-book’, The Forbidden Greeny Jungle Field Guide, plays a vital part in Zahrah’s journey. Her relationship to this frustrating, inspiring piece of technology makes neat comment on the various brands of e-book reader, at once incredibly useful and unbelievably irritating. Every time she tries to access its pages for advice on a particularly fearsome beast, the otherwise indispensable guide can be counted on to malfunction.

The literary lineage of this chatty, occasionally useful device is hinted at by another reference, made in the novel by a talking frog which Zahrah encounters:

‘“Like every other human explorer I’ve met, you want to know the meaning of life […] The answer is forty-four. That machine was off by two,” the frog snapped.’

Which is up there with Doctor Who’s dressing gown as the neatest Hitchhiker’s reference you will see this decade!

Zahrah the Windseeker isn’t as jokey as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but somehow Okorafor has seen straight to the heart of the Hitchhiker’s series and the sense of wonder that permeates it.

She also makes a neat swipe at the current vogue for ‘adding value’ to books with interviews, extraneous material and reading-group prompts when Zahrah mentions her favourite novel:

‘I’d read it four times. But not once did I read the rambling thoughts of the author – on how to cook the perfect holiday fowl – that came stored in the digi-book along with the story. Of course, as I read the book, every ten pages a little window would pop up on the bottom, saying “Hey, why don’t you read a bit about my thoughts on glazed bush fowl? As you can see, I write brilliantly. I cook even better!’

You can find out more about Nnedi Okorafor at her website, The Wahala Zone, here.

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