Nnedi Okorafor has received great acclaim for her young adult writing, but her work spans journalism and academic research as well as short stories and novels for a more adult audience.
From an acerbic early short story skewering the notion of the ‘Magical Negro’ through to Who Fears Death, a mystic science-fictional meditation on weaponized rape, Nnedi’s writing is difficult to pigeonhole – and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
‘I was a product of the creative writing program at Champagne-Urbana, which was great, but my instructors spent so much time trying to get me not to write speculative fiction, fantasy or sci-fi. The change for me was going to the Clarion workshop at Michigan State, where they welcomed exactly that kind of writing!’
Even within the bounds of ‘genre fiction’, Nnedi’s work is especially resistant to conventional boundaries.
Zahrah is set in Ginen, a world inspired by African cultures and societies, while The Shadow Speaker takes place in the year 2070, bringing together magic and teen adventure in a post-apocalyptic Niger. And woven subtly through each novel are clues suggesting that all of these tales may be taking place in a shared universe.
Over lunch in Chicago, Nnedi laughs when I ask her about the problem of labels.
‘I’m very much a neither-and-both person: Nigerian/American, athlete/nerd – and that goes for my writing too. I don’t know who I am, on or off the page.
‘Even my first piece of non-fiction, “The House of Deformities” was magical – a memory of being 8 years old and venturing to the back of an old house in Nigeria to find pink ducks, bulldog puppies and an outhouse that looked like the mouth of hell!
‘My editor describes my work as ‘magical futurism’ – I love the term, but what even IS that?’
Who Fears Death, which features an adolescent protagonist but deals explicitly with issues such as rape and female circumcision, crosses boundaries of fantasy, science-fiction and even horror writing.
‘The closest comparison I can make for Who Fears Death is the movie Pan’s Labyrinth,’ says Nnedi. ‘Both the book and the movie cross a borderline between adult and young adult material, with a young character going through a world which is dark both in terms of monsters and in terms of politics.’
Nnedi’s most provocative literary tool in dealing with these issues is Ginen, a science-fictional world which echoes African cultures and societies.
‘Ginen comes from a lot of things: happy childhood memories of Nigeria, the wishes I have for the future of Africa, and my huge American love of gadgets and technology!’
Ginen isn’t a utopia, except in the most literal sense of the word. Zahrah faces conservatism and prejudice among the populace of her home town. In The Shadow Speaker, Earth and Ginen collide – and Nnedi is scrupulous about documenting the flaws and virtues of both sides in the conflict.
Seeing the best and worst in more than one culture comes easily to Nnedi, with a perspective which is both Nigerian and American at once – something that her publishers initially found challenging.
Nnedi’s children’s book Long Juju Man was pigeonholed as an African novel, with Macmillan only releasing it on that continent, but the proud use of a provocative Igbo term in the title of Akata Witch brings together African and American contexts – a move which is typical of Nnedi’s work.
Akata – a derogatory term for foreign-born black people in Nigeria – came to the author after her editor suggested she change the proposed title Sunny and the Leopard People.
‘A Nigerian man had recently told me, “You’re not really one of us, you don’t speak Igbo, you weren’t born and raised in Nigeria. You’re an Akata!”
‘It’s a word that comes up often if you challenge the patriarchy. African-American women get accused of being lazy, ignorant and loose – corrupted by foreign influence. It’s a powerful slur.
‘At one level, Akata Witch is all about the conflict between and complexities within the world’s African communities – something I’d been meaning to address ever since I started writing. So akata was a perfect word to use in the title.
‘I decided to reclaim it wholly, positively for me – as a compliment. It marks you out as different, and although it denotes ugliness to Nigerians, I refuse to buy into perceived notions of beauty!
‘The same goes for witch – it’s a word that has a lot of weight in Nigeria, where men often use it – not always harshly, to be fair – to signify unmarried, independent and ‘different’ women.’
Next time on Books and Adventures we’ll be looking at books and technology in the novels of Nnedi Okorafor. Find part 3 of this interview here.