Nnedi Okorafor Interview, Part 4: ‘Chittim’ and Earning for Learning

Find the first part of this interview here.

One of the most distinctive inventions of Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel Akata Witch is chittim – a currency earned by magical practitioners when they learn an important lesson, delivered in the form of a shower of varying-sized metal rods falling from the sky.

‘I liked the idea of earning something for your knowledge, for learning,’ says Nnedi. ‘The rods are based on objects used in real-life Nnedi Okoraformagical practices, but I don’t know where they come from in the world of the novel! They’re not from God, they just…fall from the sky when you learn something new.’

Like most writers and teachers, I could always do with some extra currency, and I love learning, so I adored the idea of chittim.

Nnedi offered her own example of a ‘chittim moment’ from her teenage years as a tennis player:

‘When I was about seventeen, I was in California playing the nationals. I don’t know what part of the draw I was at in the tournament. It was early on. Not the finals or semi-finals or anything. I was playing this girl. Both of us were there alone. No parents or friends or siblings had come with us. But we were battling. We were evenly matched. We had no audience.

‘As our match drew on for hours, other kids finished playing each other and went home for the day. But she and I kept slugging it out. We split sets (she won one set, then I won the second). We played for over FIVE HOURS. No one knew we were there on that far tennis court in the sun. No one cheered. No one was on the edge of his or her seat. But we were battling. We both wanted to win even if no one else cared.

‘I eventually won and there were no cheers. We sat together drinking water, quiet, smiling occasionally, sweaty as heck. It was awesome. It didn’t matter who won, that’s what I learned that day. It was all about the game, pushing yourself, and playing your brains out.’

Nnedi’s perspective on education is shaped by such experiences, and the notion that learning as embodied by chittim is not about formal study:

‘I was a late bloomer – I struggled with tests, and didn’t blossom until grad school. I felt I had missed out because of assumptions made at an early age about which class you were put through.

‘Exams and learning are sometimes really in conflict. It’s not about passing the test, it’s what you learn, the things you choose to develop. I don’t know how many chittim you would get from taking a formal exam…maybe one if you were lucky!’

‘I feel that kids should be given space to change. There’s so much pressure now on young people to achieve and conform. The whole idea of “Tiger Mothering” and “Helicopter Parenting” is also connected to people trying to control fate.

‘As a mother, I understand parents wanting to choose the destiny of your child. But you must let your child become her/his own person – and resist your urge to take control!’

With her writing appealing to a young adult audience, Nnedi has taken her work into high schools in the U.S. and beyond.

‘My last school visit was in Trinidad, a peaceful place where I was very comfortable! They really got Zahrah, because the world of Ginen reflects that same mix of peoples and cultures you find in Trinidad. They identified with that.

‘I had the students do a writing exercise – to work together and create a character, as a group.

‘I was delighted with the result – a mixed-race boy with pink hair…and he could fly!’

Nnedi’s future plans include more schools outreach work and contact with inspiring young writers like the students in Trinidad. In the meantime a film of Who Fears Death is in the works and, of course, Akata Witch is available in all good bookstores!

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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