Seven years ago now. Springtime in New York.
I had read Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker back in 2010 and it had blown my mind. One of the greatest kids’ books I’d ever seen, wondrous and witty and thrilling.
Nnedi had a new YA novel coming out – Akata Witch, the beginning of a fresh series.
I wanted to sing the praises of an incredible writer who, at the time, was still not quite getting the attention she deserved.
I pitched a review to Brooklyn Rail, the New York arts paper.
Got a blunt reply:
Who published that? Maybe a straight review. I’ve always wanted someone to cover Rob Spillman’s anthology of African Writing, which came out last year. Could be a good pair.
I couldn’t get you any dough.
I didn’t like that last line, but I knew I could deliver a short piece fast and get to cover a writer I loved, with more reach than my own little blog. So I went for it anyway.
I convinced my editor to ditch the Spillman and asked when he could get me a copy of Akata Witch:
You contact Viking for the book. Tell publicity what it’s for.
I dug out some contacts and bounced around various departments. Viking Juvenile. Penguin Publicity. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
My editor, on hearing this:
So, this is YA? Is it worth covering?
I had to go through the pitch all over again, rejustifying the approval he’d already given.
I pointed to Nnedi winning the Wole Soyinka Prize in 2008. Pointed him to a Guardian piece on Nnedi‘s award.
He gave me another Penguin contact. Still I got nowhere.
I used to read Locus, the science fiction writers’ industry magazine, a lot back then.
In the February 2011 issue, I happened on an interview with Sharyn November, a publishing maven who was then senior editor at Viking Children’s. The timing of that interview couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
Sharyn hooked me up with Nnedi‘s publicist and finally I was sorted – almost three weeks after the dance had begun.
My review got written and published – you can find it at the Brooklyn Rail site.
I got to meet Nnedi at Yassa in Chicago, and interview her, too. She’d been bouncing around between publishers back then, and to find her book The Shadow Speaker – a missing link in the Zahrah universe – I had to head to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center in Harlem.
It was a lovely research library and hanging out there reading Afrofuturist scifi gave me a happy heart.
You can read the interview which ensued here.
All of this seemed like hard work seven years ago. I don’t pretend it made a huge difference: Nnedi had already won the “African Nobel”, and her immense talent meant she was always bound for the top.
But it was still good to witness the early days – and it is good to see what has come of them, when this all seemed such a hard sell as recently as 2011.
Today, Nnedi writes comics for Marvel and spacefaring scifi novels and more besides. She gets interviewed in Vogue and namechecked in a review of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone in The Atlantic, entitled “Where Fantasy Meets Black Lives Matter.”
Scholars like Beth Nowviskie look at the cultural efflorescence of 21st century Afrofuturism and explore how it can be used to shape real-world digital projects.
And the sequel to Akata Witch – known as Akata Warrior in the US – is released in the UK tomorrow as Sunny and The Mysteries of Osisi.
The author promises “Level 2 juju, jollof rice, kola nut, confraternities, a djinn, & something dwelling beneath Lagos.”
Sometimes, good things happen.