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

Nnedi Okorafor Interview, Part 3: Palm Tree Banditware – The Future of the Book

Find the first part of this interview here.

During our interview in Chicago, Nnedi showed off one of her prized possessions, an object which stands as a manifestation of her fantasy world in ours: a Kindle which has been decorated to resemble a giant folded leaf.

Reminiscent of the ‘Sandpiper’ laptops built from natural materials in William Gibson’s Idoru, Nnedi’s Kindle is a real-life emblem of the kind of distinctive technology which exists in her fantasy world, Ginen – a realm which blends plants and hardware, where the term ‘techno-organic’ has more to do with sustainability than the Borg or H.R. Giger’s Alien.

Zahrah the Windseeker coverThe defining technology of Nnedi’s stories, however, is one that’s already centuries old – the book. Time and again books play a key part in her novels, whether it’s Akata Witch’s Fast Facts for Free Agents – an unreliable, conservative set of rules for young wizards – or the Forbidden Greeny Jungle Guide of Zahrah The Windseeker, which is virtually a character in its own right.

Uncooperative and all too fallible, the Guide is Zahrah’s only source of information on the mysterious jungle into which she must venture. The device is reminiscent of science fiction’s first and greatest guidebook, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and that’s not by chance.

Hitch-hiker’s was my first sci-fi experience, and the first book that ever made me laugh out loud,’ admits Nnedi. ‘The physics, the jokes, the way Douglas Adams writes. It was inspiring.

‘I added some extra features to the e-book of Zahrah to give it that Hitch-hiker’s feel. You can read entries from the Forbidden Greeny Jungle Guide on my website that don’t appear in the novel – including real creatures, like the suicide ant!

‘For the Zahrah e-book, I wanted pop-up ads – palm tree banditware, obnoxious recipes by the author – but it had to be exactly as I envisaged it, like in the book, and the technology’s not quite there yet. But just you wait!’

Fast Facts for Free Agents, the book given to Akata Witch’s hero Sunny as she enters the world of wizardry for the first time, is just as unreliable and prejudiced as Zahrah’s Guide.

Nnedi chalks some of this perspective up to her postgraduate studies, especially in journalism.

‘In grad school, I learned a new way of reading. It taught me that you can’t just ‘get information out of a book’. You need to know what forms of information exist, what angle they take.

‘Especially in Nigeria, authors of guide books are often almost yelling at you to convey their perspective –every ethnic group says their way is the best. There are no ‘facts’ in writing about some of the Nigerian villages – it’s always shaped by a perspective, by Original cover, Zahrah the Windseekersome writer talking down to you – yet these documents nonetheless contain real information.

‘The same is true of Fast Facts and the Guide – they’re examples of how to look at information, reminders to not always believe, and even when you do believe, always consider the perspective of one who gave the information.’

In the fourth and final part of my interview with Nnedi Okorafor, we talk about ways of learning, and the most distinctive inventions of Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel Akata Witch, chittim – a currency earned by learning , delivered as a shower of metal rods falling from the sky.

Nnedi Okorafor Interview, Part 2: Nigerian/American, Athlete/Nerd – Labelling Magic

Find the first part of this interview here.

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.

Who Fears Death‘I read everything when I was young – literary, mainstream, only a little sci-fi but a lot of fantasy. I wasn’t specifically looking for genre writing.

‘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, butLong Juju Man 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.

Nnedi Okorafor Interview, Part 1: ‘Is everything written? And if it is, can you rewrite it?’

Nnedi OkoraforThe novelist Nnedi Okorafor is one of today’s most compelling YA authors. Her books offer a unique mix of African culture, science fiction and fantasy adventure, at once accessible to a wide audience and definitively rooted in a non-Western tradition.

In her latest novel, Akata Witch, all the tropes of Harry Potter and its ilk – the hero’s journey of a young magician, schools of wizardry, teens caught up in a battle for the fate of the world – are rethought and refreshed through a cosmopolitan, transnational perspective that ditches the grey stone and largely white faces of Hogwarts for a tender yet uncompromising Afrocentric vision of the cosmos.

Nnedi’s debut Zahrah the Windseeker won the Wole Soyinka Prize in 2008 – and Akata Witch (which I reviewed here for Brooklyn Rail), takes her writing to new heights.

Sunny, the 12-year-old ‘witch’ of the title, is an albino African-American who returns to Nigeria, her parental homeland, only to be doubly ostracized for her pale skin and US background. Sunny gradually discovers that she has magic powers, and is destined to play a small but vital role in a conflict that threatens the future of humanity.

As Nnedi explained when we met in Chicago’s Senegalese restaurant Yassa, ‘Destiny has always been something I’ve grappled with. Is everything written? And even if it is, can you rewrite it? I’m fascinated by destiny, but I also resist it.’

Nnedi’s own career owes directly to such acts of irresistible fate.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, she was a teenage tennis star until surgery for scoliosis left her paralyzed and bedridden at the age of 19.

‘Until then, I’d never have thought to pick up a pen. I was only nineteen, really athletic, but scoliosis painted my life. I left college as an athlete – and came back using a cane!’

A friend recommended that Nnedi take a creative writing class, beginning a journey that took her through journalism, short stories and a PhD thesis en route to her current career as a novelist.

‘My bout of paralysis was terrible, brutal and completely changed my life in a very specific way. In the same way, the kids in Akata Witch are at the mercy of their powers – those gifts are part of who the kids are, but they can’t be chosen. Destiny is brutal, it does not care about you.’

This philosophical perspective shapes even the most action-packed moments of Nnedi’s writing.

In Zahrah, a key moment involves the teenage heroine’s encounter with a giant, deadly ‘whip scorpion’, from which she is ultimately saved by an even larger jungle beast.

Nnedi admits during our interview, ‘I actually stole Zahrah’s escape from the whip scorpion from the first Star Wars prequel – the sea creature chasing our heroes gets eaten by a larger monster, and Liam Neeson says, “There’s always a bigger fish.”

What seems corny in George Lucas’ hands (for a while, I wondered if ‘There’s always a bigger fish’ was going to replace ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’ as the inane Star Wars catchphrase), here ties in to Nnedi’s ideas about humility and fate.

In Akata Witch, Sunny is no Harry Potter, a ‘chosen one’ destined to be a key player in the battle for the survival of tAkata Witch by Nnedi Okoraforhe world.

Sunny and her friends are explicitly told by their mentors that they are expendable in the fight against evil: ‘The world is bigger than you are, it will go on without you.’

Nnedi’s writing offers one balm for this uncomfortable truth: the realization that we must appreciate the gifts that life chooses to grant us.

The thrill of Sunny’s first soccer match grips the characters, and the reader, just as much as the climactic final showdown. Akata Witch may puncture the comforting notion of a guaranteed “special destiny,” but it also celebrates the shared adventure of everyday life on our planet.

Next time on Books and Adventures, more from my interview with Nnedi Okorafor, as we discuss her genre-busting position as a Young Adult writer whose work refuses to be pigeonholed.

Find the second part of the interview here.

>Nnedi Okorafor: (Re)Writing Destiny

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Next month’s issue of the New York arts journal Brooklyn Rail features my review of Nnedi Okorafor’s new Young Adult novel, Akata Witch.

I think Nnedi is one of the most important YA authors writing in English at the moment. Her books blend science fiction and fantasy in epic adventures, which draw heavily on African culture and beliefs. Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi’s Wole Soyinka Prize-winning debut, is my all-time favourite book for young people. I wrote on it a few months back, here.
Raised in Chicago by Nigerian parents, Nnedi was a teenage tennis star forced into more sedentary pursuits by a bout of scoliosis when she was at college.
When we met on my recent trip to Chicago, she told me: ‘I would not be writing but for the paralysis. I’d never have thought to pick up a pen. I was only nineteen, really athletic, but scoliosis painted my life.
‘It was like destiny making me write. It was terrible, brutal and completely changed my life in a very specific way. Destiny is brutal, it does not care about you.’
Destiny, and the limits of our freedom to question its demands, is a major theme of Akata Witch.
Its hero, 12-year-old Sunny, is an American-born girl who moves to Nigeria with her parents. As an albino and an akata (a derogatory term for black Americans), she is an outcast within her community. Yet when she begins to develop strange powers and joins the secret society of Leopard People, it seems Sunny may have a part to play in saving the world from apocalypse…
Nnedi freely admits she’s a fan of putting teenage protagonists through the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell: ‘I LOVE the hero’s journey. I can’t get enough of it. Coming of age is a magical time, in-between, full of conflict. And writers love conflict!’
What makes Akata Witch stand out from other fantasy quests, is the marginalized quality of the heroic protagonist. Sunny is not ‘the chosen one’ nor even, like Harry Potter, a key player in the battle for the survival of the world.
When Sunny and her friends are sent to frustrate a child-murdering sorcerer’s attempt to summon a monstruous spirit, they are merely one more team in a long line of failed, dispensable young magicians.
Sunny is explicitly told by her elders that she is effectively cannon fodder: ‘The world is bigger than you are, it will go on without you.’
Destiny seems to have brought Sunny from the US to Nigeria to discover her powers, but it doesn’t guarantee her survival, or even victory.
As Nnedi puts it, ‘Destiny has always been something I’ve been fascinated with, but also resisted. Is everything written? And even if it is, can you rewrite it?’
I’ll be featuring more from my interview with Nnedi on Books and Adventures in the month of April, and you can find my review in the forthcoming issue of Brooklyn RailAkata Witch is released in the US by Viking Juvenile on April 14th – find out more at Nnedi’s site.

Coming soon on Books and Adventures: charter schools, interviews with Finnish Education Minister Henna Virkkunen and Super Granny Sally Wendkos Olds, guest writing from Eric Maddern, and reports from Peru as I begin my new project training teachers in Ayacucho.

>I’ve become THAT kind of jet-setter…

>So, I’m in Chicago for 36 hours, mostly to interview the great Nnedi Okorafor, and I’ve finally reached that point where there’s no time for exploring.


Chicago Skyline by J. Stephen Conn. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Nnedi and I met at Yassa, a great Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, and the sum total of my Chicago tourism has been the journey out there from O’Hare Airport. 

To be fair, it was a pretty epic journey, involving 2 trains and a bus which wound through a rather desolate low-rise stretch of boarded-up and barred shopfronts. On the bus, a Vietnam veteran began to lecture a group of teenagers who were skinning up right under the driver’s nose.

‘I’m glad to see your education ain’t going to waste,’ he growled sarcastically. But the boys were smooth talkers and somehow the vet’s stern monologue on the importance of getting an education was turned around until he was admitting that he didn’t mind the occasional toke, and it all ended in hugs and handshakes. 

When I stepped off the bus and through the door of Yassa, the world seemed to come alive. The restaurant is bright, welcoming and decorated with displays of African goods, from sculpture to musical instruments and even perfumes! 

The television was tuned to Africa 24, and despite my best attempts to dredge up my schoolboy French, I’m afraid their political pundit’s commentary escaped me.

Between the sorrel drink and maffe (a kind of lamb stew), I was totally sold on Yassa’s menu. Nnedi’s grilled tilapia looked great too, although I figured it’s bad manners to take food from the plate of the person you’re interviewing!

I hadn’t realised that African restaurants also serve as general stores for African clothes, music and African DVD’s, so I was pleased to pick up a Nollywood movie about a crime-fighting female journalist – although they didn’t have Nnedi’s recommendation, Warrior’s Heart.

Despite all this adventure, I’m going to be told off by my friends when I return to New York. 

‘You didn’t do the architectural boat tour?’ 
‘You didn’t go to Hot Doug’s?’ 
‘You didn’t go to Do the Moon Hop at Late Bar?’ 
(My friends all have very different ideas of what constitutes a good time).

But there’s work to be done, so I’m sitting in the Holiday Inn Express, with a terrible coffee and a lot of writing to be done before they kick me out at midday. I’ve finally become that kind of jet-setter. 

It’s probably good that I haven’t activated my Twitter account – I might mutate into one of those terrible corporate travellers who spends all their times tweeting complaints about the Chicago transit system or the quality of hotel breakfasts.

Much better to celebrate yesterday’s fine meal with one of the greatest living writers, and crack on with the day job. 

If I’m lucky, there’s time for a pilgrimmage to the Threadless store. As New York continues to mutate me into a hipster, I feel the need to buy this shirt. Don’t you?

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Next time on Books and Adventures: more news from New Zealand Book Month, reports from a Q&A with charter school pioneer Geoffrey Canada, and, of course…Nnedi Okorafor.