>Rimaykullayki…or, ”hello'” in Quechua!

After my three month project with Behind the Book in New York, I’m now in Ayacucho, Peru, delivering professional development and curriculum advice for staff at San Domingo Savio School.

Books and Adventures will continues to feature its usual mix of articles and interviews, but for the next month or so, you can also find a personal account of my Peruvian experiences at La Vida Idealist.

Stay tuned to Books and Adventures for charter schools, New Zealand Book Month, science teaching in the USA, Super Grannies and the secret of Finland’s education success.

But drop in on La Vida Idealist if you want to know the meaning of this picture…

Nnedi Okorafor: (Re)Writing Destiny

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.

>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?


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.