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Fantastic Folklore

American author Nnedi Okorafor uses fantasy to tell tales of life in Africa and to confront the continent’s social issues.


Nnedi Okorafor didn’t initially set out to be a writer. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she was raised in Illinois with expectations, she says, that are typical of immigrant families: she would become a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

But, as Okorafor tells The New York Times, fate wouldn’t have it. She always loved science and was planning for a career as an entomologist. Then, at age 19, she underwent a surgery for scoliosis. The procedure left her temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. As she recovered, she wrote short stories to stay busy. When she returned to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she enrolled in a creative writing class, and never looked back.

Okorafor has published several science fiction and fantasy novels for a readership ranging from children to adults. Her cult following has propelled her to become a mainstream sensation, with her most recent projects including a three-issue storyline of Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther” series and a Marvel comic, called “Blessing in Disguise.” Set in Lagos, it features a Nigerian teenager named Ngozi, Venom Symbiote, Black Panther and the Rhino. Also, HBO has revealed that it is turning Okorafor’s novel “Who Fears Death,” which is set in post-apocalyptic Sudan, into a television series, with George R. R. Martin, creator of the “Game of Thrones” series, as one of the executive producers.

Okorafor has several projects underway in addition to her work with Marvel. She recently finished writing another novel, “Remote Control,” which is a fantasy story set in near-future Ghana. She is also working on a graphic novel that takes place in a tenement in Brooklyn, New York. The building houses African immigrants, alongside aliens from outer space.

Okorafor has won numerous awards for her writing, including the World Fantasy Award, the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, and the Nebula and Hugo Awards, both for the best novella category.

Science remains critically important to her work, however. She uses the lenses of science and fantasy to explore the social issues faced by people in Africa.

“Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing,” she says in a 2017 TED Talk.

Many of Okorafor’s stories are set in West Africa and depict genocide, corruption, gender inequality, female genital mutilation and environmental degradation. But, the depictions aren’t totally straightforward: “Who Fears Death,” for instance, incorporates juju magic and fights among sorcerers. These elements of magical realism help the reader stay with the heaviness of the issues of rape and genocide that the novel is really about. It is “a story grounded in reality and embellished with magic, one that reads like a cautionary tale but with words designed to inspire hope,” thereby compelling the reader “to pay close attention to international news and really wonder what is being done to stop genocide,” according to a review in The Christian Science Monitor.

Similarly, Okorafor’s novel “Akata Warrior” looks at the idea of belonging, or not belonging, to a society through the story of a Nigerian American girl who moves from New York to Nigeria, where she discovers she belongs to a secret group of people with magical abilities. “Akata Warrior” is the second installment of Okorafor’s Akata series, which some fans refer to as the “Nigerian Harry Potter.” She has signed a deal to write the third Akata novel.

Okorafor, who is a full professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo, New York, refers to her brand of science fiction as “Afrofuturism” which, she says in her TED Talk, has a different “ancestral bloodline” than “Western-rooted science fiction, which is mostly white and male.” She tells The New York Times that in her science fiction writing, “Nigeria is my muse. The idea of the world being a magical place, a mystical place, is normal there.”

So normal, in fact, that Okorafor doesn’t have to fantasize wildly to come up with many of the creations in her books. She explains in The New York Times article that in her Akata series, for example, several elements come from Nigerian folklore, like “tungwas”—glowing balls of flesh that float in the air and explode into tufts of hair and handfuls of teeth; Mami Wata, a water spirit; Ekwensu, a destructive goddess made of tightly packed palm frond leaves; and Udide, a talking spider god. Udide appears in Okorafor’s novel “Lagoon” as well.

In her TED Talk, she describes Udide as “the supreme spider artist…who was the size of a house and responsible for weaving the past, present and future.”

“Like Udide, the spider artist, African science fiction’s blood runs deep and it’s old, and it’s ready to come forth, and when it does, imagine the new technologies, ideas and sociopolitical changes it’ll inspire,” says Okorafor. “For Africans, homegrown science fiction can be a will to power.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.