The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor

The
future and the past collide in The Book
of Phoenix
, a prologue to Okorafor’s Who
Fears Death
, as an old man finds a cave full of old computers out in the
desert and stumbles upon a story from the distant past—and the future.  Our future, that is.  When that old man begins to listen to
the story of Phoenix, we come face to face with the present taken to its
logical extreme.  With aliens,
wings, and a bit of magical realism, the reader is taken on a turbulent ride
through the life of Phoenix Okore.

The Book of Phoenix, unlike many future
dystopia novels, lives purely in a fantasy realm of its own making, like a
world in which matter is not subject to the usual forces of gravity.  Okorafor writes a brand of fantasy that
builds on Western African and other folklores, using the validity of those
beliefs and magics to interrogate the commonly held assumptions most American
whites make every day about those they other in order to define their own
identities.  Okorafor’s use of
estrangement is an affective tool in building a narrative that relies on the
‘found footage’ trope to tell a story of the world’s apocalypse.  Her rare blend of escapism and bleak
futurism provide a compelling story that keeps the reader hooked.

The
novel uses first-person narration to tell how Phoenix was born in a corporate
research tower, a created human with strange powers that the people who made
her hope to use as a weapon, most likely against the colonized peoples they are
already oppressing.  The use of
first-person often relies on exposition, which may have the effect of pushing
readers out of the future world that Phoenix lives in, and stretching the
suspension of disbelief at the wonders achieved even by those least qualified
to be stewards for the world.  Having
Phoenix tell her own story, though, is important to the narrative, and helps to
portray Phoenix as both powerful and fallible, able to achieve impossible
things while also a victim of her own strong emotions and the ignorance of her
own history in which she has been raised.

Readers
interested in dystopia that remembers the rest of the world—not just North
America or Europe—will enjoy traveling with Phoenix as she seeks asylum and
acceptance across continents and oceans. 
Those who like their fantasy to stray more towards magical realism or
the supernatural will enjoy Okorafor’s use of myth and folklore to build a
world in which nearly anything is possible.  Readers looking for a novel that is part of a connected
world of stories should check out The
Book of Phoenix
and its sister novel Who
Fears Death,
with a further stop at Kabu
Kabu
, Okorafor’s collection of short stories which was published between
the two.

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Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

The
question is simple: What would happen, what stories would come out of it, if an
alien presence landed in Lagos, Nigeria? 
The answer is anything but simple. 
Life, it turns out, doesn’t stop when something unbelievable
happens.  You may become the center
of an unbelievable story, but you are still part of something larger, and
everything becomes much more complicated before it ever dreams of being simple
again.  So Adaora, Agu, and Anthony
discover when they are contacted by a being who calls herself Ayodele, who can
change her shape, and wants to be the ambassador between her people and the
people of Nigeria.

Lagoon reads almost more like a series
of stories than as a novel, full as it is of short chapters and small moments
between secondary characters. 
Though the main story follows Adaora and her companions, readers see how
even when they become the heroes of this story they are still pulled in many
directions by forces and connections they have built up over their entire
lives.  In this way, Okorafor
imbues Lagos with both an agelessness and an immediacy that allow myths to live
and old gods to rule.  Who is
pulling the strings, the reader wonders.  The aliens? Adaora, somehow taking the reins of her life and
the lives of those around her? 
Some other presence that has been in Nigeria all along? 

Okorafor
began Lagoon in response to the film District 9, and in it one can see the
response also to a culture in love with superheroes who become larger than life
and, eventually, above the lives of those they are meant to protect,
approaching even godhood.  The
underlying questions of who is really controlling this story interrogate
superhero culture—interrogate many aspects of modern technological culture and
media including traditional militarized narratives of alien visitation—until,
again, all we are left with are people who might possess something special that
pushes them into this story, but who still have a connection to where they came
from and essentially never forget who they are amidst the chaos of the alien’s
arrival. 

Okorafor’s
writing in Lagoon is sparse and very
close to the characters she’s writing—getting in their heads in a way that,
again, hints to the reader that this is not a novel, as advertised, but someone
else’s story entirely—and motivation is key in this novel in a way that really
highlights how motivation is sublimated in stories like District 9 or Independence
Day
in favor of valorizing the heroes of their respective stories.  Okorafor’s style in this novel also
really localizes the story in a way that is intentionally alienating to readers
not connected to Nigeria or its history, a method that both has a significant
pay-off at the end, and gives the novel its extended metaphor of a person or
group of people finding their true home, coming to terms with their past, or
otherwise righting some existing wrong.

Those
interested in the intersection of science fiction and environmental change will
enjoy the ways Lagoon looks at
humanity’s effect on the environment and how it can be interpreted by
outsiders.  Fans of contemporary
science fiction will enjoy the immediacy of Okorafor’s story, as will those
looking for a story that decenters traditional United States-centric science
fiction narratives.  Readers of
“new weird” science fiction and fantasy will enjoy the ways that Okorafor
blends myth, science, and horror elements to create a story that challenges
readers on many levels.

Books I’m Excited to Read in 2016

So last week I posted about books being published in 2016 that I’m excited about.

Now I’m going to talk about the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2016.  This is a slightly different list, since I don’t have the money or the time to buy everything I’m excited about right when it comes out, and actually read it.  My to-read stack isn’t as big as many, but it’s big enough.  So here are a few that I’ve been working towards, and plan to get to this year.  

Of course, more will be added to this stack, and I will, of course, post review of the ones that qualify for this blog.  You can also find all my review at goodreads here

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

It’s Kate Elliott!  It’s YA, which I don’t read a ton of, but it’s Kate Elliott!  Here’s a synopsis from her website, kateelliott.com

“In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”


Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

Another YA, another author I’ve come to really enjoy, so of course I need to read more than just her adult novels.

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.Then she learns why.Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agents,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.Orlu and Chichi have been working with their teacher for years. Sunny needs a crash course in magical history, spells, juju, shape-shifting and dimensional travel. Her new world is a secret from her family, but it’s well worth all of the silence, exhaustion and sneaking around.Still, there is a dark side. After she’s found her footing, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and their American friend Sasha are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a criminal. Not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. A real-life hardcore serial killer-with abilities far stronger than theirs.Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones are Nnedi Okorafor fans. As soon as you start reading Akata Witch, you will be, too.”


Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko

I picked this one up mostly by chance at my local indie books story, Burlingham Books, in Perry, New York.  They have a small-ish collection, but it’s always varied, always thought-provoking.  I’ve only read one or two novels by Native writers in the past, and decided to fix that, so this will be my starting point.

Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website

Almanac of the Dead takes place against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America. It follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot.

The novel’s numerous characters are often separated by both time and space, and many seemingly have little to do with one another at first. A majority of these characters are involved in criminal or revolutionary organizations – the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

Driving many of these individual storylines is a general theme of total reclamation of Native American lands.”


Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

This one has been a long time coming.  I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Butler, but the lack will soon be remedied.  Here’s a synopsis from octaviabutler.org

“When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.”

Bronze Gods, by A.A. Aguirre

I read a YA by Ann Aguirre a year or so ago, and enjoyed it, and now she’s working on a steampunk series with her husband, Andres.  I’ve found that steampunk is a subgenre I really enjoy, so I bought this book (quite) a while ago,  and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.  2016 is the year it gets moved to the permanent shelves!

Here’s a synopsis from Ann’s website

Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.
Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…”

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson!  Another author I discovered because of Burlingham Books.  I’m tempted to say her fiction is a little on the outside of my taste range, but that’s not really true.  I love her work; it’s mainstream SFF that says she should be on the outside of my tastes.  She says a lot that needs to be said, which is, I think, more important than conforming.

Here’s a synopsis, in her own words, from her website nalohopkinson.com

“my novel The New Moon’s Arms was a February 2007 release from Warner/Hachette Books. It’s my fourth novel. I was thinking about Nandor Fodor’s theory that poltergeist phenomena are “caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension.” Some say that this may be why poltergeists so often manifest around young adults just going into puberty (primarily women, I think). The idea is that reaching sexual maturity in societies as sexually repressed as many of ours can be disturbing enough to some people that they begin to generate psychic phenomena.
I’m not in the business of theorizing whether that’s true or not. I was more interested in the idea. If the beginning of menstruation can be magic, I began to think about what it might be like if there were out-of-control psychic phenomena similarly associated with the ending of menstruation. Magical menopause! Enter my protagonist, who’s 53 years old and going through the Change of life, but with some changes peculiarly her own:

I was boiling. When the sun got so warm?

“…most primitive living pinnipeds,” said Hector.

God, the heat was getting worse.

“…derelict fishing nets…danger…”

Hector didn’t even seem to notice it. Me, my whole body was burning. I could feel the tips of my ears getting red, my cheeks flushing.

“…Brucella…Calamity? You all right?”

“I don’t know. Too much sun.” I wiped some perspiration from my brow. My hand came away wet.

“You sweating like you just run a marathon.”

“A lady doesn’t sweat.” But the dried salt from it was irritating my hand. I rubbed the hand against the fabric of my pants. “Jesus, it so hot!”

Hector looked worried. “That tree over there will give you some shade. Come.”

But before we could take a step, something soft and light grazed my head from above, then landed at Hector’s feet. “The hell is that?” he cried out. He bent to pick it up.

“It didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.” Much better, in fact. The heat was passing off rapidly. I was even chilly.

Hector straightened up. “Where this came from?” He looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Nothing but blue. Not even the cloud that must have just covered the sun and made me shiver.

Hector showed me the thing he was holding. I blinked the sun’s glare out of my eyes.

I grabbed her out of Hector’s hand. Bare Bear. Chastity’s Bare Bear. Held so tightly and loved so hard that her little stuffed rump was threadbare, her little gingham dress long gone. “Where this came from?”

“Look like it just fell out of the sky.”

“No, man; don’t joke. It must have washed up with the tide.”

“And landed on your head?”

“I don’t know; maybe this was on the sand already, and something else fell on my head.” Bare Bear winked her one glass eye at me. So long I hadn’t seen her. “A leaf from out a sea grape tree, something like that. Right, Bare Bear?” I hugged Lucky Bare Bear to my chest. I grinned at Hector. “She get small over the years, or I get big.” She still fit in her old place, up against my breastbone.

“You feeling sick?” He asked. “You didn’t look too good just now.”

“I feel wonderful,” I answered.

And because I sometimes like a little science with my fiction, I also resurrected the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Sort of.”


Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Because it just looks so gorgeous.  No.  Well, yes, but also because I’m a completist and she’s a great writer.  

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.”

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

In a future northeastern Africa two groups of people live,
waiting for the last sigh that will bring them to all-out war.  They have existed in the same space for
centuries, the lighter skinned group having dominion over the darker, with
occasional rebellions and reprisals. 
Some outlying villages of Okeke—the darker skinned group—manage to live
in relative peace and prosperity away from the rule of the Nuru.  Some have even managed to forget the
depravities and terrorism wrought against their people in the East.

But
Onyesonwu can never forget.  Being
a child of rape—a Nuru man brutally attacking her mother—Onyesonwu is marked
because she is different, both in appearance and in other ways.  While Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, the novel has the impact
that it does because it encompasses many stories, and grows in complexity the
further in the reader goes, rather than simply wrapping everything up in a
pretty bow at the end. 

Okorafor
writes in the first person—Onyesonwu telling her own story.  Onyesonwu’s voice comes through
strongly, and from her narration the reader gets even more a sense of who she
is and what she’s like.  She speaks
plainly and sincerely, with no apology for her moments of extreme emotion and
occasional violent outbursts.  One
of the refreshing points of the novel, in fact, is that there are often three
or four female characters featured who have a range of personalities and
viewpoints.  The reader doesn’t
experience the tunnel vision often created by a female narrative in an all-male
world.  Onyesonwu has a sounding
board for her opinions and experiences, and her friends are not afraid to
disagree with her.  Though Who Fears Death takes place in a fantasy
setting, it therefore feels much more real from a human perspective than a
great many “realistic” or non-fantasy novels.

Who Fears Death is evenly paced,
encompassing a relatively large amount of time by sharing events in short
bursts throughout Onyesonwu’s journey from her home to the land of her
father.  Readers who enjoy vividly
realized scenes should find Okorafor’s sorcery-filled encounters to their
liking, as she writes unselfconsciously about fantasy subjects in a way that
allows the reader to step seamlessly from page to story.  Readers looking for non-Western
(American or Western European) fantasy settings will enjoy Okorafor’s detailed
desert settings and cultures.  This
novel will appeal to readers who enjoy dystopia and ecological (climate change)
science fiction.  Readers of
Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler will find much to love in Who Fears Death, and indeed in all of
Okorafor’s canon. 

Structure and Imagination in Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu

Note: this essay is: 1) full of spoilers, 2) my own interpretation of the work and although I welcome discussion, I do not claim to be an authority for African or Post-colonial literature.

As the title suggests, Nnedi Okorafor’s short story collection Kabu-Kabu takes its readers on trips of fantasy, magic, and unbelievable realities.  Though often excerpted or inspired by Okorafor’s other, earlier works, each story yet fits together with its companions to form a framework.  This framework is representative of the structures, the tension—push and pull of forces happening within the stories themselves and within the lives of the people they represent—inherent in each story.  Though all the stories in Kabu-Kabu reflect the structures discussed, this essay will directly discuss only a proportion of them, namely:“Kabu Kabu,” “The House of Deformities,” “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” “Spider the Artist,” “TheWinds of Harmattan,” “The Carpet,” “Icon,” “Windseekers,” “Bakasi Man,” and “Biafra.”

All societies, real and fictional, are ruled by specific structures.  Okorafor’s short stories examine the present-day societies of the United States and African nations including Nigeria.  The stories interrogate the traditions and tribal laws of African societies of the past, both through stories set in the past and those which interpret those societies as future versions of themselves.  Perhaps most telling, some of Okorafor’s stories treat themselves as mythology, the lost history of future societies descended from the long-ago societies of her stories themselves.  Though each story, each novel even, can be treated as a standalone work, each story is also part of a cycle springing from a fantastic imagination.  Okorafor herself describes her writing as “something organic. This type of fantasy grows out of its own soil” (Okorafor, 2009, p. 277).  She goes on to discuss, in the same essay, her feelings of having “surreal” and “fantastical” experiences as she hops from country to country, society to society during her childhood growing up simultaneously in the United States and Nigeria (278).  The fact that her fictions contain so many fantastic elements is no accident, she reveals, as she is examining the structures pulling at every real person who has had the experience of growing up the child of African immigrants to another country who feels the pull of both societies, and feels also the rejection of those same societies.  

Okorafor discusses two prominent African writers to whom her work can be compared, Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  Each brings to life the myths, traditions, even fears of their African roots.  These writers taught her that she was not doing something wrong, but that she was following a tradition of writing in Africa, one in which storytellers don’t simply use fantastical elements as metaphor, but are able to really believe in them.  “I do not believe Ngugi set out to write a fantastical novel, “she says of Wizard of the Crow, “I don’t think it even crossed his mind. I think he set out to write a book about Africa and in writing about Africa the magic naturally, organically sprouted” (284).  Each—Okri, Ngugi, Okorafor—is writing as part of a postcolonial or neocolonial tradition of African literature.  They are rejecting the “realism of the Victorian novel”(283) and in the process the imperial structures that have stifled African societies for hundreds of years.  

Structure in Kabu-Kabu

Physically, the people and places of Okorafor’s stories are divided, circumscribed, and delineated by physical structures.  The forests of the Windseeker cycle—“How Inyang Got Her Wings,” “The Winds of Harmattan,” “Windseekers,” and “Biafra”—serve to further emphasize the differences between Windseekers and the societies into which they are born.  The village may blend seamlessly into the forest, as it does in “How Inyang Got Her Wings” when we meet Inyang, looking down on her village for the last time before setting out on her own (Okorafor, 2013, p. 69), but it is still separate.  The villagers treat Windseekers, those who share a special connection with the forest and spend more of their time in comfort within the forest, as strange, as witches, as people to be feared.  Incorporation into the forest is what protects villages from the incursions of white explorers, yet the forest is still a place of mystery and fear.  Though Windseekers share a special affinity with the forest, to the point of making other villagers allergic to them, they can still be killed by the forest in the form of the chop-nut, which is used to poison those accused of witchcraft.  The mythology of the Windseekers even blends so far into Okorafor’s storytelling that it becomes part of other stories that don’t actively invoke Windseeker themes.  In “The House of Deformities,” the narrator is telling the story of the strange restaurant at which she and her family stop on the way to a village, however in a flashback the narrator also tells her memory of going into the forest in the middle of the night to look at some old ruins with her sister and cousins.  Rationally the girls can identify the physical objects they find for what they are, but their imaginations turn the ruins, the old chicken bones, the darkness and noises of the forest into something more fantastic and sinister.  The forest is the place where witches and other dangerous creatures go.  It is a thing that must be tamed, against which people must protect themselves.  Logically, the narrator, Okorafor, and her readers can identify the imaginings of young girls for what they are, however Okorafor’s storytelling leaks into the imagination of the reader, eliciting belief and forcing an immersion into her created world that overrules the logical passivity of the informed reader.  She links the story of the man in the dark hat, told by her older Nigerian cousin Grace in the forest in the middle of the night next to that strange and terrible altar, with the laughing man in the dark hat outside the restaurant, flanked by vultures and the old woman passively, almost robotically, chopping meat in the oppressive heat while three-legged puppies tumble past.  

The physical structures which hem in and control the characters of Kabu-Kabu take on a tangible presence in the mind and imagination of the reader.  Visceral descriptions of places, food, sounds and smells place the reader strongly in setting despite the stark prose of Okorafor’s storytelling.  But for only  vivid descriptions her stories might just entertain the reader.  Okorafor goes further, however.  As stated previously, a belief in her worlds, a method to their creation are part of a tradition of modern African storytelling that interrogates ideas of the postcolonial era, free African nations, and self-determination.  Harsh reality approaches the realm of the fantastic to any reader who has never seen what her characters have seen, and Okorafor’s unskimping prose, her method of simply stating everything that is evil, terrible, or ugly, alongside the beautiful, wonderful, and good simultaneously builds reality around the characters and around the reader.  “Spider the Artist” begins with ugliness and anger, and ends the same way.  “My husband used to beat me,” the narrator begins (101).  “Used to,” but does no more. Most abusers don’t stop unless something forces them to.  It’s an ugly truth she lays out, and hard to imagine anything good coming from the results.  The narrator retreats from ugliness, only to be confronted by even more terror: the pipeline which runs through all the villages of her region, bringing death, poverty, sickness, and despair.  Oil extraction ruins the environment, ruins people’s lives, and their government profits from it.  The narrator thinks she wants to die, so she goes to the pipeline, which is patrolled by the droid “Zombies,” and seems to wait for it.  

But does she want to die?  She, who is perhaps the most rundown woman in the village, has something yet to give.  She still wants a child, she wants to teach.  And she has her music.  Like Cerberus being charmed by a flute, she charms one thinking droid with her guitar playing.  She finds a friend where she thought least possible.  For a few pages there seems to be a chance for change.  She seems to be finally taking part in what Ugwani ‘Dele Maxwell describes in his essay “Post-colonialism and the politics of resistance: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow,” what people of newly independent nations have a right to expect “…after the sacrifices they endured during the liberation struggle… peace, material benefits, and a better future for their children.” (P. 223).  But the pipeline re-exerts control over the lives of the Niger Delta people, over the government that purports to represent them, even over the oil companies in the end.  The pipeline looms over everything, patrolled by the increasingly erratic Zombies.  Droids that have been given intelligence, for whatever reason they have come to hate all humans, not just the ones they are instructed to kill.  Imperialism is blown up to its most extreme, most grotesque in the form of the oil pipeline, without which societies across oceans would stagger to a halt, thirsting for more and more fuel to power their lives, oblivious to where and how the fuel is extracted in the first place.  It seems even the droids are disgusted by the practice.  

Amidst this chaos, the fantastical story of a woman playing a guitar, playing so well that she could befriend a droid, and that its own playing could help her conceive a child becomes easy to believe, simple to place.  This theme is replicated in “Icon” and “Bakasi Man,” each of which interrogate an aspect of real life in Nigeria, but with a magical infusion.  In “Icon,” the title character has the power to draw protective spells—icons—on people, protecting them from death.  In “Bakasi Man” the dictator Bakasi is said to have ascended to power because he is a hunchback, and magic resides in the hump of a hunchback.  The Niger Delta People’s Movement in the former story, and Bakasi and his sycophants in the latter create and use a mythology of their supposed power to get what they want.  Icon is a sinister character, the quintessential “enemy of my enemy” who preys on innocents to fight what he considers a greater battle; Bakasi uses his powers of speech, taking advantage of the legends of strange powers hunchbacks are supposed to have, in order to lull the people into allowing him to remain in power and to become a dictator.  “Bakasi Man” plays on the same themes found in Wizard of the Crow, in which the dictator plays people one against the other in order to keep them from thinking about the true problem—himself.  Bakasi puts all conflicts in terms of “us and them,” where the us is constituted by his own ethnic group, and the them are Agwe.  For reasons only an autocrat can understand, he has come to hate the Agwe, even after a lifetime of helping them, and determined to exterminate, or at least enslave, them.  

Okorafor uses a combination of political and physical structures in “Spider the Artist,” “Icon,” and “Bakasi Man” to weave her complex worlds, using the words and experiences of her narrators to push the reader out, forcing the reader to confront the reality of being excluded, which in turn has the effect of drawing the reader in.  “You will never understand what it’s like to walk in my shoes.  You will never be in my shoes,” says the narrator of “Bakasi Man,” directly to the reader, as if to say: this fantastic world in which I am suffering and fighting, watching horrible things happen to me, will never belong to you, and as an outsider you will never be able to believe it without proof( Okorafor, 2013, p. 189).  Politics have been used against the narrator and her people, as well as material goods.  Bakasi drives around in a large truck decorated with the flags of his nation, and is escorted by a line of sleek black Mercedes.  His wife is much larger than he is, “beautiful in her largeness, fat off the suffering of others” (192), and both he and his wife are ornamented with gold.  Bakasi is also flanked wherever he goes by armed men, and no one can get near him without first being searched for weapons.  “Bakasi Man” becomes a story about erasing the physical distance between the narrator and Bakasi, tearing down political structures that trap her, by making Bakasi physically no more.

The narrator of “Icon,” Richard Banks, is a reporter who travels to the Niger Delta in search of proof of what Icon can do.  He is an African American, searching for some connection to Africa or just looking for a way to distinguish himself at home—the reader never really finds out.  Instead he returns to the United States cursing Africa, cursing Nigeria, determined never to tell what he experienced.  The story pushes the reader out, even as they empathize with its characters, and with the reasons for their struggles.  Even Icon becomes an object of fascination, rather than disgust or fear.  The soldiers of the Niger Delta People’s Movement, after refusing contact with Richard, suddenly and inexplicably agree to a meeting, however Richard and his partner Nancy must travel upriver into the forest, to a remote village.  Even after getting out of the boat, the soldiers who meet them force Richard and Nancy to walk over a mile to the village, even though it had been in sight when they landed the boat.  Finally, Icon forces Richard through a rite of passage, forcing him to take part in a ritual of the group, before he gets his story.  Richard must transgress the final barrier, a social taboo in nearly all cultures, when he shoots a young boy at the orders of Icon.  In doing so Richard learns the truth of Icon’s abilities, the reason the soldiers never seem to get hurt or shot, and vows never to have anything to do with Africa or Nigeria again.  Icon uses symbols, drawn on the bodies of his soldiers, to create a physical barrier to harm.  His reason for letting Richard and Nancy in is to illustrate his power, to create fear and spread it to the rest of the world, to try to force out those against whom they are fighting.  When Richard first shoots the boy, Icon becomes an object of revulsion, but upon learning that Whipping Boy/Victor did not truly die, Icon is an object of fascination, wonder, even sympathy.  The tension of trying to balance wonder and dismay at the Niger Delta People’s Movement’s actions is what continues to pull at the reader.

Women in Kabu-Kabu

Perhaps the most useful structure for an interpretation of Kabu-Kabu is its many examples of how various communities respond to and attempt to control women.  The Windseeker stories, in particular, reveal this, however “Spider the Artist” holds some particularly poignant examples as well.  Windseekers, as Okorafor writes them, are part of a mythology of the African people she creates, a lost history of the flying people and one that is growing more and more dim as time progresses.  These stories are not simply connected by their theme, they are part of a cycle—as Okorafor herself explains in her notes they are part of an unpublished novel called The Legend of Arro-yo—in which the societies into which the Windseekers are born continually forget and transgress against them, which in turn leads to Windseekers turning their backs on tradition, in an ever spiraling cycle that eventually brings the reader to “Biafra,” the last Windseeker story in Kabu-Kabu.  Okorafor’s major accomplishment is making sure that these stories and their characters don’t exist in a vacuum.  “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” “The Winds of Harmattan,” and “Windseekers” all feature Edenic, paradise-like descriptions of places and people.  In “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” Inyang begins the story looking down on her village for the last time, and flashes back to the beginning of her transformation, remembering her former life in all its beauty and sweetness with vivid descriptions of food and place, with simplicity and innocence as only a child could.  They are not memories of childhood though, but of a time before realization of what she is and what it means to be a Windseeker in her time has set in.  Okorafor drives this realization home with her allusions to the incursion of white explorers, the necessity of hiding the village from them, and how the slave trade breaks down societies and cultures in many regions of Africa.

Through invocations of a paradise-like state, Okorafor makes the losses of the Windseekers more poignant.  Her stories are not simply a sad homage to a by-gone age, though.  By making her Windseeker characters strong and independent, able to analyze the actions and motivations of the people around them, Okorafor examines traditionally-held beliefs and customs, finding both the beautiful and the questionable in everything.  Tradition is important, these stories say, but when once change has been started a way forward must be found, otherwise the best of a culture will be lost to those who put power and selfishness above everything else.  Koofrey and his father in “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” and Asuquo’s husband Okon in “The Winds of Harmattan” are examples of this circumstance.  Koofrey believes he has power over Inyang and her body, as does his father after him.  When both realize she will not be dominated by a man they call her a witch.  Inyang is born with the markings of a Windseeker, who as Inyang’s grandmother explains used to be born in much larger numbers but, “As time goes by, we forget more… Windseekers are rarely welcome in one place for long” (Okorafor, 2013, p. 71).  She is marked as different from birth, pushed out by her village, not allowed to participate in the rituals of puberty that all girls go through, and yet they respond aggressively when she acts differently and does not conform to expected gender norms.  

Asuquo, as DeWitt Douglas Kilgore explains in his essay “Beyond the History We Know,” tries to be accepted by her village despite being a Windseeker, but is still made an other.  Her inability to conform leads to not only being condemned as a witch, but actually murdered.  Asuquo is not just murdered, however, but entirely erased from the village’s collective memory by being mythologized as a male, “the predatory demigod Ekong, a suitably male figure for the patriarchy.  Hence, the village community enforces the patriarchal imperatives it believes to be right and good” (123).  But the village is punished for turning its back on the natural order when the Harmattan winds refuse to blow for an entire year after.  

Both Asuquo and Inyang fail to find their predestined soulmate, as each is instructed by an elder woman—Inyang by her grandmother, Asuquo by an old woman in the market.  Each wants to be free to travel anywhere, but feels they would be trapped by following the demands of tradition.  Inyang’s grandmother calls her selfish.  Neither Inyang nor Asuquo understand that by not finding their soulmate, their chi, they are beginning a cycle of death and rebirth that will lead to untold sorrow.  The push and pull of traditional society, however, restricts their actions, and so they cannot be faulted entirely for their inability to find their soulmate before death.  Asuquo, Inyang, and later Arro-yo are blazing a new path for Windseekers.  The old ways are no longer open to them, but there is not yet a new world that can welcome them.  They travel many roads, many years of death and loneliness before “Biafra,” when Arro-yo finally heeds the call to stop traveling, to return home.  Coming back to Calabar, the region where Asuquo was originally born, puts Arro-yo in the way of more death and pain.  She still has the gifts of healing, and finds ways to help many people displaced by the Biafran War, but there are many more she can’t help.  The end of her story is hopeful, however.  The legend of the Windseekers has begun to be more positive, with people seeing her as an angel, a servant of Allah, or an incarnation of the traditional gods of the forest.  The narrator states Arro-yo never flies again after coming back to her village, but leaves open the possibility that that is just part of the legend, ending with, “Still we don’t all believe such a woman could ever be grounded” (247).  

“Spider the Artist” also has its hopeful notes in the form of a woman and her talents.  The narrator makes a connection with a droid, which may be the only opportunity there is in this version of reality for humans and droids to learn to coexist.  Though the story ends in fire and death, the narrator survives, pregnant, with her droid friend Udide.  There are many ways the story could have ended differently.  Had her husband listened to her, had she tried harder to leave him or at least get away from the house and pursue outside interests, had she had a friend in whom to confide her secret.  

“The Carpet” and “Kabu Kabu,” the title story, take place in what can be considered the modern world.  In the latter Ngozi is trying to get to Nigeria to be with her sister, and in the former the narrator and her sister Zuma are staying in Nigeria with family, preparing to head back to the United States soon.  In each story the characters have a dysphoric experience as a result of their being the children of two different cultures.  Each tries hard to fit into whatever environment they are in, but have a difficult time reconciling their learned values with their circumstances.  In “Kabu Kabu” Ngozi is a lawyer living in Chicago, used to the authority that goes with it, used to living in an orderly society ruled by laws with which she is very familiar.  She ends up taking a Nigerian cab to the airport, and finds herself on the strangest ride of her life.  She clashes with the driver multiple times about how they should get there, whether he should pick up extra passengers, even how he should address her.  In “The Carpet” the sisters arrive at their parents’ house to find all the furnishings have been stolen by relatives.  Instead of spending their last few nights in Nigeria at their aunt and uncle’s house, though, Zuma is determined that they will stay in their parents’ house, which has been emptied and shuttered for a long time and contains evidence that wild animals have taken up residence. In Ngozi’s case, she doesn’t have a chance of getting to Nigeria in time for her sister’s wedding until she hits rock bottom levels of despair and finally gives herself over completely to the cab driver, who promises to get her there.  They travel by a strange supernatural highway where Ngozi sees what she can only describe as monsters.  “We all must travel…It is the essence of all things, to move and change and keep going forward and backward and around.  Even the spirits and the dead” her driver tells her as they pass (33).  Not only does the cab driver get her where she needs to be, he gets her there a day early.

Before leaving Abuja to visit their father’s village, Zuma and her sister decide to stop at the market for some last souvenirs and end up buying a strange, alluring carpet at a junk shop, just the thing that would attract Zuma’s eye.  “Zuma always loved anything that looked like something Scheherazade would own” (144).  It is their first time traveling to Nigeria without their parents, and so it “felt new, different, darker.  No, those are the wrong words…more mysterious” (142).  After their anger at their relatives, and refusal to give in and stay somewhere else as a way to honor their parents above all, it is the carpet which ends up being their savior, killing the snake, rats, and spiders in the night, all the things which they feared and didn’t belong in the house.  

The structures in Kabu-Kabu that restrict and control women, often to the detriment of all, can be likened to the recurring theme in Wizard of the Crow of African governments taking outside intervention in the form of foreign aid and World Bank loans for extravagant projects that don’t help the people in any way.  Governments are lured by foreign imperialists, in the guise of would-be white saviors, into taking loans that will indebt future generations of citizens in order to make themselves appear great and powerful.  Kamiti, who becomes the Wizard of the Crow, makes himself so, by creating a story around himself, and gains power through the belief of others in his existence.  As Maxwell states, Ngugi repeatedly emphasizes “dynamic self-fashioning and cultural renewal” and sees his relationship to storytelling “as a productive dialogue rather than a nostalgic embrace of tradition” (238).  Kamiti, after seeking imperialist approval in the form of a prestigious university degree, takes the path of the beggar, and then the self-made wizard.  He uses storytelling to outwit his enemies and remain free.  Okorafor uses storytelling in the same ways in order to share a dialogue with old ways and the current state of politics and society in Nigieria and other African nations.  The women of her stories must be left to make their own way, even when the outcome is not perfect.  They must be allowed to make their own mistakes and find a dialogue with the traditions that have been forgotten, upheld, and twisted around their lives.  Bakasi, in “Bakasi Man,” is assassinated and torn down, and though chaos follows, it is only the beginning of a revolution that could lead to a new and free nation for Ndi State.  Arro-yo returns to Calabar in the middle of the Biafran conflict, and though there is still much suffering to be endured, she finally feels ready to face the trials of being a Windseeker in a time when Windseekers have been forgotten.  Ngozi finally gets to Nigeria when she stops trying to impose the rules of her modern U.S. life on her Nigerian cab driver, and Zuma and Mukoso wake on their last day in Nigeria to see the house rid of vermin by the strange, impossible carpet that they purchased on a whim in a junk shop in the market, allowing themselves to be captivated by the local “magic.”

In these stories, the characters who are experiencing oppression, who are under stress, who are fighting for their lives or the lives of others, are only allowed even a measure of peace or hope when they follow their instincts, trust their own judgment, and make difficult decisions on their own.  For better or worse, they are writing their own stories, counter to expectations or the demands of tradition.  As stated above, Okorafor has described her body of work as organic fiction, which springs from her imagination and the experiences of her childhood visiting Nigeria.  It is telling that Okorafor needs to explain her work, to state explicitly that she is not just “‘making stuff up’. There is a method, purpose and realness to  my madness” (Okorafor, 2009, p. 277).  As her stories show, she is writing in the neocolonialist tradition shared by Ngugi and Okri and many others fed up with the rules of fiction, magic, and the fantastic imposed by the Victorian tradition that gave us the modern English and American novels.  Why does Okorafor have to justify her work?  Quite simply because her work is itself a resistance to imperialism and colonization, because the imperialists and colonizers normalize that which looks like them, and anything else is branded strange and untenable.  Okorafor’s work, like Ngugi’s and Okri’s, is a call for its own existence.  As she explains about her novel Who Fears Death in Kendall’s profile “An Nigerian Sorceress Makes Her Way,” “I am not trying to be shocking or exceedingly graphic. Onyesonwu’s story was told to me in just this way and she is not one to tell lies, embellish, or mince words” (28).  To try to impose an outside structure on her work, to make it fit a specific mold, is like the rest of the world dictating to African nations how their democracies should look.  Each has its own path to tread.

Conclusion

Structure and tension work in many different ways in the stories of Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu.  They are stories of resistance and conflict, great ugliness and great beauty, and participate in a new tradition of resistance literature in response to the neocolonialism of new African nations by the “West,” which continues to position itself as powerful and modern to the backwards, undeveloped “dark continent.” 

Bibliography

Kendall, Mikki. “An Nigerian Sorceress Makes Her Way.” Publisher’s Weekly (April 12, 2009): 28.

DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, “Beyond the History We Know: Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Nisi Shawl, and Jarla Tangh Re-think Science Fiction Tradition.” in Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory, ed. Marleen S. Barr. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008): 119-128.

Maxwell, Ugwani ‘Dele. “Post-colonialism and the politics of resistance: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.”  The Journal of Pan-African Studies4 (2011): 218-247.

Okorafor, Nnedi. “Organic Fiction.” African Identities 7 (2009): 275-86.

–. Kabu-Kabu. Gaithersburg, MD: Prime, 2013.

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Structure and Imagination in Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu by Elizabeth A. King is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu

Whoa!  My first book review on this tumblr!  And I picked a hard one!  

My reading (note, not how I was able to read and enjoy it, but my ability to to analyze and talk about it) of Kabu-Kabu has to factor in a lot of conditions.  First, post-colonial, African, even African-American fiction is not a genre with which I’m overly familiar.  I read a ton of scifi/fantasy, and my MA English focused on the early modern and early novel periods of England.  Very different work, very different perspective.  The English were the colonizers, not the colonized.

Add to that I have a tendency to be somewhat at a loss with short story collections.  I guess in a lot of ways I’ve just trained my brain to move at novel pace, to expect so much more information than a short story generally hands you for free.  But anyway.

I promise not to make a rating scale part of my reviews, of any book I write about here.  I’ve never been fond.  Every book should be taken in its own context, should be its own model, even those that closely adhere to a genre.

First

From her website, nnedi.com, a synopsis, all the information I had when I bought it:

“Kabu Kabu – unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis – generally get you where you need to go, but Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations. This debut short story collection by award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor includes notable previously-published short work, a new novella co-written with New York Times bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, and a brief forward by Whoopi Goldberg.”

Just so you know what you’re getting into.

And without further ado my review of, or a few words on, Kabu-Kabu.

Why did I choose it?

Kabu-Kabu  was recommended to me by my favorite bookseller, friend, and former boss Ann Burlingham, owner of Burlingham Books in Perry, NY.  I decided to buy it because the title and synopsis reminded me of the gypsy cabs I used to take when I lived in Astana, Kazakhstan: how sometimes we used to feel as though we were taking our lives in our own hands when we got into one, that we might end up somewhere we didn’t expect; also, we’re talking about drivers that camped out at train stations, offering to drive people from Astana to Karaganda, over 200 km away.  Yes, yes, I know that Kazakhstan and Nigeria are far from being the same, but having read Okorafor’s stories of back roads and far-flung villages, there was definitely a resonance with my experiences of Kazakhstan.  I’m working on writing what I’ll loosely refer to as a memoir of that year.  Maybe I thought I’d learn something from Okorafor.  Maybe I have.

But there is still the question of why I chose Kabu-Kabu for my first review on this blog.  I wanted to challenge myself, and anyone who reads this blog, to read something outside the standard fare of science fiction, fantasy, any sort of American fiction really.  Okorafor is not bound by popular opinions of what fiction should be.  She writes the “weird stuff” as described by a little girl at one of her school visits.  She writes stories that present themselves to her, out of her imagination and the stories from her family and the people of Nigeria themselves.  Being white, growing up in predominantly white rural Western New York, most of what I surrounded me was pretty heteronormative, pretty white, pretty run-of-the-mill fiction.  I chose to challenge myself with Kabu-Kabu.

My initial thoughts.

Even before finishing, I was struck by how women-centered her stories were, how much meaning she could pack into even the shortest of her stories, and how human her characters were.  The opening mini-story, called “The Magical Negro,” alludes to the fact that her stories will not contain those tired tropes that feature black characters as a foil or “teacher” or “guide” to the white male protagonist.  But the women–the women.  I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a novel or collection that was so focused on the experiences of women, in such an honest way.

Themes

Voice

I think a lot of the meaning, and humanity, in Kabu-Kabu comes from Okorafor’s strength as a narrator, and how much control her narrator/s have over their stories.  The authority with which she writes about Nigerian-American women caught between worlds, or the mythological characters of her Igbo homeland like the windseekers, or little girls fighting baboons on their way to school–she sets tone, establishes theme, creates the scene like, well, like someone who has a PhD in English and is a professor of creative writing–it’s something more than just training or talent.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that her stories are so closely linked to her own life.  I think, though, that in rejecting the “traditional” fantasy story, the traditional male-dominated tropes, the “Western”-dominated point of view, and to such a degree, one becomes an authority, because to go back to what others have ordained as good is to become a traitor to oneself.  And, after reading Kabu-Kabu, that is something that could never be said of Nnedi Okorafor.

Characterization

As I mentioned earlier the majority of Okorafor’s stories feature prominent female leads, which of course fits well with the goal of this blog overall–to feature stories by and for women.  But to go further than that, the women of her stories do not all fall neatly into one type or role.  They are not all conventionally good, or nice, wise or sweet.  Some want or have families, some don’t.  Some are strong, others are weak.  But they are all human, all thoroughly immersed in their worlds.  Everyone has a stake their own life, even if they don’t realize it at first.  

Would I say the same of the male characters?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Some of them, like the father and title character of the “Popular Mechanic” or Asuquo’s love-interest (soul mate) in the Asuquo stories, surely aren’t simply types.  In a story like “The Black Stain,” however, I would argue that the male protagonists are types.  Each has a role to fill–the one a stay-at-home who refuses to assimilate new ideas, the other an adventurer who achieves a sort of stunted enlightenment–in order to advance the story and teach us the origin of the black stain.  "The Black Stain" is part of an overarching mythology of Okorafor’s Nigeria, her Africa, even, and mythologies often use types in order to tell a story.  (You’ll have to read the story to find out what part of the mythology is presented, though).

Themes

I won’t write much about themes, because I feel that would give away much of the discovery in Kabu-Kabu for the reader.  Colonization, surely, jumps out first.  Whether purely speculative fiction with no anchor in a specific time period, a story that draws from the folklore of Nigeria, or near/far -future fantasy, all stories deal in some way with colonization.  Sometimes with stark, chilling effect.

Okorafor has a way of making even the “bad” characters sympathetic to the reader.  Some might see this as softening the blow, tempering the reality of colonization’s effects on the colonized.  But, spoiler alert, even the stories with seemingly happy endings can leave the reader feeling cold, lost, bleak.  Intentionally so.  Because the stories and themes in Kabu-Kabu, beautifully written as they may be, reveal a bleak, dirty heritage for much of the world, and the effects of that heritage on later generations of those forced to endure.

Prose

Throughout Kabu-Kabu I struggled with the short-story aspect of the book. Partly that’s a failing of my own.  Partly is has to do with Okorafor’s writing style itself.  It can be sparse at times, with little detail or backstory besides what the characters themselves think or remember.  She does not do the work for you.  Nevertheless her stories are rich, her descriptions and scenes are lush.  Hemingway-esque, in her word choice, she also treats all her characters with dignity, though in a different way than the patriarchal, male-chauvanist style Hemingway perfected.  Despite the short-story format, she weaves interlocking themes throughout her stories, allowing the reader to find more continuity in Kabu-Kabu than one would at first suspect.  

Other Positives

I know what you’ll say–only positives, no negatives?  The thing is, unless  story is legitimately poorly written, or features blatant misogyny, sexism, racism, or other -isms I’m tired of reading, I’m  probably not going do a whole lot of talking about negative things.  I want to celebrate the women and the works I read for this blog.  Okorafor is an established author.  I’d rather talk about how she does things, rather than be nitpicky about what she does.

Anyway.

Tension.  There occasionally seems to be a bit of awkwardness in the prose, however not having read any of her novels, I can’t say whether this is symptomatic of her writing style overall or just the short story format.  Sometimes having to step back and re-read a passage can make you think more, and sometimes it takes you out of the story.  Honestly, considering the subject matter, her habit of bringing in the strange and unbelievable, I wouldn’t say it in any way detracts from the stories.  At times I even just assumed it was my own lack of experience with dialect that caused trouble for me.

In fact, the perceived oddities of the prose often adds to the tension–thematic, between characters, between characters and their worlds–that already exists in the stories.  I very much enjoyed the tension in her stories–the feeling of not knowing what to expect, how to react, what the characters were going to do, what was going to happen next, whether or not the feelings you have or that the characters are expressing will be vindicated by the end of the story–and found it tended to express more overarching themes, in addition to the more minute subjects of each story taken singly.  As I said, Okorafor has a way of leaving things unsaid in just the right way, but still getting across a lot of information.

Why You Should Read

You will be taken out of your comfort zone, and encounter stories that deal with a variety of themes, often negative, but in a positive way.  You’ll begin to see the world from a different perspective.

Okorafor has written that the stories she creates are the stories she wanted to read as a child.  She creates characters that look like her, that have gone through the same experiences she has.  If for no other reason, you should read Kabu-Kabu, and any of her work, because we need more authors, more stories like hers.  We need to keep seeing different characters, different perspectives, than the ones “so-called mainstream” scifi/fantasy was raised on.  Because that mainstream is just a small fraction of the whole world, and there are so many stories out there.

Like this review?  Stay tuned for a more in-depth, spoilery essay about Kabu-Kabu, complete with citations and criticism!