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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!