Cover Story

Future Imperfect

The speculative fiction of UB associate professor Nnedi Okorafor is steeped in a gritty realism

Nnedi Okorafor.

Nnedi Okorafor at Buffalo RiverWorks. Wings courtesy Shasti O'Leary Soudant (MFA ’11).

Story by Elizabeth Hand | Photographs by Douglas Levere

“I was 19, and I woke up paralyzed. My surgeon was crying—I had just been named Athlete of the Year in Illinois. I went from being the super athlete to being paralyzed within 24 hours. ”
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Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Chapter 2: The Boy and the Lady

To read one of Nnedi Okorafor’s novels is to be propelled into a near-future, magically enhanced version of our own world, at once immediately recognizable and unutterably strange.

Okorafor herself has spent a lifetime shifting between different worlds. One of four children of Nigerian Igbo immigrants who moved here in the late 1960s, she grew up in the Chicago suburbs, with frequent visits to her parents’ home country. Her father, a cardiovascular surgeon who was chief of surgery at several Chicago hospitals, came to the U.S. to attend medical school; her mother, a registered nurse and midwife, went on to earn a PhD in health administration.

“They were both at the top of their class from grade school through high school through college—that’s what they grew up with,” says Okorafor. “Bring those two together and it’s like, wow. My family and all my siblings have the highest degrees. In my family you had no choice.”

Her parents were also spectacular athletes—her mother on Nigeria’s Olympic javelin team, her father a famous hurdler in Africa. As teenagers, Nnedi and her sisters were nationally known tennis stars. “Like Venus and Serena Williams before Venus and Serena Williams,” Okorafor laughs. “It was big! Now I’m traveling the world for literature; before I was traveling for tennis.”

Most authors can trace their love of writing back to childhood, but while Okorafor was a precocious reader, she assumed she’d be a professional athlete. She went on to become a track star in high school, despite developing severe scoliosis when she was 13. The summer after her freshman year at the University of Illinois, where she was on the tennis team, she underwent spinal fusion to correct her scoliosis, which doctors said would cripple her within a few years if left untreated.

And this is where Nnedi Okorafor’s own story took a dramatic and potentially tragic turn. A relatively common procedure for athletes, spinal fusion holds a very small risk of causing paralysis—about 1 percent.

“I was 19, and I woke up paralyzed. Turns out I was in that 1 percent. My surgeon was crying—I had just been named Athlete of the Year in Illinois. I went from being the super athlete to being paralyzed within 24 hours. I could either have gone mad in that hospital bed, or found some way to keep myself from going mad. The only way I could stop myself from going mad was by writing stories.”

During the course of that fateful summer, sensation slowly returned to Okorafor’s body. She learned to walk again, using first a wheelchair, then a walker. “By the time I went back to school I was using a cane. And I was writing.”

A friend suggested she take a creative writing class. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘creative writing’! The rest is history. I found out I loved it, and I was very good at it.”

She was very, very good indeed: Okorafor is now one of the most highly praised SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writers of her generation. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she got an MA in journalism from Michigan State and a PhD in English from the University of Illinois, Chicago. In 2001, she attended the prestigious Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. “I left Clarion with a confidence I didn’t have beforehand. Prior to Clarion, I’d gone through many years of writing programs where professors told me that science fiction and fantasy were not real literature and this type of writing was below me.”

Her first adult novel, “Who Fears Death,” appeared in 2010 to great acclaim. A frighteningly believable dystopia set in West Africa, the novel confronts rape, genocide, female genital mutilation, gender equality and racial strife, all without sacrificing humor, romantic passion—or hope. One reviewer called it the “angriest SFF novel to broadside the genre.” Yet the book incorporates science fiction and Igbo folklore into a transcendent tale that’s compulsively readable, despite its emotionally and politically charged subject matter.

Okorafor’s own experiences of racism date to when hers was the first black family to move to the suburban enclave of South Holland Park. The racism was “quite epic,” she says. “We were always running from racist older kids. But racism never deterred me from doing anything. Coming from Nigeria, my parents were aware that the United States had a lot of issues, but they were also aware that it had a lot of opportunities. I was instilled with that attitude—there are issues here but you get over them. Obstacles should not keep you from attaining what you seek.

“My parents were not helicopter parents,” she adds. “But there were times when they had to swoop in and directly protect us. That helped us deal with it too—we had each other and we were strong.”

Okorafor imparts this strength to her female characters, whose flaws don’t keep them from expanding political and cultural boundaries. “I’ve always been surrounded by powerful, interesting, unique women. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a tiny market woman who nurtured and commanded the family. My auntie, the oldest sibling of my father, was wealthy, independent and free in a very patriarchal Nigerian Igbo culture; she was tall, gregarious and married whomever she wanted. I’m a diasporic Nigerian Igbo woman, meaning I grew up in the presence of a very patriarchal culture within the United States. So I grew up watching powerful and intelligent women navigating their way through—and often suppressed by—this culture. This led to much of what I wrote about in ‘Who Fears Death.’”

Zoom image: Nnedi Okorafor Nnedi Okorafor.
“When things are reported on the news, the human part is missing... I purposely fill that part in. ”

The novel also, Okorafor says, “came out of a very dark time for me. My father passed in 2004. A lot of the rage in the novel was that … a lot of the rage came from me. It was also the result of stories I’d heard from family members throughout my life. It very much is an angry novel, but it’s justifiable rage, a type of rage that brings change.”

Growing up, frequent trips to Nigeria exposed Okorafor to her extended Igbo family and Nigerian culture. “I was born and raised in the U.S., yet from a young age my parents were bringing us back to Nigeria to connect with our heritage and our relatives. So you have the experience of being raised in the U.S., you have the American experience, which as a black person comes with certain spices,” she laughs. “Racism and all the -isms.”

On the other hand, she says, “On those trips, we weren’t tourists—we were family—but my siblings and I were also American Nigerians and treated as such. Sometimes this meant that relatives or other kids treated us as if we were incomplete, other times as if we were different, and still other times, as if we were the same.”

It’s this sense of being both inside and outside of a culture, of being a participant observer in a world where one is not always understood, that gives Okorafor’s fiction its emotional and liminal charge. Her stories are always transcending, sometimes transgressing, the threshold of what it means to be a woman, to be black, to be American, to be African, to be human. She is a 21st-century shaman who conjures the past as well as the future, and is unafraid of confronting the specters of contemporary genocide.

“In my family, the ghosts of the Biafran War hover, as over every Nigerian family in some way. There are always stories that you hear, of families’ experiences with the war. When I was writing about genocide in ‘Who Fears Death,’ I mined from my own family background as well. Also, I listen—when things are reported on the news, the human part is missing, and I can hear the part that’s missing. And I’m aware of that and I purposely fill that part in. Just because I’m happy and comfortable, that doesn’t mean everyone else is. And that concerns me.”

“Who Fears Death” received numerous honors, including the World Fantasy Award and France’s Le Prix Imaginales, and gave birth to a prequel, “The Book of Phoenix.” Her other works have received the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, the CBS Parallax Award and the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. And while her adult novels can deal unflinchingly with highly charged issues, she has also written two books for younger readers, “Long Juju Man” and “Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine,” as well as the young adult novels “Zahrah the Windseeker,” “The Shadow Speaker” and “Akata Witch,” all steeped in Afrocentric culture and lives.  

“Kabu Kabu,” a collection of short stories, appeared in 2013, and her most recent book, “Lagoon,” is a “first contact” novel set in the kaleidoscopic metropolis of contemporary Lagos. “Every time I’ve been there, I’ve had some—or several—moments of terror and joy,” she says. “It’s a fascinating city. And because of my insider/outsider dual point of view, I’m able to write about it with blunt honesty and strange detail.”

In scarcely more than a dozen years, Okorafor has published a dozen books, along with numerous short stories and essays. She remains almost supernaturally busy, dividing her time between Buffalo and the Chicago suburbs, where her family still lives, and continuing to produce (she’s currently at work on “Breaking Kola,” a sequel to “Akata Witch”). Several of her works, including “Who Fears Death,” have been optioned for films. She is also parenting a 12-year-old daughter and, of course, teaching and mentoring her students at UB—a job she feels as passionately about as she does her writing.

“I have students who write horror, comedic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, suspense, slipstream, a bit of everything,” she says. “And that’s perfect for me because I love variety. I also love the fact that I’ve gone from being a student in English departments where science fiction and fantasy were deeply frowned upon, to teaching it within a really dynamic and innovative English department with students hungry to write it. That’s what I call progress.”

Elizabeth Hand is an award-winning writer and critic who divides her time between the Maine coast and London. Her 14th novel, “Hard Light,” will be published in early 2016.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor


Chapter 2: The Boy and the Lady

Only two people on the beach witnessed the watery abduction of Adaora and the two men from Nigeria’s Bar Beach. One was a young boy. Just before the boom, his guardian had been standing several feet away having a heated discussion with the owner of one of the shacks selling mineral, mainly orange Fanta and Coca-Cola. The boy was staring at something else. His stomach was growling, but he forgot about his hunger for the moment.

In the moonlight, he couldn’t clearly see the creature, but as it walked out of the water even he knew it was not human. All his mind would register was the word “smoke.” At least until the creature walked up the quiet beach and stepped into the flickering light from one of the restaurants. By then it had become a naked dark-skinned African woman with long black braids. She reminded the boy of a woman whose purse he’d once stolen.

She’d stood there for several moments, watching the three people who came from three different directions and ended up standing before each other. Then the strange woman creature silently ran back to the water and dove in like Mami Wata.

Rubbing his itchy head, the boy decided that he was seeing things, as he often did when he grew confused. He flared his nostrils and breathed through his mouth as he tried to focus back on reality. The great booming sound rattled his brain even more. Then came the wave that looked like the hand of a powerful water spirit. The boy saw it take the three people, one who was a woman and two who were men. And just before it did, he saw one of those people throw a black bird into the air that caught itself and flew into the night.

Nevertheless, he could not speak or even process any of this information for he was both mute and mentally handicapped. He stared at where the three people had been and now were not. Then he smiled, saliva glistening in the left corner of his mouth, because somewhere deep in his restrained brain, he had a profound understanding that things around him were about to change forever and he liked this idea very much.

The other witness of the abduction was a young woman named Fisayo. She was a hardworking, book-reading secretary by day and a prostitute by night. She, too, noticed the creature woman who emerged from the water. And she, too, thought the word “smoke,” but she also thought “shape-shifter.”

“I am seeing the devil,” she whispered to herself. She turned away and dropped to her knees. She was wearing a short tight skirt and the sand was warm and soft on her shins and kneecaps.

She prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive her for all her sins and take her to heaven, for surely the rapture was here. When the boom came, she shut her eyes and tried to pray harder. The pain of death would be her atonement. But deep down she knew she was a sinner and there was nothing that would ever wipe that away. She got to her feet and turned around just in time to see the woman and two men snatched up by a huge fist of water. Just before it happened, one of them had released something black and evil into the air like a poison.

She stood there, staring at the spot where they had been and no longer were. She waited for the water to take her, too. The fist had to be the hand of Satan, and she was one of the biggest sinners on earth. Oh the things she’d done, so many, many times. Sometimes it was just to fill her empty belly. She trembled and started sweating. Her armpits prickled. She hated her tiny skirt, tight tank top, red pumps, the itchy straight-haired brown wig on her head. When nothing else happened, she went to the nearest bar and ordered a cranberry and vodka. She would anxiously tell her next john, a businessman from the United States, what she had seen. But he wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. He was more interested in filling her mouth than watching it flap with useless dumb words.

But she wouldn’t forget. And when it all started, she would become one of the loudest prophets of doom in Lagos.

© SAGA Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.