Reprinted from At Buffalo
Published January 29, 2016
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, an associate professor in the Department of English. “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.’”
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 also has 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 also is 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.”