It’s had a massive following since it was first published seven years ago, but Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death is seeing a new wave of attention after it has been optioned as a series by HBO, with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin signed on as an executive producer.
And while she’s no stranger to fandom — her fans include titans like John Green, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin and Rick Riordan — Okorafor, who is also writing a three-issue storyline for Marvel, has been finding all of the attention somewhat surprising. “It feels great and strange and volatile — in a good way. I find comfort in the fact that I seem to be part of a sort of explosion of voices,” says the science fiction and fantasy writer, who already won the three most prestigious awards in the field — a Hugo, a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award.
Who Fears Death, a coming-of-age tale set in post-apocalyptic North Africa, was called “both wondrously magical and terribly realistic” by the Washington Post. “I’m very excited about the project. HBO is exactly where I feel this story needs to be,” adds the 43-year-old Nigerian-American author. With hits such as True Blood, Game of Thrones and, most recently, Lucifer, the sci-fi and fantasy genre TV shows have exploded during the past decade.
And like everyone else, Okorafor, too, is fan of Game of Thrones. “But I took my time, despite my sister raving about it from the moment it started,” she says. “I love Martin for his work ethic, his writing in different areas and his unflinching handling of characters within his work.”
Sci-fi fantasy has a long history of having a reputation of being largely white, male-dominated field. In recent years, with authors like Okorafor, whose stories feature young black girls as superheroes, that’s begun to change more visibly.
Though marginalisation of black people is still a huge problem in publishing, the world of speculative fiction, says Okorafor, is more accessible. “In my personal experience, I’ve found it [speculative fiction] to be far more open to my work as a woman of colour than literary fiction. When my work was submitted to publishers of literary fiction, there was a resistance because my work didn’t fit their very homogenous idea of what a woman of colour should write.”
Struggling to find an audience
Okorafor’s come a long way since she published her debut novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, 12 years ago, struggling to find an audience. Now, with a dozen novels under her belt, she’s emerged as a favourite new fantasy writer, with magic, ritual and otherworldly spirits and deities — drawn from Nigerian myths and legends — running through her books.
Back in 2011 her acclaimed novel, Akata Witch — a dark, sprawling epic that some fans and readers have labelled the “Nigerian Harry Potter” — earned her a legion of fans. In October, her second book in the Akata series, Akata Warrior, was hailed by Laurie Halse Anderson, the New York Times bestselling author of Speak, as “the most imaginative, gripping, enchanting fantasy novels [she’s] ever read!”
Science fiction, she says, carries the potential to change the world. “Literally. It has changed the world. In fact, most modern technology was born within the pages of science fiction novels.”
Not surprising, then, that she was commissioned to write an installment in the Star Wars: From a Point of View to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the saga. “I’m a huge Star Wars fan, and I was allowed to choose whatever character I wanted to write about,” says Okorafor, who lends her stunning imagination to bring a sense of dignity to an unlikely hero — the monster in the trash compactor that made a brief cameo in A New Hope. “I felt Dianoga [a pre-historic species in the Star Wars universe known to feed on organic waste] was misunderstood…”
To Okorafor, fantasy is not escapism. Using the framework of the genre, she’s engaged with issues such as racial and gender inequality, the destruction of the environment and corruption to tell her stories.
Outside the world of books as well, Okorafor upholds her forthrightness. She validated Nigeria’s Nobel Prize-winning author Soyinka renouncing his American residency in protest of Donald Trump’s US election win in 2016. “I think the US has made a terrible mistake in its presidential decision due to pain, anger and a sense of hopelessness. I fully understand Soyinka’s actions and his privilege in making it. It was a good use of his privilege,” she says. “Protest is necessary part of pushing change, though I personally refuse to abandon this great country of my birth to the wolves. There is work to do…”
Okorafor, winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, is an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University at Buffalo.
Born to Nigerian immigrant parents and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Okorafor has also been vocal about ignorant stereotyping and homogenisation of Africa. In fact, she was one of many to be angered by how the Nigerians were depicted in the 2009 sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster District 9.
“The film portrayed Nigerians awfully — they were criminals, prostitutes, and cannibals. There was not one positive, even neutral, portrayal of a Nigerian in the film, and that got me thinking about how Nigerians would really react to aliens.” Putting her anger to a positive purpose, Okorafor wrote Lagoon, mixing traditional sci-fi trope with African magical realism, in 2014.
She’s deeply loyal to her Nigerian heritage, and her Binti novella series, about a young African woman’s interstellar adventure, follow the same path. The series, which won her the Hugo and Nebula Awards, evolved her as master of the short-story genre. Defending the genre for its concentration, integrity and lack of compromise, she says, not every sci-fi novel needs to be a huge tome.
“I like an economy of words, so I enjoy the challenge of making lean prose do as much as possible. I like to see what I can do with a few simple, clear words,” she says. “I write what comes to me, how it comes to me. If it’s one page and that’s what it’s meant to be, then I’m comfortable letting it be one page. If it’s a thousand pages and that’s what it needed to be to tell the story, then so be it. The story dictates the length, not publishers, contracts or even me.”
Of late, she’s finding herself in increasingly high demand. She recently finished a new novel, Remote Control, a fantasy set in near-future Ghana, and just signed a deal to write the third book in her Akata series. “I’m currently working on the three-issues story for Marvel, called Black Panther: Long Live the King, a one-shot issue for Marvel on my character Ngozi, a graphic novel, and the forthcoming five-issue comic Antar: The Black Knight.”
Balancing her busy schedule is “hard at times”, she says, but having a supportive network of family and family helps. “My daughter and I are very, very close. When I’m home, we are inseparable. I also bring her with me to as many events as I can when she’s on break.”
In 2013, she attended the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival with her daughter, and spotted a blue jellyfish when visiting the beach. Much to her delight, that jellyfish became a jellyfish-life alien tribe in her Binti series.
Next month, she’s returning to the UAE to attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and hopes to find some more inspiration in fantastical creatures, big and small. “Like Nigeria and other parts of Africa, I’ve found the Middle East to be a powerful source of inspiration for my work. So I’ll certainly be arriving with my writer’s senses piqued,” she says.
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.
Nnedi Okorafor will take part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to be held at InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City, from March 1-10.