COME, MY DRAGON-HEARTS, and step into the Flash! Future with us! Doubtless some of you already love her words, but for those who haven’t met her, allow me to introduce you to one of Science Fiction & Fantasy’s top world-spinners. Few writers wield the duality of Earth and deep space, the physical and the spiritual, the ancient and the newly-birthed quite as deftly as she. At once, she plants our roots in red clay, fertile with a power as old as its own existence, and pours images of interstellar ships and species over our thirsty shoots. To read her stories is to be both grounded and soaring, to feel we could be in a past life, longing for a future we remember in dreams. Nnedi Okorafor, dear readers:
Photo Credit: Cheetah Witch
Who is this legend-forging Flash! Future figure?
Name: Nnedi Okorafor
Nationality: “Naijamerican” (Nigerian-American)
Best known for: Binti (novella in The Binti Trilogy), Akata Witch (novel in The Akata series), Who Fears Death (novel)
Awards: (partial list; also won many international genre awards)
- Eisner Award, Best Graphic Album (Reprint): LaGuardia (2020)
- The Locus Award, Best Young Adult Novel: Akata Warrior (2018)
- The Hugo Award, Best Graphic Story: LaGuardia (2020), Best Novella: Binti (2016)
- The Nebula Award, Best Novella: Binti (2016), Best Novel: Who Fears Death (2011)
- World Fantasy, Best Novel: Who Fears Death (2011)
- The Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature: Zahrah the Windseeker (2008)
What she writes & why every SF/F reader should know her name.
In a genre that diminishes itself by clinging to familiar Western tropes, many of Okorafor’s stories combine elements that defy easy categorization (Juju crossed with tech [“Hello, Moto“], Nigerian mythology and superhero comics [Lagoon], the goddess Ani and humans biologically altered to be weapons [The Book of Phoenix]). Rather than let others cram her cosmic-sized work into ill-fitting classifications, Okorafor designs her own worlds and then crafts precise language to self-define them. She summarizes her genres, Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism, on her blog as follows:
“Africanfuturism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.”
“Africanfuturism is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the earth, skews optimistic, is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent (black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa.”
In the same post, she elaborates on the distinction between the first-coined “Afrofuturism” and the more specific-to-her-work “Africanfuturism”; it’s concise and well-worth any speculative fiction reader’s time as her designation has taken root and further enriches how we discuss SF/F!
The shimmering wall of praise!
On Okorafor herself: “Nnedi Okorafor is American-born but her Nigerian blood runs strong, lacing her work with fantasy, magic and true African reality.” —Nawal El Saadawi, bestselling author of Woman at Point Zero
On LaGuardia: “Okorafor perfectly captures the absurdity and calamity of our current political moment and her artist co-creators render it in vividly and richly colored drawings.” — Calvin Reid, The Millions
On Ikenga: “Ikenga is a cleverly crafted mystery; it’s also a poignant tale of father and son and a richly drawn superhero origin story.” — Jean Westmoore, Books in Brief
On Who Fears Death: “Okorafor brings her considerable talent for ambiguous characterizations and grappling with difficult questions of morality and power in an unjust world. Her prose is musical and emotionally raw, and Okorafor’s imagery brings the novel’s rich magic and religion into vivid relief. Onyesonwu is a protagonist whose clear voice and brutally memorable story will stay with you long after you’ve finished.”
— Gretchen Treu, A Room of One’s Own Feminist Bookstore, Madison, WI
Rage: the art of empowerment in a broken world.
The world is cruel and filled with inequities, and rather than paint over it or turn away, Okorafor stands unflinching and names it. Her characters know pain viscerally; they’ve seen how inhuman we humans can be, and often stumble away bruised and near-broken. But where other narratives leave their characters bleeding in the dust, Okorafor empowers hers with a righteous rage and calls them to stand alongside her. That wrath is world-shattering, evil-slaying, soul-defining so that while inequities and cruelty remain, they cannot subdue the spirit. This is her genius: she gives us both the nightmare, and the strength to face it.
But let me stand aside. Her own voice speaks.
“From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7” was originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine. Okorafor calls it one of her “weirdest stories yet” and says: “It’s about a woman in pursuit of something strange.” Excerpt below. Find the audio version by clicking on the story’s title above.
We are searching for a mature CPU plant, so mature that we can actually download its hard drive. We call them M-CPUs. Acquiring a copy of an M-CPU’s hard drive has never been done in all the history of exploration. BushBaby42, a close friend of mine, found one three months ago but she disappeared before she could download anything. She happened to send us the coordinates of her location just before she stopped responding to us, so here we are. We’ve come hundreds of miles.
It is hard for me to speak of BushBaby42.
I don’t wonder what happened to her. She is an explorer which means it could have been anything. It is very often our fate.
On the M-CPU’s hard drive will be unimaginable information, the result of centuries of gathering. Legend has it that these plants connect to networks from worlds beyond. Imagine what it knows, what it has documented. We will not kill or harm it, of course. That would be blasphemy. We won’t even clip a leaf or scrape some cells. We’ll only make a copy of what it knows. Our storage drives should easily adapt to fit the plant’s port. Though our drive is most likely a different species of plant, they’d have to at least be of the same genus.
The CPU plant’s entry does it no justice. The entry is a human perspective, ascribing significance to the plant because it is cultivated and used as a tool for humans, a personal computer. The true CPU plant grows in the wild, neither touched nor manipulated by humans. And this plant takes hundreds of years to mature.
Many of us have seen young CPU plants with their glowing monitor flower-heads that light up nights and sleep during the day. They plug into the network and do whatever they do. But an M-CPU? Nearly legend. What must BushBaby42 have felt gazing upon it all alone as she was? What must she have seen on its screen? And what happened to her? She could take on a man-eating whip scorpion with nothing but a stick!
Incidentally, the creature we heard screeching this afternoon was an elgort. Big as a house, with tight-black skin that shined in the daylight, beady yellow eyes, fast as the speed of sound, irrational and food-minded.
We dealt with it. Maneuver 23, specifically for the elgort. We lured the crazed beast to a tall strong hardwood tree. That’s the most dangerous part, luring it in. We had to climb very very fast as soon as it smelled us. Once in the tree, as it reared up below trying to snatch us down with its tooth-filled trunk (a terrible sight in itself), Morituri36 dropped a bursting seed (which I picked this afternoon, thank goodness) into its maw. BLAM! Its entire head exploded. We now have meat for many days. Elgort meat doesn’t need salt or to be preserved and it’s naturally spicy; some say this is due to the creature’s anger and intensity in life.
We thank Joukoujou and the Invisible forces for giving us the skill to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, The Forces of the Soil also protected from the elgort whatever creature is stalking us.
Where can the hungry go for more? To the hyperlinks!
And this is not even a fraction of her accomplishments. For more info on Nnedi Okorafor and her many publications (we’re talking novels, novellas, comics, short stories, and TV adaptations—she is seriously multi-multi-talented!), including her most recent publication, the Middle Grade novel Ikenga, check out her website. Follow her on Twitter to stay future-informed!