The Five Superpowers of Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor is a prolific Nigerian-American writer of science-fiction, fantasy and magical realism. With over a dozen books to her credit, and stories in the top sci-fi and fantasy publications around the world, Okorafor is a powerful player in the ever-diversifying world of speculative fiction. She sets her stories in African worlds, writing from African perspectives shaped by African cultures. Along with writers like Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, and Nisi Shawl, Okorafor is continuing on the path of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney, expanding genre boundaries beyond a science fiction traditionally dominated by white male leads, and fantasyscapes steeped in echoes of Arthurian legend.
Okorafor is the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, as well as the CBS Parallax Award, the Africana Book Award and the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature. In addition to her successful books, Okorafor has been at work writing new Black Panther issues for Marvel Comics. Her 2010 novel Who Fears Death has been optioned by HBO and is now being developed as a TV series with none other than George R.R. Martin as executive producer.
But with all of her books about people with superpowers on the shelves, what superpowers does Nnedi Okorafor harbor herself?
1. Bridging cultures: Okorafor grew up in the U.S. as the daughter of Nigerian parents. With one foot in each continent, she writes from an African perspective while introducing new information to Western audiences. In Binti, for example, she often depicts her protagonist applying otjize (a reddish mixture of butterfat and ochre with which Himba women cover their skin and hair), explaining its significance to her as a source of identity and a connection to home.
As for writing for an African audience? In a blog post from 2014, Okorafor describes the challenges of sci-fi on the continent, discussing various reasons African audiences don’t have a strong relationship with science fiction.
2. Outlasting both sad puppies and rabid puppies: Like many speculative fiction fans, I was fascinated by the whole sad puppy/rabid puppy campaign that recently hit the Hugo Awards. From 2013-2017, a voting bloc of conservative, white male authors took various actions to stack the nomination process against a slate they believed had become too progressive—i.e.: female and multicultural. It didn’t work. While they did cause some disruption in 2015, leading to a few “no award” results, the Hugo Award winners lists from 2016 and 2017 are bursting with a diverse array of women and men—including Okorafor.
3. Tackling challenging social and political material: As Okorafor explains in the acknowledgments for Who Fears Death, the book was inspired by a 2004 article about the use of rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing in Sudan. In addition to the trauma and social ostracization that often follow sexual violence, the book also tackles the subject of female circumcision from the perspective of the girls who have various reasons for undergoing the procedure. She also doesn’t shy away from discussions of sexuality and the importance of female sexual pleasure. Her fantasy is not some far-flung escape from the world, but a way of facing the issues head-on.
4. Transforming crisis into creativity: Okorafor was a pretty serious athlete throughout high school, despite a diagnosis of severe scoliosis at age 13. Her doctors predicted that scoliosis would eventually cripple her if she didn’t have it corrected, so she underwent spinal fusion after her freshman year of college. The procedure was supposed to be low-risk, with only a 1% chance of paralysis. However, as she describes in this recent article:
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.
Fortunately, she recovered over the next few months. And the world gained a master storyteller as a bonus.
5. Inspiring writers of all genres: Come witness this superpower yourself when Okorafor appears at the Visiting Writers Series this Wednesday at 8:00 in the Abrams Family Conference Room in the SIS building at American University.
Tara Campbell is a contributing writer at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program. Her first novel, TreeVolution, was published in 2016 by Lillicat Publishers and her collection of poetry and fiction Circe’s Bicycle is forthcoming this spring from Lit Fest Press.