Still in the month of January, I’ve been making good on my goal to read way more books in 2018.
I’ve mentioned many times on this blog that the realms of fantasy and science fiction are my two favorite genres to read. Not the only ones I consume, of course, but typically the sections of the bookstore that I’ll probably visit first; and through this, I realized last year just how lacking I was in authors of color peppering my reading lists. I previously spoke on this back in 2016 on a blog post for more representation being needed in science fiction, but I didn’t pursue it further.
Then I stumbled upon this video of Nnedi Okorafor speaking at a TED Talk last year. Nigerian-American, she spoke on the foundation of her science fiction and fantasy being rooted in something slightly askew from popular mainstream and western opinion. Organized under the term of Afro-futurism (a compelling classification that deserves a much bigger post later), she painted the picture of a depiction of magical realism, fantasy, and science fiction conceptualized from something more than the traditional stories we’ve come to expect. Works of Issac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Orson Wells, and many others wrote interesting stories, yet with characters and philosophies that a large swath of people couldn’t necessarily relate to.
Science fiction does indeed have its origins in Western philosophy and white males, but as I’ve done more digging and opened my eyes, I’ve found an uptick in voices of color contributing to this genre in rising numbers. A Wrinkle in Time by Octavia E. Butler is actually going to premier as a high budget movie this year (I need to begin reading her work)! This eventually led me to trying out Okorafor’s 2010 effort, Who Fears Death.
Who Fears Death is a challenging read in all the right ways; and I don’t make this claim lightly. It will not hold your hand or shield you from very real parallels faced by those who are discriminated against (namely minorities and females within this tale). Yet it will have you, as the reader, holding on that much tighter to the quiet and beautiful moments experienced by the main group of characters who must traverse this fascinating, yet deadly world that sits as a post-apocalyptic version of the country of Sudan.
The main character, Onyesonwu’s very existence is a troubling one. Her conception is the result of her mother being the victim of violent depredation and dark magic by a twisted sorcerer named Daib. A child of such an act is, from birth, seen as less than, vile even by others. An Ewu, as used by the fictional Okeke and Nuru people. Neither her mother nor her own life are free of hardship and persecution, no matter where they go, due to the physical characteristics that come with being Ewu.
It’s not long into her life before Onyesonwu realizes that she’s connected much more to her biological father than just through genetics. Her hate for what he did and continues to do through conquest, transitions to her wanting to learn the necessary knowledge needed to kill him and enact revenge. Her tutelage in the arcane and her relationship with the otherworldly provide context to just how dangerous this proposition is for such a young girl. But her life has never been easy. Even without her Ewu lineage, Okeke women like her and her mother are discriminated against by the Nuru people for their darker skin and differing culture. But she doesn’t run from these problems; and neither does she shy away from the peculiar and occult that she learns to manipulate and travel within. Indeed, she runs toward it, for better or worse. This basis forms the crux of the narrative throughout the rest of the story.
I actually don’t want to spoil too much of the plot. The narrative is told from Onyesonwu’s perspective; and while her interactions with others produce dialogue and explanation to what surrounding characters are thinking, you’re left in the dark on what their true intent could be. Just like real life. People with good intentions can fall short of being what you need in difficult times. On the flip-side, those we once thought of as enemies can become great allies.
She is a flawed character: impulsive, full of rage and hate for her circumstances in life, sometimes bull-headed, and a person who, early on, can shirk the feelings of others in place of her own thoughts. But knowledge breeds wisdom; and with her travels and encounters with others, her perspective begins to broaden and refine. Especially through love. Onyesonwu is capable of maternal instinct, respect for her elders, unabashed love, and consideration for those who have sacrificed so much to stay in lockstep with her to see her intentions manifested. Her growth is fascinating in retrospect, especially given her knowledge early on of how her journey will end.
Continuing to conquer my goal for consuming way more written media in 2018, I have become a new fan of Nnedi Okorafor and plan on reading the breadth of her work as the year goes on. Her perspective, as a Nigerian-American very much in tune with her culture, provides a fresh viewpoint to someone like me, a black American, with limited knowledge of Africa and the plethora of cultures contained within that massive continent. But I’m hoping to learn more.
Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Octavia Butler are three names you will be hearing more about from me. Like the backdrop of the amazing worlds created in fiction, the writers and creators of these stories should be just as diverse. It’s needed for the genres of fantasy and science fiction to challenge us with voices you may not have heard talking about topics you never would’ve considered.
Until next time.