Tina Makereti introduced Nnedi Okorafor beautifully, as somebody who brings “a kete overflowing with stories.” Nnedi has written works for adults, youth and children – a tweeter reviewed her work as “like swallowing the sun.”
Nnedi wasn’t always going to be a writer, unlike several of the writers I have seen this writer’s week. The likes of Simon Winchester, Patrick Gale – they always went towards that as a journey , from an assumed privileged background – even Mallory Ortberg. For Nnedi, her first love was athletics. She and her sister toured the USA playing Tennis as kids and teens, and their parents were both Olympic-level athletes. She became a writer after an operation she had for scoliosis led to her being paralysed aged 19 – there was a 1% chance this would happen.
As she learned to walk again, she stopped herself from going insane by writing stories. She went back to university, dropped Sciences and took a Creative Writing course – it was that which started her journey. She feels that her early life as an athlete was accidentally good training for her particular style of magical realism. As an athlete, you come close to having supernatural senses about physical things – as a writer she could use this to create realistic superpowers.
Her Nigerian upbringing was very much a part of her life experience – her parents would take her back frequently throughout her childhood. She said, “When I sat down and wrote these stories, I see the world through my unique perspective, as a NigeAmerican” The barriers between life and afterlife are a lot more fluid for the Igbo people.
“One of the things that pushed me to start writing (I read books like I eat candy) was my life as reader. Once I could read, I would at any time I wasn’t on the tennis court or on the track.” She couldn’t see herself in a story – she thinks every reader deserves to have stories where they are the main character, and also where they aren’t. Writing, for her, was a way to fill in the blanks she had found in literature. These blanks were mainly in the area of writing about strong, complex, feminine characters. She says, “I wanted to see them making mistakes – doing wonderful, and also terrible things.” Like so many writers, she was telling stories she wanted to read.
I read one of her books to prepare for this – Lagoon – which has the fantastic character of Adaora, a marine biologist that becomes one of the first humans to meet the aliens that have landed in the Atlanti, going underwater from Bar Beach in Lagos. She and her luck-met companions all have superpowers of a type, that they must use as a group to change the world to allow these aliens to live peacefully.
She was surprised but grateful for the response: “Finally, I am reading this type of character.” Nnedi says that she is grateful to connect with so many people, through this character.
Nnedi read a hugely powerful piece from Who Fears Death – it took her six years to write, because she had to overcome the death of her father, which had initially prompted the prologue. The book she wrote first was too long, and it was quite a long journey to get it published.
As I mentioned earlier, Nnedi refers to herself as NigeAmerican – she likes to put this together and make a new word, because it is a metaphor for how she sees herself. She has always been on a lot of borders, through being bookish and athletic. She is an insider and an outsider, and an ‘other’. She has a different history from African-Americans (those descended from the stolen people), and was always not quite accepted by them as equal in experience. Meanwhile, in Nigeria she was called oyibo, which means ‘white’. She thinks this may have led to her to write science fiction: trying to go outside the roles, and outside the demarcations.
She was incredibly frustrated that Nigerians were portrayed as outlaws in District 9 – the first science-fiction blockbuster to be set in Africa. Lagoon was written in response to this portrayal, to write the wrongs. When writing Lagoon, about aliens coming to Lagos – she wanted to see everybody’s reactions. She wrote from fragments of perspective, rather than deep inside one voice, which is usual for her. “I see all of Earth’s creatures are people.” The tale was from the voice of spiders, spirits, very enlightened bats, and so much more. She had noticed that first contact narratives always begin with aliens interacting with human beings – Lagoon begins with contact with a (soon to be giant) swordfish.
Sitting in this session was fascinating. It made me think more deeply about race, identity and gender. Nnedi is a powerful speaker, and a fantastic presence. She will appear again tomorrow at at 9.30am in Bats, at ‘Three Soul Writers’, with Janie Chang and Tina Makereti. Go along and hear from three magical writers.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist
2pm, Bats as part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week
Writer’s Week goes all weekend – get your tickets here!
by Nnedi Okorafor
Published by Hodder