Nnedi Okorafor, Shared Worlds' 2011 Amazon Guest Author
Congratulations to Nnedi Okorafor, our Amazon.com Visiting Writer for 2011! As the article below suggests Shared Worlds was a great success this year. Thanks to all of the students and to our faculty, staff, and guest writers, and especially to SW’s founder Jeremy L.C. Jones and director of summer camps Timothy Schmitz. Thanks to Amazon.com for their generous grant and to all of the publishers who contributed free books this year.
SHARED WORLDS’ AMAZON.COM VISITING WRITER NNEDI OKORAFOR: UNIQUE FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION FEATURING COURAGEOUS CHARACTERS
Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor visited Shared Worlds 2011 from July 19th until July 21st as Amazon.com's visiting writer. Okorafor’s books include Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Seeker, Long Juju Man, Who Fears Death, and her latest, Akata Witch.
Rooted deeply in Igbo mythology and modern-day Nigerian masquerades, Akata Witch tells the story of an albino named Sunny and her discovery of magic, inter-dimensional travel, shape-changing, and other secrets that will most certainly change her world. Like all of Okorafor’s fiction, Akata Witch is rich with vibrant details, strange creatures, and brave but flawed characters.
In person, Okorafor sounds perpetually excited and infinitely intrigued by the people and world around her. A professor of English at Chicago State University, she is an experienced teacher who discussed her fiction, world-building, and writing in large group presentations and small group discussions at Wofford College as part of the Shared Worlds SF/F teen writing camp. She also gave a public reading at Hub City Bookstore in downtown Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
Much of what Okorafor writes stems from her fascination with the natural world and from her personal fears and anxieties. Okorafor is known for vivid descriptions of extraordinary settings and for courageous protagonists who often live with “physical abnormalities.”
“If it scares you to write it, then you should definitely write it,” said Okorafor. “[My fiction] is full of moments and situations that I wanted to pull back from or skip over. I didn't want to look at certain issues, practices, or situations. But I knew that if I was feeling that way then that's where the good stuff was, so I faced it.”
Just as Okorafor faces her fears, so do her protagonists. Take, for instance Ejii of The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah of Zahrah the Windseeker.
“They're both really brave girls,” said Okorafor. “With Zahrah, you see her go into that forbidden forest. She cries and sulks and flees from things, etc., but I remember thinking as I wrote her story that I could never do what she did. Have you ever been in a forest at night? Imagine it. Deep in an enormous really wild forest, away from civilization, alone, seeking out something terrible as opposed to running from it. This girl chooses to do this on her own. That's totally insane! I love it.”
In Akata Witch, Sunny’s albinism makes simply being outdoors in the sun a challenge. Venturing into a world of witches, juju, and magic is no small challenge, either. Further still, she must use her newly acquired skills to hunt down a particularly vicious serial killer.
Growing up, Okorafor was “sort of an outcast in multiple communities… with little interest in ‘fitting in.'” These days she writes of characters at odds with society—characters willing to look fear in the eye and overcome, regardless of cost.
“Ejii is a bit more hardcore than Zahrah,” said Okorafor. “I especially learned this when I wrote the early scene where she gets in a fist fight with her cousin (who was a boy about her age). This was not an innocent fight. It was absolutely vicious. And in getting into it, Ejii was throwing off all the cultural baggage that normally should have stopped her from doing such a thing. She eventually, by her own choice, goes out into a dangerous environment—in this case a post-apocalyptic Sahara Desert. She, too, possesses a deep, deep courage.”
Born in the United States to Igbo parents, Okorafor’s draws inspiration from her parents’ homeland— Nigeria—and from Chicago, where she has lived since she was six.
“Living in the suburbs of Chicago gave me lots of space and a lot of empty weed-filled lots to explore,” Okorafor said. “It's in these empty lots, forest preserves and nature centers that I cultivated my love for flora and fauna.”
Okorafor often transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.
“I see the world as an exotic place,” said Okorafor. “I still maintain a sense of wonder when I look around me, I guess. I've been like this since I was a kid. I tap into this when I write and describe things. I'm drawing from observations I've made of things in real life.”
Her writing is weird without being convoluted, strange with a purpose, and somehow both lush and efficient. She thrives on delightful juxtapositions and brutal hypocrisies. Her post-apocalyptic settings, for instance, resonate not only with hope but a love for the natural world.
“I love the idea of the earth rebelling,” said Okorafor. “I love the idea of human beings having no clue [what] is going on. I love the idea of the laws of physics going haywire. Human begins seek to control, they seek to be at the top of their self-created hierarchy, above all creatures. We're arrogant as [heck] even though we don't know what's going on half the time. Also, I have an obsession with chaos and destruction. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, sudden, unexpected horrible change. Writing it is my way of facing it.
“The post-apocalyptic world that Ejii lives in is my worst nightmare. There is little control or predictability. People can't even predict the weather. The weather forecasts have to come with the reminder that it is N.I.U.F, ‘Not Including Unpredictable Factors.’ In Ejii's world, one must learn to move with the earth, by its rules to survive, as opposed to forcing the earth to conform to one's own rules as we do today. This makes for a different kind of story and different kinds of characters.”
Okorafor writes spontaneously. Characters and stories just happen. And no matter how fantastical they may get, they are very real to her—and to the reader.
"When a story comes to me, I have to write it or it won't let me rest," Okorafor said. "The characters are real to me. I hear their voices. Their actions affect me. The places I write about exist. I've felt the sting of their sand storms and smelled their forests. The creatures really do bite, snarl, sing, spit, sting, etc. When I'm writing, I'm there and I enjoy being there."
It took Okorafor eight years to write Who Fears Death, which was nominated last month for the World Fantasy Award.
“When I wrote Who Fears Death, I had no outline. It was inspired by the passing of my father,” Okorafor said. “Seeing his body at the wake was traumatic. I was alone with the body at one point and feeling an immense amount of emotion that I felt could destroy everything in the room.”
Instead of allowing that immense amount of energy to destroy, Okorafor used it to create a challenging and beautiful novel of great power. Who Fears Death and Akata Witch show Okorafor at her best, blending the past with the present in order to imagine a future that expands the possibilities of fantastical literature. Not only is her writing pushing the boundaries and shaping the future of the genre, her teaching is influencing the next generation. Shared Worlds and Amazon.com were proud to host her as a visiting writer at Shared Worlds 2011.
Nnedi Okorafor's newest novel, Akata Witch, from Penguin Books, is in stores now.