Nnedi Okorafor’s gentle demeanor is so disarming that it’s impossible not to relax in her company. The Chicago State University professor has a sweet smile, three graduate degrees, numerous awards and prize nominations for her writing, and a razor-sharp mind that is changing the face of speculative fiction. The latter soon becomes apparent when the discussion turns to genocide, rape, female circumcision, fantasy, and Nigerian culture.
Born in the U.S. to Nigerian immigrants, Okorafor, 36, grew up in the same suburb of Chicago where she now resides with her own daughter. As a child, she was mostly interested in sports and the sciences, dreaming of becoming an entomologist, but she was always fond of reading, and by age 12, she found her mind had been “corrupted by genius white male storytellers” like Stephen King and Clive Barker. “I was working my way through the library reading whatever caught my eye,” Okorafor recalls fondly. “I read a lot of books that I definitely had no business reading at that age.” A writing class in college sparked her creativity and while obtaining an M.A. in journalism and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English, Okorafor began to write the stories she always wanted to read.
Okorafor’s books feature the cultural and social touchstones of her youth: Nigeria, strong girls and women, and the strange, beautiful lives of plants and insects. The YA novel Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), which won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, is a classic magical quest set in a world in which Earth is a legend and everything from clothing to computers grows from seeds. In the Parallax Award—winning The Shadow Speaker, her second YA, a Muslim teen in West Africa must avert interplanetary war.
Okorafor’s first adult novel, Who Fears Death (DAW Books), combines science fiction and fantasy in the story of Onyesonwu, a young sorceress making her way in a postapocalyptic future Saharan Africa where men use rape as a tool to eradicate a culture on the genetic level. “Who Fears Death addresses the push and pull in African culture that powerful women face when their culture has certain duties and beliefs that can stifle them,” Okorafor says.
As she channels the past, present, and future into one complex tale, Okorafor walks a fine line between sincere respect and unstinting examination of tradition: mixing futuristic technology with magic rooted in the beliefs of Nigerian, Tanzanian, and other African cultures, exploring why many women willingly practice female circumcision and see it as a necessary rite of passage even as others find it horrific. These somber themes seem a drastic departure from her previous work, but Okorafor refuses to gloss over the realities on which she builds her fiction. “What initially brought me Onyesonwu’s character,” she explains, “was reading a Washington Post news story: ' “We Want to Make a Light Baby”: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing.’ I wondered what these children would be like, what would their struggles be, how would they survive, who would they grow up to be. And that’s when Onyesonwu came to me to tell her story.” Okorafor adds, “I am not trying to be shocking or exceedingly graphic. Onyesonwu’s story was told to me in just this way and she is not one to tell lies, embellish, or mince words.”
Okorafor’s upcoming projects include a YA novel that Penguin will publish in 2011, Akata Witch, with a focus on the tension between African-Americans and Africans as well as “deep, deep Nigerian witchcraft”; two screenplays in collaboration with award-winning Nigerian film director Tchidi Chikere; and a science fiction novella set in Nigeria. She also has plans for another adult novel. “I’ll know what that one is about when I start writing it,” Okorafor says. “When it comes, it’ll come like a tidal wave.”