Nnedi Okorafor’s many books include the World Fantasy Award–winning Who Fears Death, which is being adapted into an HBO series coproduced with George R.R. Martin. She also contributed to Future Tense Fiction (Unnamed, Oct.), which PW’s starred review called a “dynamic, dud-free anthology of 14 short stories written by some of speculative fiction’s greats.” Here, Okorafor discusses her first graphic novel, LaGuardia, illustrated by Tana Ford and published by Dark Horse in July. Click here for a 12-page excerpt. “Like the best sci-fi,” PW’s review said, “the storytelling speaks to the heart of current debates.”
What’s the significance of the book’s semi-fictional setting, LaGuardia International—and Interstellar—Airport?
This is a project I’d been kicking around for six or seven years, after an incident at LaGuardia. I have very long, thick, free-form dreadlocks, almost to the ground, and I wear them wrapped in a bun on top of my head. The TSA scanners are racist machines—people with African hair get extra scanning. And sure enough, they stopped me after a full pat down, they squeezed my bun, and an officer asked me to unroll all my hair and squeezed my dreadlocks from scalp to tip. The irony is that there was a can of mace forgotten in my bag, which they didn’t test because they were too busy rifling through my hair. I was so angry, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. The story came out of that anger.
LaGuardia deals with all kinds of othering—citizen vs. undocumented, human vs. alien, animal vs. plant. What does this dichotomy mean to you?
I’m the child of immigrants; my Nigerian parents came here in 1969. The story of immigration, movement, and staying is the dialogue across the book. LaGuardia deals with these issues in many layers. It starts in Nigeria, which is ground zero for where the aliens arrive, the place of first contact. The aliens are interstellar immigrants, and they’re people with a capital P—they’re different, but they’re peaceful. Human issues start to seem smaller, because the populace is more complicated. Civilization is more, not less, because they’ve arrived, and humans need to get used to it. This is what science fiction is so good at—it makes us look at ourselves through a different lens.
A number of books this season seem to be responding to the current moment. How did contemporary events shape this work?
The U.S. has a very insular feel. To Americans, America is the world, and what we think here is what everyone should and will think. In the U.S., a lot of the views toward immigrants stem from viewing other people as alien, as strange, as threats. LaGuardia opens that up and makes a lot of it literal. Let’s say these aliens do have some abilities superior to yours. Let’s say they can do things you can’t, or can take some of your job. Would we really be worse off?
This was written before the travel ban. It’s a direct response to the strife in Southeast Nigeria amongst Igbo groups that identify as pro-Biafra. Most American readers are not going to know this history. The Nigerian Civil War was terrible, it was genocide, and it haunts every single Nigerian—everyone has a story.
Is LaGuardia a call to action?
I wasn’t thinking that when I wrote it, but I hope that it plants a seed. I hope it will point to the complexity of immigration—the movement of different people around the world. Different doesn’t mean bad, and it doesn’t mean a threat. We need to embrace the differences, rather than being afraid of them.