Cross Over, Pass Through, Overcome: On Nnedi Okorafor’s “Like Thunder”

By Jonathan P. LewisDecember 2, 2023

Cross Over, Pass Through, Overcome: On Nnedi Okorafor’s “Like Thunder”

Like Thunder: The Desert Magician’s Duology by Nnedi Okorafor

NNEDI OKORAFOR’S WORK consistently engages with themes of change and transformation. Like the fiction of Franz Kafka, her stories address how forces outside our control put us into transformative situations and how we might respond to them. Unlike in Kafka’s dark imaginings, however, Okorafor’s characters rise to meet their challenges through innovation, augmentation, and resilience—often with the support of family and clan. Change sometimes occurs through technological innovations, often inherited by her characters from their ancestors. But change nearly always leads to liberation in Okorafor’s works, and her newest novel is no exception in that regard. Like Thunder is an excellent demonstration of her gifts as a novelist: it is inventive, fast-paced, and deeply concerned with difficult journeys to self-discovery, as well as the transformative costs of such adventures.

Often in Okorafor’s writing, change is catalyzed through trauma: the titular character in Binti (2015), for example, is attacked by an alien race, the Meduse, and injected with their genetics, which changes her carefully braided plaits into tentacles the Meduse call “okuoko.” Later, after sacrificing herself to save her family during the Meduse-Khoush war on Earth, Binti is reborn with an additional set of genes from a whale-like creature that travels through space.

Other times in Okorafor’s fiction, change emerges through the discovery of inner strength or hidden talents. Binti’s use of technology, for example, allows her to connect to her roots among the “Desert People” who have been implementing bioengineering for communication beyond Earth for centuries. In these ways, Okorafor’s work consistently confronts preconceptions of the “backwardness” of Africa with the disdain and derision those ideas deserve. Her Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism are movements of celebration—of the continent’s rich past and its burgeoning futures, of its peoples’ strengths, inventiveness, creativity, and passionate optimism. At the same time, her work does not forget the crimes inflicted on Africans in the past, the civil wars and coups fomented by colonial forces, nor the potential for further incursions by outsiders looking to strip more of Africa’s riches from its peoples.

Okorafor’s fiction is transformational: it consistently emphasizes the importance of modifying attitudes and overcoming prejudices Westerners might hold, even unconsciously, about African peoples and places. In this sense, “trans-” may be her work’s most important prefix, as it carries a multivalent meaning: etymologically, it gestures toward phenomena that move “across, beyond, through,” or toward “the other side of,” signifying things that “cross over, pass through, [or] overcome.” Okorafor consistently writes characters who find themselves in some position to overcome. When they do so, they are amazing—like Haifa, a character in Binti: Home (2017) who was born male but started transitioning at age 13 to become a woman. Perhaps suggesting that Binti’s journey will ultimately make her whole and happy, Haifa is portrayed in the text as a gifted, joyful athlete, enthralled and delighted by what her body can do. She sprints uphill bearing Binti’s baggage to the spaceport, then performs backflips and other gymnastic feats with ease.

We can trace this feeling of overcoming throughout Okorafor’s work: it is observable in the Desert Magician’s Duology, which includes her early doctoral novel Shadow Speaker (2007) and now its sequel, Like Thunder (2023). These novels illustrate how Okorafor’s works of Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism reject victimhood in favor of power and achievement. Part of the backstory to Shadow Speaker is the “Great Change” that occurred when nuclear war broke out on Earth and impacted the other known worlds; in response, a Haitian man named Dieuri created and employed devices known as “Peace Bombs,” weapons that countered the nuclear bombs but caused changes of their own. The planet became more fertile and greener with the impact of the Peace Bombs and through connections to the other five known worlds. On Earth, people mutated, and children were born with physical and mental changes. The “Changed” emerged as a means to end conflict and war based on physical differences.

In Shadow Speaker, the main character, a young woman named Ejii, changes as she matures and experiences her life with her father’s assassin (and then her mentor), Jaa, on Earth and on the planet Ginen (again, that transformative sense of “overcoming” is paramount in Okorafor’s work). Ejii’s death serves as the ultimate transformation, carrying over from this life to the next or into nothingness. Another of Okorafor’s characters, Phoenix, provides a similar transportation, invoking the myth of death in fire and rebirth as she escapes from the captors who radically engineered her mind and body, enraging and motivating her to exert change—and exact revenge—upon the world.

Ejii undergoes a test of her strength and mental abilities that prepare her for the next stages of her life. The death of Dikéogu, by contrast, is a public lie told by his parents, who are ashamed of his status as a Changed person. He must face their hatred of him, so complete that they would tell the world, through their immensely popular online news networks, that they have no son. The Change also brings with it the return of the ethnic slur “cockroach,” common in real places like Rwanda, Palestine, and Eastern Europe, where genocides have been perpetrated. With the word comes the belief that those who have been changed—Ejii and Dikéogu among them—should be killed.

It is here where we can see the most profound impact of the Desert Magician’s Duology and the greater set of works in Okorafor’s Ginen Universe: the terrible processes and costs of dehumanization and scapegoating. Ejii is marked by her catlike eyes, which are an inhuman gold color, and by her ability to communicate with extrahuman spirits in the shadows. She often wears a veil or burka to hide her eyes and pass undetected. Dikéogu, as a child slave working in cacao plantations in Niger, was physically scarred and marked with facial tattoos. As with Binti’s okuoko, Dikéogu knows he cannot escape judgment and prejudice when people see his scars and tattoos, but he comes to use them as a warning to those who hate the Changed and who mean him and his friends harm. He is also able to bring rain, wind, and lightning under his control, and takes advantage of his powers to free children from the plantations and destroy those who enslaved him. He is driven to kill Chief Ette of Ginen for his role in the death of Dikéogu’s first love and for his reign of terror on Earth.

Overall, Like Thunder provides yet another example of Okorafor’s gift for compelling narrative. The framing narrator, the Desert Magician himself, like Udide the Spider Goddess in the ongoing Nsibidi Scripts series, is a trickster figure—dependable at times, dangerous to cross, and continually beguiling. One hopes that he will continue to appear in other novels in the Ginen Universe.

But Okorafor’s latest work clearly shows that she is stretching herself as a writer. Through Dikéogu’s voice, she demonstrates a deft understanding of the struggles of young men as they try to find themselves in the world, grasp what their partners might be going through and might want from them, and discover constructive outlets for their emotions. For Dikéogu, the journey into maturity requires that he confront his parents, his history of violence, and his powers. All told, his story complements Ejii’s journey in Shadow Speaker magnificently, and Like Thunder is strongly recommended.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan P. Lewis, PhD, is an associate professor of English at Troy University, where he teaches science fiction, fantasy, American and world literatures, and composition.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!