So Much More Than Nigerian Harry Potter: On Nnedi Okorafor’s “Akata Woman”
By Jonathan P. LewisMay 20, 2022
Akata Woman by Nnedi Okorafor
Unlike Rowling’s Wizarding World of Muggles and Wizards, Okorafor’s Lambs and Leopards both exist in the broader society of Nigeria and the world without any ridiculous notions that Leopards do not understand the Lamb world. Okorafor’s Lambs are also complicated and challenging characters in their own right, not buffoonish, moronic caricatures like Rowling’s Dursleys. For example, where Akata Witch and Akata Warrior were especially concerned with protagonist Sunny Nwazue’s balancing act between the two worlds, in Akata Woman she uses advanced juju to float away from her family’s home, but not without considerable resistance from her Lamb father, who only wants a “normal” daughter. At the same time, as in Akata Warrior, Sunny feels the strong pull of family through her brothers and their safety among the Lambs.
As demonstrated in all three volumes of the Nsibidi Scripts series thus far, however, Sunny is anything but normal: headstrong, independent, and powerful, but also fearful of what she faces, especially in the journey toward her second-level rite of juju in this novel. Unlike Potter, for much of the series Sunny’s life and position as a Leopard are under real threat and success is far less assured. Sunny also depends far more on her wits and abilities than does Harry. Further, as an albino girl, she faces cultural challenges in Nigeria where traditional beliefs hold her as neither Black nor white, but as a liminal, nonhuman, reduced to the slur “akata.”
Building on such critiques in the second volume, Akata Woman again probes the contemporary Nigerian society and patriarchal systems more generally. In Akata Warrior, Okorafor drew attention to vicious Nigerian Confraternities, as Sunny’s brother is nearly killed by one such group. These secret societies have been linked to potentially hundreds of murders in Nigeria, and Sunny’s breach of Leopard law in using juju to save her brother has severe consequences. Despite this, Sunny gladly suffers real penalties to save her family from harm.
In Akata Woman, Okorafor’s critiques are most pointed in her portrayal of the fraught relationship between Sunny and her father, a strict and traditional Nigerian father whose actions toward Sunny in this novel speak to Okorafor’s depictions of resisting women and girls throughout her work, including Binti and the recent publications Remote Control and Noor. In Binti, the deep connections and pull toward home that the titular Himba girl feels grows ever stronger as she ventures into the galaxy’s greatest university, and she returns quite a different character — stronger by leaps and bounds through her adventures.
By contrast, what, we might ask, is Hermione Granger’s journey in Potter? She is an honorable character — especially in her fight for the rights of the repressed house-elves — but what does Hermione gain from her friendships with Ron and Harry? Does she grow? Not really — she seems to settle for Ron as husband and father of her children, but the passion she shows for the elves and for wizarding law in general fades in ways that Sunny’s passion for the safety of Lamb children that drives her does not.
Further, the other members of Sunny’s oha coven, her three friends Chichi, Orlu, and the other American-born Leopard, Sasha, are strong characters with compelling arcs. Orlu, in particular, is dyslexic, and throughout the novels his disability is valued because he can reverse juju. That, however, is not his only trait — he is an interesting character in his own right. Chichi’s and Sunny’s positions as Nimm Warriors, descendants of long lines of fierce women, also positions them as struggling with the idea of inheritance and birthright, both positive and negative — they are not simply born to the line, but they are held responsible for the actions of previous generations, especially by the great trickster god, Udide.
In Akata Warrior, the Nsibidi Scripts series first introduces Okorafor’s younger readers to the great weaver of tales, the spider god Udide (who is the narrator of sections of Okorafor’s first contact novel, Lagoon). In Akata Warrior, Sunny receives assistance in her journey from Udide in exchange for her story. In Akata Woman, Udide demands reciprocity in the form of Sunny returning a ghazal stolen from Udide by Sunny’s friend. Udide is impatient and angry, and the novel’s pace and sense of danger in Sunny’s quest are genuinely exciting, as is the further development of Sunny’s character and the greater Leopard world. Udide demands restitution, and Sunny’s heritage and desire for greater knowledge of juju presses her deeper into this quest.
Further, Sunny’s journey into adulthood in Akata Woman is far more nuanced and introspective than Harry’s. Sunny must confront real repercussions of her temper, including solitary confinement in the library’s basement and the increasing sense that her liminal position as a woman in Nigeria is more than just natural talent and proving herself to boys on the soccer pitch through hard work. Further, as a Nimm Warrior, she inherits not just the ability to enter their spaces, but, like Chichi, she must rectify the debts incurred by the previous generations, not simply bask in the glory of coming from a line of great Quidditch players.
Finally, where romance in Potter feels forced to fit the later goals of the series, here, a burgeoning love between Sunny and Orlu is sweetly, slowly developing in the face of the incredible dangers Sunny and her friends must navigate to satisfy Udide. This romance is satisfying for being awkward and furtive, not unlike so many first loves.
Overall, Akata Woman is a fine addition to Okorafor’s Nsibidi Scripts series and should appeal to fantasy readers of all ages for its deep social commentary, deft use of folklore, and rich characterizations.
Jonathan P. Lewis is an associate professor of English at Troy University, where he teaches science fiction, fantasy, American and world literatures, and composition.
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