APRIL 13, 2016
“This wasn’t the first invasion of Nigeria, after all.”
NNEDI OKORAFOR has risen as a leader of an expanding group of black women writers crafting what I term fluid fiction — a genre of literature that purposely blurs the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and horror in a manner that mirrors how black women confound the delineations between race, gender, and sexuality. Ms. Okorafor and her fellow writers (such as Nalo Hopkinson, N. K. Jemisin, Chesya Burke, and Nisi Shawl) produce works that destabilize mainstream genre fiction as they fight historical invisibility and become notable presences on their own terms. Okorafor, a rising star in genre fiction, establishes her eminence with the release of The Book of Phoenix and the American release of Lagoon within a three-month period. Okorafor’s strengths lie in her vast abilities to weave worlds organically grounded in West African-based cosmologies. Nigerian-American Okorafor’s considerable talent as a storyteller allows her to portray the richness of the African diaspora even as she exposes the limits Western modernity has placed upon the imaginations of her characters and her readers.
Lagoon, previously only available in the United Kingdom, centers on the possibilities of an alien invasion in Lagos, Nigeria, a premise that might seem far-fetched to those immersed in American and British film and television, where aliens are only allowed to invade New York City, Los Angeles, and London. Lagos, the African continent’s most populous city, sits by the sea and is surrounded by the waters of the Lagos Lagoon. Okorafor has said that this novel was inspired by her anger and frustration with Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 alien invasion film District 9 (I suspect it was the Nigerian drug lords/cannibals that finally did her patience in). Okorafor’s righteous anger at Blomkamp’s problematic racial constructions sparks a supernatural story of hope, redemption, patriotism, and love. The plot centers on two Nigerians — Adaora (a marine biologist) and Agu (a soldier) — and a Ghanian named Anthony (a famous singer/rapper). These three embark on an adventure that weaves together classic elements of genre fiction. Science fiction manifests through alien invasions and cities that occupy the ocean floor while elements of horror are portrayed in multiple violent attacks from mutated marine life. Finally, the alien’s incarnations of old Nigerian folk characters such as masquerades, Yoruban trickster gods, and the water witch Mami Wata provide elements of fantasy through a West African lens. The plot gains momentum when the three protagonists are drawn to Bar Beach, where they are abducted to serve as caretakers and guides for the alien ambassador, Ayodele.
The aliens are not deceptive creatures, Ayodele and (later) her companions speak freely and openly about who they are: “We are technology, Mr. President. And no, we are not easily manipulated.” They are also direct about what they want: “We do not want to rule, colonize, conquer, or take. We just want a home. What is it you want?” It is this final question that grounds the overarching ideas explored in the novel: the harsh recognition that human beings have no idea what they want and are wholly uncomfortable with change, sudden or otherwise. Okorafor encourages the reader to realize that the aliens are not the true threat — it is human nature that is the monster, as demonstrated by the numerous blunders of the all too human Nigerian populace.
“You are evil!” Zena shouted from behind him.
“I am not,” Ayodele said flatly. “I am change”
The aliens in Lagoon embody change. Their superior technologies and ability to heal humans and shapeshift into multiple beings affects every living creature in Lagos — from the swordfish in the sea to the bats hurling through the air to the tarantula scurrying across the highway to the citizens of Lagos, with whom we spend the most time as Ayodele forecasts The Arrival. Okorafor articulates the experience of the alien invasion and its ramifications from an almost Dickensian number of character viewpoints. We meet Father Oke, a corrupt preacher who views Ayodele as an opportunity to gain more money and influence over an even larger flock of parishioners; Chris, Adaora’s paranoid husband and a new convert to Father Oke’s flock who becomes increasingly convinced his marine specialist wife is a water witch in disguise; Maziz, Jacob, and their crew of 419 boys (419 is the Nigerian penal code for those offenders who make money by preying on others by email fishing) who see dollar signs as they plan to abduct Ayodele for a large ransom; and finally, the Nigerian President, who earnestly yearns to do what’s best for the people of his nation even as he remains hesitant to embrace the true change Ayodele and her comrades offer.
Lagoon establishes Okorafor as the inheritor of the mantle of Wole Soyinka, the celebrated Nigerian novelist whose themes center on the infinite beauty and destructive politics of his beloved country. Like Soyinka, Okorafor presents a withering critique of Nigeria’s governmental corruption — an issue about which even the fictional President feels defeated — as well as the steadily unsettling threat of the military and street criminals: in this novel the Area Boys, whose rampages on the night of the invasion further endanger the already shaken citizens of Lagos fleeing the city. Even as Okorafor revivifies Soyinka’s sociopolitical criticism, her abiding love for Lagos is uncompromising, as illustrated by her confidence that the people of Nigeria are the key to the success of the country. In the end, Lagoon is a love story to Nigeria and its peoples, as well as a prediction that peace and prosperity will come only when the remembrance of the old ways are merged with an acceptance of the new.
“And then I realized the meaning of my name.”
— The Book of Phoenix
With The Book of Phoenix Okorafor establishes herself as an inheritor of Octavia Butler, as well. Okorafor’s central protagonist in this book, Phoenix, recalls Lilith from Dawn (1987), Dana from Kindred (1979), or even Lynn from “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987): she is a black woman who has been called to leadership, compassion, and even revolution amidst extraordinary circumstances. Phoenix is a speciMen, an “accelerated woman” that has been constructed as a weapon by the Big Eye Corporation, a literal panopticon controlled by the corporatized government of this alternative universe. Phoenix possesses the abilities of her namesake: she can self-destruct at will, obliterating everything in her path, only to reappear days later, reborn anew to live, fight, and die again. Phoenix is spurred to rebellion by the death of her friend and chaste love, Saeed. Initially, she is a reluctant fighter but as she develops knowledge of both herself and the heinous crimes of Big Eye, Phoenix leaves a path of vengeful destruction that illuminates larger themes of globalization, the exploitation of marginalized peoples, and — just as in Lagoon — the potential of past knowledge to provide guidance for contemporary struggles. The Book of Phoenix also serves as a prequel for Okorafor’s best-selling novel, Who Fears Death (2010).
“…I was alive and reveling in it. The rush of air caressed my sensitive wings. I felt my blood reach every part of my body. The buoyancy of the warm air was like the hand of something that loved me.”
— The Book of Phoenix
The larger themes of rebellion, civil rights, and economic accountability do not get in the way of The Book of Phoenix taking the reader along on one hell of a fun ride. Readers slip in and out of time, space, and dimensions as Phoenix breaks into different Big Eye facilities to free other captives of the corporation. During the fight for freedom we meet other kinds of speciMen, including beings made of nanotechnology who are able to walk through any form of matter and children with regenerative properties whose parts are literally harvested for the wealthy. Most refreshingly, Phoenix’s journey gives readers an opportunity to figuratively grow wings and fly along with her. Okorafor established her fascination with black girls flying in her very first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker (2008), a young adult fairy tale. Her fascination with flight has only grown, and our travels with Phoenix bring nuance to the exhilaration and annoyances of having such a large wingspan. We feel the pain of the stumps breaking through the skin of Phoenix’s back, we experience the joy of coasting upon the salty air as she traverses the Atlantic Ocean. We are crowded and uncomfortable when Phoenix is forced to hide her wings under a burka to blend in with humanity and finally, we marvel as she discovers that her wings develop deeper shades of red and gold each time she returns from the ashes of destruction. Okorafor’s talent continues to mesmerize her ever-growing number of readers as she builds verdant new worlds around us, as in Lagoon and returns to old ones with The Book of Phoenix. Okorafor has earned her place on the list of writers whose work I entrust to ferry me along anywhere she so chooses.