SF Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
“I’ve always been fascinated by candles. Looking into the flame calms me down. Here in Nigeria, PHC is always taking the lights, so I keep candles in my room just in case. PHC stands for “Power Holding Company of Nigeria,” but people like to say it really stands for “Please Hold Candles in Nigeria.” Back in Chicago we had ConEd, and the electricity was always working. Not here, though. Not yet. Maybe in the future.” – from Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
When I sat down to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor last December, the power went out. Literally, the moment I finished reading the above passage, the very first two paragraphs of the prologue, my house went dark. I didn’t need a candle to keep reading. I dimmed the background light on my e-book and kept going. Yet, I can’t deny a moment’s hesitation. I felt something significant had happened. This book was going to be special.
Our power outage lasted nine hours which, in the dead of a Saskatchewan winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, is a little unsettling. I stayed up later than usual, waiting for the heat to come back, reading the story of Sunny—a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who discovers she is a Leopard Person, a person with natural magical talents—and eventually, I had to crawl into bed with my own children while the house got colder and colder around us. I fell asleep thinking about magic.
Magic is what brought me to Akata Witch, somewhat indirectly. But I’ll get back to that.
I first read about the author, Nnedi Okorafor last year when I belatedly realized that October was Black Speculative Fiction Month, and I read a slew of articles recommending books and authors who are often overlooked in the genre. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death was on nearly every one of them.
For reasons I don’t recall, I never ended up downloading Who Fears Death, but I did download Akata Witch and Binti—a SF novella about a young woman who gives up her life on earth for a prestigious opportunity to study at the intergallactically famous Oozma University. Now, I have said I don’t recall why I downloaded these two other works and I didn’t download the much-lauded Who Fears Death, but in retrospect I think I can guess. Let me explain.
The realization that there was a Black Speculative Fiction Month came with the dual realization that there was Black Speculative Fiction. Not just that there were black SF writers which, as a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemison and others, I was aware of—oddly, I found these writers while seeking out female writers in a male-dominated genre without acutely realizing the significance of their race in a historically white-dominated genre. What surprised me, though, was the sheer volume of SF by black writers, entire sub-categories of my self-professed favourite genre, that I had no idea were out there. It was very exciting to me, and also very overwhelming.
After studying English Literature for five years in university, I’ve read a lot of the classics and the critical theory that has come out of them. I’m quite well-versed in the Canon of English Literature. After I graduated, though, I swore off the classics. I had had enough of the stuffy European white dudes over-analyzing “their” world. I re-discovered my love for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I continued to read mostly white dudes, but at least there were sometimes lasers and spaceships and the occasional fantasy race in which women had power and there were side-characters with “exotic” names and descriptions of skin-colours that made everyone sound edible. (Note to Writers: Please stop describing characters of colour with words like chocolate, coffee, caramel, café o lait, etc. The trope is tired, and your effort is lazy—Yes, I have been guilty of this, too)
It didn’t take me long to realize that much of my frustrations with the Canon were repeating themselves in the genre fiction I was reading. I attempted to remedy this by reading more women writers. I started with Margaret Atwood, whom I have loved since high-school, and branched out from there. Ursula K. Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Doris Lessing, Sheri S. Tepper… I researched lists, and spent months tracking down new-to-me writers and the massive potential for SF&F exploded before me once again. I was absolutely dumbfounded by how similar and yet how different these genres could be when the stories were told by women.
These lists drew me to other lists: I started reading queer writers, aboriginal writers, Canadian writers, writers who were immigrants or refugees, non-English writers whose works had been translated… The more I branched out into these different intersections via the lives and identities of the writers’ themselves, the more I found how much I had been missing.
The trouble is, when we stick to the classics, and the best-seller lists, we only see a tiny sliver of what is out there. Big publishers tend to stick to what is safe and easy to sell, and has mass-market appeal, and often—unless potential readers have been primed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—this means it is very similar to something else people have read and bought and loved on a massive scale.
But I don’t read science fiction to feel safe. I read science fiction to explore vastly different worlds, different social and political systems, different sex and gender and sexuality norms—to push human potential for good and evil to its extremes. Right?
I remember how magic brought me to Akata Witch. It was this preface to the book description by the publisher,
“Affectionately dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one’s place in the world.”
Jumping into the world of Black Speculative Fiction has been exciting. And overwhelming. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I rejected Who Fears Death and downloaded Akata Witch, instead. Because the description for Who Fears Death was a little outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to expect of it (despite numerous credible sources telling me it was wonderful and right up my alley). I was immediately drawn to Akata Witch, the comparison to a well-loved children’s classic, just different enough to be fresh but familiar enough to be safe.
After I finished reading Akata Witch, and loved every word of it, I enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and family using this exact same description: “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” Which is precisely what the publisher intended, I can only assume.
The problem is that Akata Witch is nothing like Harry Potter, a fact that I didn’t even consider until a friend and fellow writer, Jelani Wilson of Pages Without Paper, called it to my attention. Not only is Okorafor’s novel nothing like Rowling’s, the comparison ultimately places the books in a hierarchy where Harry Potter automatically reigns supreme.
Okorafor tweeted about this problem in January, saying “Thanks to the #BlackHogwarts hashtag, The Akata Books will probably never get away from the reductive label of “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” … I mean, I am flattered and happy to see people excited about the series, but I think my books have a foundation that is quite different from the Potter books. They are their own thing, not the African version of something else that gets to be its own thing.”
And it’s true. My initial impression that there was something special about Okorafor’s Akata books was bang on.
Akata Witch is a brilliant, original story about an exceptional young girl’s journey toward self-discovery. Although there are magical elements to the story, Okorafor explores issues of racism, colourism, poverty, classism, sexism, and violence without shielding her readers with euphemism and fantastical allegory. Sunny and her friends have remarkable abilities, but they are operating in the real world which, in my mind, elevates Akata Witch to something beyond “Black Harry Potter.”
Having a background in English Literature means that my instinct when reading is to mentally compare a book with other books that I have read. I think this can be a great way to explore stories, actually. But stepping outside of my comfort zone of classic/white/Western literature means I have to rethink the way that I do this.
For one thing, I need to read a lot more! I can’t critique a writer like Okorafor the way I can Margaret Atwood. I don’t have the foundation yet. Or, rather, my foundation is the same but I’m trying to build on different terrain. Atwood I understand within the context of the Canon. I studied her in high school alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence (Canadian women writers), and George Orwell and William Golding (Science Fiction classics). Even while Atwood has resisted classification as a feminist or science fiction writer, I feel comfortable viewing her work through those lenses and her own definitions of those terms. Comparing and contrasting Atwood’s work to other white “classic” authors has never felt reductive to me. In a sense, classic writers are all talking to each other and about each other and these comparisons come easily and naturally.
What do we do with writers, and genres, that are a part of a different conversation, though? Ones that have no interest in speaking to the so-called Canon except, perhaps, to reject it. Ones that have their own Canons to explore? If I’m going to venture out of my comfort zone, into new-to-me literary worlds, I need also to be prepared to let go of my old-world assumptions and expectations.
Of course, I can compare Okorafor to writers like Atwood (or J.K. Rowling), and these observations would be valid. But if I only compare her to white western writers, I am missing out on the other myriad intersections of her work. Comparing Akata Witch to Harry Potter has some merit. But implying that Akata Witch is a Nigerian iteration of Rowling’s story completely negates the rich history of black women writers, Nigerian writers, Afro-futurists, magical realists, etc. that Okorator belongs to, and reduces her work to a mere reflection of a single pop culture phenomenon.
I’m writing this review-cum-essay to unpack my own goals and motives as I attempt to expand my reading experience. But I also want to encourage other people to do the same. Whatever your reading niche has been, no matter how vast or varied, I guarantee there is something new out there for you. I hope you’ll seek it out, and be ready to explore these new worlds on their own terms, to allow them to be their own stories.