“It’s Not Over, Little Zel. It’s Only Just Begun”: Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi and the Birth of West African Fantasy Fiction

Over the past few years I’ve been given the freedom to offer a British literature survey course, which I’ve subtitled, “Fantasy, Faith and Philosophy”.  Although the course includes traditional canonical British texts, its primary focus has been the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman.  Observant students skimming over the syllabus will immediately pick up on what is missing from all of the readings – texts by women and people of color.  In the past I’ve argued, with some justification, that the pioneers of fantasy fiction in the 19th and 20th century were Christian white men, and that white men continued to dominate the field well into the 20th century, even as female authors, like Naomi Mitchison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Madeline L’Engle, were breaking through the barriers with innovative and, frequently, subversive, fantasy fiction.  Still, the roles of males as creators, consumers and protagonists of fantasy fiction were so entrenched that Ursula  K. Le Guin struggled to bring female characters alive in her Earthsea series, and J. K. Rowling was advised by her publisher to use her initials on her books so as to not reveal that the Harry Potter series was penned by a woman.  Additionally, the privileged status of white male fantasists in the genre was (and, frequently, is) perpetuated by teachers like me, who have not made room in their classrooms for female voices.

 

As I began to contemplate the absence of female writers in my fantasy class, an absence made more conspicuous because I include female authors in ALL of my other classes, I realized that the absence of writers of color was equally problematic.  More disturbingly, while I could name many white female fantasists, I could not name ANY writers of color in the genre.

 

This past year has remedied that problem, both because I discovered Octavia E. Butler, who identified her novel, Kindred, as fantasy (although many critics feel more comfortable labeling it speculative fiction), and because the twenty-first century has seen a small but growing number of authors of color, particularly women, enter the arena of fantasy fiction.  As Rachel Martin observed to me the other day, we are now in the fortunate position where we could teach a class that consists entirely of fantasy fiction by female authors of color.

NnediOkorafor
Nnedi Okorafor
Tomi Adeyemi
Tomi Adeyemi

 

Two of these authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi have already received much deserved recognition for their novels.  Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has been picked up for a television series by HBO, and plans for a movie based on Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone are already underway.  These two novels are refreshingly subversive because of both authors have created worlds that are thoroughly infused with West African culture and have created strong, black, female protagonists who experience and triumph over intense hardship and suffering.  Furthermore, both books are perhaps more deserving of serious discussion than more traditional fantasy novels because Okorafor and Adeyemi have used their world-building as an opportunity to explore real societal problems.  Because of their commitment to creating a discussion around social justice, these novels belong to the tradition of black social protest novels, like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

 

Who Fears DeathOkorafor’s Who Fears Death opens a dialogue at the intersection of misogyny, tribalism, and environmental degradation.    Borrowing from the Sudanese civil war, Okorafor builds a world where rape is a weapon of war, where women are dehumanized, where the dark-skinned Oke have come to accept suffering at the hands of the lighter-skinned Nuru as an inevitable consequence of what the Great Book says, and where resources are scarce.  At root, though, while a number of reviewers have labelled this novel a dystopia, it is in fact, if not utopian, at least optimistic, in part because it gives voice to the marginalized and dispossessed.  Indeed, storytelling is central to the resolution of the novel.  In the first pages of the novel, the protagonist, Onyesonwu, tells an unidentified listener, “Tonight, you want to know how I came to be what I am.  You want to know how I got here… It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you…  I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies” (Okorafor 5-6).   Through her life, and by telling her truth, Onyesonwu sparks a rewriting of the Great Book in the magic script of her people, Nsibidi.  This theme of speaking for one’s self, of controlling one’s identity, physically, intellectually and spiritually, is central to the novel.

 

 

Children of Blood and BoneLike Who Fears Death, Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone takes on ethnic and racial conflicts.  Where Okorafor draws from the Sudan, Adeymi seems to derive her inspiration from the Rwandan genocide.  Prior to the events depicted in Children of Blood and Bone, King Saran orders a great Raid in which the dark-skinned, white-haired adult maji are killed.  King Saran has also found a way to prevent the remaining maji from contacting the gods, who provide their magic. Subsequently the maji are forced into ghettos or labor camps, or are forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the lighter skinned Orishans. The term maggot, which is frequently applied to the dis-empowered maji, echoes the use of the word cockroaches to describe the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.

 

Although Adeyemi clearly models her story on the Rwandan conflict, the impetus for the novel comes, as she makes clear in her “Author’s Note”, in part from “seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police” (526). As Adyemi goes on to explain, the book is meant to bring recognition to the injustices committed against America’s black communities and to inspire readers to work for change.

 

Just as Tolkien rooted Middle-earth in the languages and mythologies of northern Europe, so too, these authors have rooted their stories in the fertile soil of West Africa.  The name of Okorafor’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is Igbu for “Who Fears Death”, and magical texts are written in Nsibidi script, a very real script from southeastern Nigeria.  Onyesonwu’s mother is an Oke – the name of the people being derived from a male name in Igbu that Chinua Achebe makes use of in Things Fall Apart.  Onyesonwu’s biologic father, a sorcerer who raped her mother, belongs to the light-skinned Nuru people – an Egyptian name.  Because Onyesonwu is a mix of these two ethnic groups, she belongs to an outcast group called the Ewu – a name derived from a Nigerian city.

 

In Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Yoruba is the language used to invoke the gods who gift magic to the Diviners.  The gods are based on the orisha, or divine spirits of the Yoruba faith.  The magical power that runs through the protagonist, Zelie, and other magi, is called ashe – a term from the Yoruba faith that means life force. The connection between Africa and Adeyemi’s Orisha is confirmed by place names like Lagos, Warri, Gombe and Benin City.

Oyisha map
Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone

Although both Who Fears Death and Children of Blood and Bone are very well written and, as I’ve demonstrated, unique in their creation of African fantasy world on par with Narnia and Middle-earth, there are weaknesses with both novels.  Structurally both novels follow very traditional, one might say clichéd, quest narratives.  As Caitlyn Paxson noted in her NPR review of Children of the Bone:

If I had to find something to criticize, it would be this: I read an awful lot of fantasy, and I love stories and characters that subvert my expectations. Children of Blood and Bone is a fairly straightforward quest narrative most of the way through, and I didn’t encounter a lot of surprises.

While Nnendi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is also a quest story, she is more adept at subverting expectations.  Of course, the difference between the two authors might have less to do with their abilities and more to do with their intended audiences.  Okorafor is writing for adults, and does not shy away from graphic rape scenes, or depictions of female genital mutilation. It’s entirely appropriate that George R. R. Martin has been signed on as producer for the television show based on her novel.  By contrast, Adyemi is writing for a Young Adult audience, what Rachel refers to as the Harry Potter crowd.

 

In spite of minor weaknesses, both novels are significant additions to the fantasy genre.  Okorafor and Adeyemi are, like Tolkien and Lewis, pioneers in the fantasy genre.  It is to be hoped that more authors of color will join them in tearing down the borders of fairyland.

Adeyemi, Tomi.  Children of Blood and Bone.  Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

Okorafor, Nnedi.  Who Fears Death.  DAW books, 2010.

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I've taught high school and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

4 thoughts on ““It’s Not Over, Little Zel. It’s Only Just Begun”: Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi and the Birth of West African Fantasy Fiction”

  1. Like Eric, I’m very much looking forward to reading these. As is my daughter. Professor Amey and I have talked before about another fantasy author of colour, but what better time to bring him up again than now?

    Though I enjoy fantasy generally, I especially enjoy “sword & sorcery.” Though what that is, precisely, is about as easy to settle on as the definition of “folk horror.” So to put it in context, I’m a big fan of Robert E. Howard’s stories (especially Conan of Cimmeria and Solomon Kane). And I say that acknowledging fully that Howard’s writings are fraught with a lot of very problematic depictions of… everyone but Western European males really. Being a Western European male myself (born in England of Norman and Celtic ancestry), it’s taken me a long time to even begin to understand how it must feel to be a fan of colour of this genre. Stereotypes abound in Howardian sword & sorcery, and many are deeply unflattering to their respective groups. That’s the quandary in which Charles Saunders grew up.

    Saunders, like me, grew up loving the adventures of Conan. Unlike me, however, when he looked at the Holy Trinity of sword & sorcery (Conan, Elric of Melnibone, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser), he didn’t see characters that looked like him. So he created one.

    I feel like a lot of this discussion necessarily centers around the difference in experience between readers from like cultures and readers from different cultures. What I mean by that is this: I absolutely love the Imaro stories. But I love them because they’re showing me something different. They’re drawing from different mythologies than those I grew up with (mostly Norse and Greek). They’re depicting different warriors (no armour-clad knights here). The magic is different. The monsters are different. And I’m fascinated by all of it.

    That’s a very different experience than that of the reader who has been desperately searching for a hero to whom they can more fully relate (whether they were consciously aware of that need or not). I won’t pretend for an instant to know what that’s like. Every fantasy story I can think of has characters who resemble me in one way or another. I’m about as Northern and Western European as it’s genetically possible to be. And, minus the mighty thews and square-cut mane, I look as much like most sword & sorcery protagonists as the next middle-aged desk jockey.

    I think that distinction is probably important. The appeal of these stories, to me, is that they introduce something new and unfamiliar. Which is perhaps the opposite of the appeal it holds for readers of colour. I don’t even know if that’s correct, if I’m being completely honest. It’s a presumption. And, like all presumptions, it needs to be fixed if I’m wrong.

    I won’t give out a lot of detail on Imaro or the setting of Nyumbani. I want you to stop reading this and start reading the books themselves. But I will say this: The search for identity and belonging are major themes in these stories. Imaro is raised by a warrior tribe (the Illyassai) that banished his mother Katisa for the transgression of mothering a child outside of the tribe. He grows up unloved and alienated, which is a theme that resonates readily with many readers. But all of that is presented in a setting with Africa-inspired warriors, sorcerors, and demons (the Mashtaan).

    Read Imaro. Seriously. You may not love it for the reasons that the person next to you does. But I hope you’ll love it for your own reasons. It’s really fantastic. (Double meaning intended.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate this, and have made it a point to finally (FINALLY) download one of Charles Saunders’ books on my Kindle, specifically “Imaro: Book 1”. Stuart has been pushing Saunders for practically as long as I’ve known him, and the truth is that I’ve been rather reluctant to dive into Saunders’ world precisely because of its associations with the Sword and Sorcery genre. Where Stuart has embraced the heroic fantasies of Robert E. Howard, I’ve been more inclined towards the mythopoetic fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkien and Stephen R. Donaldson. Actually – real confession time – I’ve never read anything by Howard. I suspect that the movies based (loosely) on Howard’s world put me off – that and the absence of all things elven.

      I’m sort of curious now, though, to see what Saunders’ does with Imaro. In particular, I’m curious to see if Saunders creates, as do Okorafor and Adeyemi, a living African setting for his fantasy, or if this reads more like Howard retrofitted to be more racially inclusive. I think one of the challenges that faces minority writers (or any writer, for that matter) is the difficulty of breaking free from the influence of their predecessors, particularly when those predecessors reflect the majority culture in their writing.

      I want to also acknowledge that in my post above, when I spoke of there not being many fantasy writers of color, I was speaking from a position of ignorance. Tade Thompson’s “Please Stop Speaking about the ‘Rise’ of African Science Fiction” was a revelation to me about all the African science fiction and fantasy fiction I had missed due to my own Eurocentric reading habit. You can read Thompson’s article here: https://lithub.com/please-stop-talking-about-the-rise-of-african-science-fiction/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suppose that’s true, isn’t it. I’ve been banging the sword & sorcery drum since the day we met. You’d have thought that Longswords & Lovecraftian Horrors sells itself. But I’m not giving in. One of us. One of us.

        As for elves, you’ve got me there. They don’t appear in Conan or Imaro. So, unless you subscribe to the apparent theory that Elric is essentially Moorcock’s version of the elf, you win that round.

        Disclaimer: I thoroughly enjoy the Conan movies (including the recent retread starring Jason Momoa). And, as a child of the 80s, I enjoyed a seemingly unending stream of knock-offs as well. I’m looking at you, Beastmaster. But I contend that, while there have been highly entertaining adaptations of Howard’s work (Conan and Solomon Kane) and completely disasterous adaptations of his works (Kull the Conqueror), there have never been any faithful adaptations of his works. So don’t let the movies dissuade you. Conan is a far more interesting character, and Hyboria a more interesting setting, than the silver screen would suggest.

        I feel like I’m not in the strongest position to say whether Imaro, or any other piece of minority-led genre fiction, is true to the experience of the author versus being a reskinning of what’s come before. But I will say this (in the hopes of expanding on it at another time): One of the things that differentiates sword & sorcery from high fantasy is the relationship of the individual to the group. In Tolkien, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are more than just a band of adventurers. They’re each representatives of their people in very clear and concrete ways.

        S&S protagonists strike me as more often being outliers of their people. Conan is a Cimmerian, but he’s the only one we ever see in Howard’s work, to my recollection. His cultural background seems less about placing him in a context and more about explaining is abilities. (Cimmeria is rocky and harsh, so he’s a natural climber and tough as nails.) Fafhrd abandons his Northern tribe to adventure in the South. Elric isn’t a jerk. And so on.

        Imaro follows that pattern very overtly. However, thematically his experience of being an outlier is very different than that of these other (Western European) counterparts. Conan succeeds where others fail precisely because he’s a savage among soft and civilized peoples. Imaro, on the other hand, struggles constantly with his inability to be accepted by “his people,” the Illyassai. I don’t want to spoil (despite the name of the blog) what follows, but suffice it to say that it’s an ongoing theme throughout the stories I’ve read in the Imaro series so far.

        All of which is to say that Imaro tackles some different territory than do Conan, Elric, and the Dynamic Duo. Yes, there are mighty thews, swords, sandals, and nameless horrors. But keep going. I promise there’s more to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am very much looking forward to reading these two stories, and am very grateful to hear from a professor who is willing to change the status quo when necessary.

    One interesting side note: I have been studying Capoiera, a Brazilian martial art with strong African roots. In Capoeira, the concept of axé is similar to the eastern martial arts’ concepts of Ki or Chi, and represents the spiritual power of the capoeiristas as they play together. What has always been most interesting to me is that while most eastern cultures are so much more focused on collectivist mindsets, their spiritual energies (chi, ki, etc) are fundamentally individualistic; whereas Capoeira, being a more western art, teaches of a spiritual energy that is wholly collectivist. Axé comes from the entire group, not any one individual, and is what drives the art. I am overjoyed to see the African root of this energy being used as the basis for a fantasy magic system in Children of Blood and Bone.

    Liked by 1 person

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