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.
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.
Okorafor’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.
Like 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.
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.