BY SANINA CLARK
Nnedi Okorafor is the winner of Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus and Lodestar Awards and author of the Binti trilogy and Nsibidi Script series. The series, beginning with Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, follows Sunny Nwazue, a Nigerian American girl with albinism who has been having difficulty adjusting to living in Nigeria and finds out she is a member of a mystical group of Leopard People. In the third installment, Akata Woman, Sunny and her friends embark on their most dangerous mission yet to a magical realm where they must retrieve a precious object. We spoke with Okorafor about her journey writing the series, reclaiming hurtful language, and the necessity of diverse literary terminology.
Akata Witch, the first book in the series, came out in 2011. How have you as an author changed in this time and how has that been reflected in the growth of the trilogy?
It’s been 11 years, so that’s a lot. I’m always writing and I’m always learning, and the last 10 years for me have been really epic. I’ve gone through so much and I’ve learned so much. I couldn’t even quantify it—my skills as a writer. Each book gets progressively better and more complex. They get deeper into the world and reflect the deeper understanding that I have about the world and the culture. Each of the books is definitely a progression. When I look at Akata Witch in comparison to Akata Warrior, there’s a world of difference!
I’m not really a series person, so it’s rare for me to write one. This idea of building on a story like this is different for me. With each book, each narrative, I get to know the characters better and better. I would say one of the biggest changes was that with each of the novels I felt more comfortable with my voice and with what I was writing. There are things that I was really nervous about writing—a lot of the cultural stuff. I wasn’t sure how people were going to take it and what the consequences were. With each book I’ve learned more, and understood more, and gotten a lot braver, and a lot more open. I think that’s really the biggest shift.
All [of the Akata books] were written at different times of my life and were inspired by different things. I’m very much a standalone book writer. My ideas are huge and there are many. I want to explore so much. So staying under one ceiling is not a comfortable place for me, but sometimes it happens. With Akata Witch it happened. I knew it was a series when I wrote it. I had to change the ending because it was published in 2011—a very different time in publishing—so there was sort of a risk. My editor was like, “We need to sell this as a standalone,” even though I knew it wasn’t. I remember the reviews all kept harping on the ending, which drove me crazy because it wasn’t the real ending! It was so frustrating. But even though I knew it was a series, I wasn’t thinking, OK, I’m finished with this one so now I have to think about the next one. I wrote two novels in between—I had other things to do and I figured when the time came, it would come. Akata Witch took about four years [to write] and Akata Warrior took about the same amount of time. When I wrote it there was nothing in terms of contracts. My editor didn’t even know it was coming. Akata Woman was different because I knew I was going to write it, I just didn’t know when. I was busy with other things. And then coronavirus happened. I wrote the majority of Akata Woman while in lockdown. I’m the kind of writer who, when things are stressful, unpredictable, and scary that’s when I write the most. I produced so much in that time.
When we meet Sunny in Akata Witch, she is a budding free agent Leopard Person. By Akata Woman, she is incredibly powerful and has mastered balancing her multi-dual spirit. How important is the theme of dualism in the trilogy and how does it dictate Sunny’s spiritual growth both in general, and as a Leopard Person?
I think that even dualism might be too confining of a term for Sunny. She’s just a lot. I tend to write characters that progressively become more and more. I did that with the Binti trilogy as well. This is such a big question because yes, Sunny is so much. Culturally and mystically she’s so many things. In the beginning of the series—even before she finds out about being a Leopard Person—she’s already grappling with really complex cultural things. The first book starts when she’s been in Nigeria for three years. She speaks Igbo and she speaks it with an American accent. On top of that, she has albinism, which comes with its own set of issues. She’s not timid, she’s not shy—she’ll fight. Then she finds out that she’s part of this society, that she has these abilities and her world gets that much more complicated. She’s even different among leopard people! The idea of all of those layers of complexity and learning how to be secure and confident in it, and navigating your way through it and it not being simple, but standing up and being firm, I think, is very much reflective of real life. All of these things contribute to who she is and how she feels about the world, because she may have one foot in this culture and one foot in that culture, but those feet are on the same body.
You and Sunny are both American born with Nigerian parents. How much of Sunny was inspired by your life and experiences?
Tons! Part of what inspired me to write Akata Witch was that I wanted to write a [fictional] Nigerian American narrative. For a long time, I wasn’t reading that narrative. It was full of confusion and conflict, but commonality. I wasn’t seeing it done in the way that I wanted to. So when I started writing this book I was like, “Now I can explore the whole Nigerian American thing.” I drew a lot from my own experiences when writing Sunny, but tweaked a little. She speaks Igbo and it’s a big thing to be able to speak the language or not. I can’t. I can hear a lot of it, but I can’t speak it fluently and that has been a source of conflict like you could never believe. So, it was sort of a little bit of wish fulfillment for me when I wrote this Nigerian American character who actually speaks Igbo. The fight that Sunny gets in in the first book—I used to fight a lot as a kid and I enjoyed the fighting! I was so bad! I went to a very racist grade school, so there were moments. When writing the Sunny fights—when she takes on the other kids—I was drawing from direct experience. There’s also this ballet aspect to the whole narrative—I did ballet for five years. So all her athleticism was easy for me to write about because I know it very well. Then, of course, there’s all the cultural stuff and the word akata.
The word, akata, itself has derogatory connotations. How have you reclaimed this word and how does Sunny’s relationship with the word change in each book? Do you have any advice for young people looking to do the same?
That word is very significant. It is a word that I have fought with forever and that [my sisters and I] know well. It’s a word we’d hear and get called a lot. It’s an ugly word. In fact, when I was naming the book I had just been called Akata by some man because he felt I was too mouthy like an American. Some Nigerians would be like, “It’s not a negative term,” and that is a lie. Anyone who’s been called that knows it’s not a nice term, but this is the word I’ve grown up with. So, when that man called me that I was like, “Okay, well I’m going to be the first person to put that damn word in the title of a book.” It was an act of defiance; I was really angry that day and I just went with it. I think the reclaiming happens just in the books existing and saying the title, in the word being understood for what it is. You can’t call me that word in comfort now. It doesn’t work, its power has been flipped. Some people have called me akata witch. I embrace that now, but I couldn’t have embraced it back then.
Sunny is in conversation with it constantly from the beginning of the [first] book. She’s Nigerian American, but that means she’s also Nigerian. She has to contend with the usage and acceptance of that term. There’s a really poignant scene in Akata Warrior, when she gets into this altercation with these African American girls and the word starts flying. She finds herself spitting that ugly term in a sort of defense. She doesn’t know what else to say, she wants to hurt them. Then she’s like, “What the hell did I do?” It’s like throwing a weapon and it comes right back and hits you instead. It’s a really big lesson for her.
So, my advice? Be who you are, in all its complexity. Who you are is unique and interesting. In terms of the words—there’s always a history behind all of it. Words are like culture in a lot of ways—they’re fluid, they’re alive. They’re not set in stone. They can evolve and devolve. They shift and become different things. How do you harness it? How do you not get harmed by it? How do you not let it get into your system? It’s not simple. Use your brain and be open to understanding, listening, researching, and feeling.
You coined the terms Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism. What’s the difference between those and Afrofuturism and why was it important to you to establish a difference?
The term Afrofuturism has multiple definitions. I kind of stay out of that as much as I can, but there is a centering of the United States. I know people will take issue with that, but actions speak louder than words. What was happening before was that Afrofuturism was the umbrella term for Black speculative fiction, which I had a problem with for multiple reasons.
One: the centering of the United States and then using this as an umbrella term for everything else not centered there is sort of an afterthought. I don’t really think that Black imaginative literature should be under any umbrella term because we cannot be contained. There’s no one term that can describe all of us! Black people tend to be viewed in this monolithic way that does a disservice to who we are and it makes people, especially American people, not understand how diverse we are. I believe it’s an issue of diversity and the only way to address it is to start a conversation, then let that conversation do whatever it will.
I coined these terms, Africanjujuism and Africanfuturism, because I felt there was a necessity. I separated fantasy and science fiction—though, of course, you can have them blend. Africanfuturism is more directly rooted in African culture, history and mythology, which includes the Black diaspora. That cultural point of view tends to understand that the mystical and the mundane are not separate, they coexist. So, the fantastical will always be part of Africafuturism. Africanjujuism is a subcategory that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of existing African spirituality and cosmology, and blends that with the imaginative. The reason why I needed to come up with that term is different. I felt that a lot of my work, including the Nsibidi Script series, was being read through a Western lens. People kept calling it the “African Harry Potter!” They weren’t understanding that a lot of the mystical things happening in these books were real [mythology]. They were thinking, “I’ve never seen this before. Therefore, [you] made it up.” [It’s hard] getting people to understand that their point of view is narrow, without offending them. But this is a familiar place for me. Part of being Nigerian American is that I have to go to Nigeria. I don’t always know what I’m eating. I can’t understand all my uncles and aunts. I know they’re saying something really important and interesting, but I can’t understand the language. Eventually I kind of learned to relax and revel in the not knowing. When you relax and quietly let everything happen around you, you start learning all these new things.
You write stories for readers of all ages! What’s next for you?
I am a busy bee. And I like that. I exist in chaos and I like it and I like writing. Writing is enjoyable and fulfilling, so it’s not something that I feel I have to do. Half of the stuff I get published is not even on contract. I just write it, then present it to my publishers. I’m working on this space cat graphic novel with Tana Ford, an amazing illustrator whom I’ve worked with before on multiple occasions. Now we’re working on a graphic novel called Space Cat, which stars my cat Periwinkle, but it’s so much more than that. I’m working on a lot of film and TV stuff. I’m co-creating and co-writing an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. There’s stuff going on with Binti. There’s just a lot.
And there’s something else that would be great for this interview, but I can’t announce it just yet! Haha!
Akata Woman (The Nsibidi Scripts #3) by Nnedi Okorafor. Viking $18.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-451-48058-3