Gary K. Wolfe reviews Nnedi Okorafor

Ever since her first novel Zahrah the Windseeker in 2005, Nnedi Okorafor has mined a richly textured heritage of Windseekers, dada hair, alligator pepper, palm wine, Shadow Speakers, juju, mmuo, akatas – enough inventions to populate an entire speculative world, except that they aren’t all inventions and they aren’t entirely speculative. Okorafor’s genius has been to find the iconic images and traditions of African culture, mostly Nigerian and often Igbo, and tweak them just enough to become a seamless part of her vocabulary of fantastika which she then uses to build other planets (as in Zahrah) or far-future cultures (as in Who Fears Death) or even not-so-distant postapocalyptic futures (as in The Shadow Speaker). Her first story collection, Kabu Kabu, gives us a chance to visit those and other worlds, some parodic, some folkloric, some horrific, by bringing together 21 pieces of short fiction, fully a third of which are original to the collection.

The collection opens with what is likely Okorafor’s best-known story, though it’s really little more than a jape, like those old Mad magazine ‘‘Scenes We’d Like to See’’ features. A generic blond hero in a clichéd fantasy setting finds himself rescued by ‘‘The Magical Negro’’ of the title, who promptly demonstrates, in a quite satisfying way, his disgust at having been cast yet again in such a utilitarian role. It’s the least characteristic of the stories here, but its placement up front suggests the need for the sort of alternative fantasy that Okorafor (and increasingly other writers) has come to represent. Some of the stories recall both the worlds and the tone of her novels. The far-future Seven Kingdoms setting of Who Fears Death shows up in ‘‘The Black Stain’’, told as a kind of legend about two brothers who undertake a hazardous journey (a common Okorafor theme) to collect scrap metal from an ancient ruined city. The world of The Shadow Speaker shows up in ‘‘Tumaki’’, in which two teenagers are threatened by a purge of ‘‘meta-humans’’ in the turbulent world following the ‘‘Great Change’’; it’s essentially a love story (something of a rarity in Okorafor’s work, although ‘‘Asunder’’ is another example here). The figure of Arro-yo, who shows up in a number of stories, seems to live in the same general world as Zahrah the Windseeker, with its Windseekers and the semi-magical, semi-SF world of Ginen. Okorafor mentions in her story notes that ‘‘Windseekers’’ (in which Arro-yo finds herself transplanted from Louisiana to Ginen), ‘‘How Inyang Got Her Wings’’ (a kind of origin story beginning with her ancestors), ‘‘The Winds of Harmattan’’ (concerning a Windseeker named Asuquo, whose tragic tale even affects the weather), and ‘‘Biafra’’ (in which Arro-yo finds herself in a harrowing portrayal of a real 20th century horror) are all related to an unpublished early novel about this figure. The story ‘‘Long Juju Man’’ is a trickster tale in the same mold as Okorafor’s award-winning children’s book of that title (although the Juju man’s tricks there are neater than here), while ‘‘The Palm Tree Bandit’’ reads like a companion piece, only this time with a woman trickster subverting the cultural prohibition again women tapping palm wine from the trees.

A number of stories, not surprisingly given Okorafor’s own experience, deal with Americanized Nigerians returning to their family homeland, as in Akata Witch. In the book’s only flat-out (and pretty effective) horror story ‘‘On the Road’’, it’s a Chicago cop facing down a giant scrofulous Nigerian folk-monster, while two sisters in ‘‘The House of Deformities’’ find themselves dealing with a scary black-hatted man much like the one in Akata Witch. One of those sisters (or her namesake) is also the central character of ‘‘Kabu Kabu’’, co-authored with Alan Dean Foster, about a manic Igbo cab driver in Chicago who takes her on a bizarre detour en route to O’Hare airport; it’s perhaps the goofiest and most playful story here. A close second might be ‘‘The Carpet’’, in which two other kids buy a magic carpet in Nigeria, and find that it’s harder to get rid of than they had suspected.

The most traditional SF story here is ‘‘Spider the Artist’’, despite its folkloric-sounding title and its zombies. But the ‘‘zombies’’ are semi-autonomous robots dispatched to protect, usually from Nigerians themselves, the above-ground fuel pipelines scattered across the Nigerian landscape by big oil companies. While the story begins as a kind of charming fable of a girl teaching one such robot to play the guitar, it ends with an echo of a grim reality – the fatal explosions that sometimes result from such pipeline pilfering, killing hundreds. The same hazard figures prominently in the other most directly SFnal story, and one of the most fully realized stories here, ‘‘Popular Mechanic’’, in which an injured father receives an experimental prosthetic arm, which he discovers is powerful enough to punch a hole in the pipeline. The pipelines also figure in the much more fable-like (though apparently based on a real news report) ‘‘MOOM!’’, told from the odd point of view of a swordfish who decides to attack one of the underwater pipes.

These stories reflect another aspect of Okorafor’s fiction that may sometimes seem less immediately apparent in her novels – her engagement with real-world political and social issues. ‘‘Bakasi Man’’ details the assassination of a despotic politician threatening an ethnic purge, while ‘‘Icon’’ depicts an American journalist seeking an interview with a Nigerian terrorist leader, only to find himself compelled to commit a horrifying act. Like the more disturbing scenes of Who Fears Death, these stories remind us that there are horrors in modern Africa far more immediate than the occasional monster on the road. For these and all sorts of other reasons, this is an important collection by a writer to listen to.

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