Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs

When I was an adolescent -- till I was about thirty, I mean -- I probably would have liked Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch (Viking, 2011) a lot more than I do now. I picked it up at the library after seeing a review, because I'm always alert to fantasy from sources other than the usual Tolkienesque Northern Europe. (I've long noticed the irony in people who'll devour the latest Tolkien retread while shying away from fantasy with Asian or African roots, but see themselves as more adventurous than the mundane masses.) I'm within about a hundred pages of the end now, and here's what I see.

Twelve-year-old Sunny Nwazue was born in the United States, but when she was nine her parents moved back to their home country of Nigeria. She's adjusted well to her new life in many ways, but as an albino she's especially vulnerable to the African sun, as well as to teasing and outright persecution by her classmates. She also has disturbing forebodings of the future, which culminate in an apocalyptic vision she sees one night in a candle flame. Soon after, with the help of her friends Orlu and Chichi, she discovers that, like them, she is a person born with a magical spirit: a Leopard person. Her parents and brothers are Lambs, like other non-magical human beings, so Sunny is a "free agent," a Leopard person born into a Lamb family. Orlu, Chichi, and numerous adult Leopard mentors initiate and instruct Sunny to prepare her for a frightening confrontation that she and her friends will have to face soon.

There's not a lot of originality here, contrary to the book's enthusiastic blurbists. Akata Witch takes a lot from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, itself a standard novel of education or Bildungsroman. You've got magical Leopard People versus mundane Lambs, corresponding to Rowling's Wizards and Muggles. You've got the alienated prodigy, with magical potential inherited from an ancestor whose memory the family tries to suppress. Sunny's albinism makes her conspicuous in Nigeria even more than it would in the States, and overtly persecuted by the local kids. You've got the discovery of Vocation, followed by induction into the Academy of Wizards, in a location accessible only through magic. You've got imaginary books, exotic magical critters, funny foods and a certain amount of grossout humor. You've got spells, which must be swotted up like Latin, though natural talent helps; Sunny's rebellious friends are constantly trying juju from levels they haven't formally reached, and then get into trouble for it. You've got the rewards and demerits meted out by stern but fair teachers. You've got the wizards' newspaper, though it's delivered directly by juju; no messenger owls here. You've even got a centerpiece soccer match played by Leopards according to Lamb rules, which is in many ways the high point of the book, more interesting to me at any rate than Quidditch: Sunny turns out to be a football natural, and insinuates herself into a student match from which girls had hitherto been excluded, a breakthrough for other Leopard girls. That point is made explicit when another girl thanks Sunny for doing it -- if nothing else, Akata Witch is more feminist than Harry Potter, and not just because Okorafor's protagonist is a girl.
"Oh!" [the girl] said, recognizing Sunny. "You were great! I always wanted to play, but I didn't know I could. At least the girls who come after you will know now."

Sunny was delighted. She hadn't even thought of that [265].

The main difference is the book's west African location, and its non-European cultural milieu. Notice that I say "difference" rather than "innovation," because the real innovator in using Africa as the cultural source for heroic fantasy was the late Octavia Butler, whose 1980 classic Wild Seed (which it's time I reread) begins in west Africa in the 1600s with a female shape-shifter battling a male body thief. Butler was also simply a better writer than Okorafor; her prose is no more than serviceable, even for YA fiction. Nalo Hopkinson, using elements from Africa via the Caribbean, is another of Okorafor's predecessors.

That the protagonist is a young female is nice too, but judging from the fantasy books I've seen on the Young Adult shelves at the library, many writers have begun to rectify J. K. Rowling's male chauvinism by turning out plenty of girl-centered fantasy over the past decade.

On the other hand, Okorafor is more explicitly critical of her Leopards than Rowling is of her Wizards. Sunny's first resource as a free agent is a condescending booklet written by a Leopard woman that discourages as much as it helps her. Rowling has bad Wizards and good ones, but even Sunny's mentors foster a disruptive competitiveness in their students, and Leopard punishment for misconduct ranges from caning to immurement in dank basement rooms, and there's a lot of internecine violence even among the "good" Leopards.

Akata Witch is still a worthwhile read, whether you're an adult or an adolescent; it's just not the revelatory glimpse for me that it might have been had I not read Octavia Butler or Nalo Hopkinson, let alone My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For less promiscuous readers, though, it will be good news, and may open the way to other writers from other cultures. The way Okorafor has poured her Nigerian wine into Hogwarts wineskins will probably make her work more accessible to young readers especially, and maybe serve as an gateway to other writers informed by African magic.