Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Nnedi Okorafor: Exploring the Empire of Girls' Moral Development

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Nnedi Okorafor: Exploring the Empire of Girls' Moral Development

Article excerpt

When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.

"She's ... dada," said the doctor, looking surprised.

"I can see that," my mother replied with a smile. She took me in her arms and gently touched one of the thick clumps of hair growing from my little head. I had dadalocks, and woven inside each one of those clumps was a skinny light green vine. Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn't sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother's womb. (Zahrah, vii)

Award-winning Nigerian-American speculative writer Nnedi Okorafor writes fiction that is not easy to pigeonhole. Although she was born in 1974, five years after her parents immigrated to the United States, her family made frequent trips back to her father's Igbo village where she was profoundly affected by the flora, fauna, folklore, and culture: in her words, "the place where I have experienced my life's greatest joys and greatest terrors" (Organic, 276). The result was an ingrained acceptance of and interest in the Other and a blurring of boundaries between human, plant, and animal. She uses her memories to create sensory-rich stories about a past, present, and future Africa that connects to Ginen, a parallel world with vast, unexplored areas, a place where computers are botanical and biological and magic is real, an excellent setting for her thought-experiments regarding young women who challenge the hierarchical power structures and cultural traditions that hinder their moral development.

Reacting Against Demoralizing Traditions

Girls' moral development is a primary focus in Okorafor's YA novels Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), The Shadow Speaker (2007), and Akata Witch (2011). (1) All three novels can be seen as Bildungsromane, (2) coming-of-age hero quests that geographically intersect in various ways in an Africa that does and does not exist. They follow a similar pattern where young adult viewpoint characters who typically do not fit well in their communities must overcome negative self-images, learn to channel their anger, establish alliances, gain agency, and begin to understand sexual intimacy. Initially their physical appearance identifies them as Other and sets them up to be bullied and excluded. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah has vine-entwined thick dada hair. Bullies at her school call her "vine head," "snake lady," "swamp witch," and "freak" (3). They call her "witch" and ask her about her "juju" (259). Zahrah's menarche corresponds with a sudden ability to levitate, a secret that further isolates her. Eventually she learns that she is a windseeker, an identity that carries a fair amount of cultural baggage. In The Shadow Speaker, Ejii has golden eyes like a cat. Her half-brothers and sisters call her "goat girl," and when she is eight, her father makes plans to marry her to his cook's son, a lazy man three times her age who is known for harassing women (16). In early adolescence, she begins hearing voices. Sunny, the viewpoint character of Akata Witch, is an albino and an excellent writer; her jealous classmates call her akata, which means "foreign-born" or "bush animal" (11). Once again, bigotry identifies difference as less than human. As cultural outsiders, Okorafor's protagonists are well positioned to question cultural values, a step that is essential in moral development, and as her novels progress, the words used in taunting are gradually repositioned as positive attributes.

Fantasy and Girl's Development

In an article in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe writes that "Okorafor's genius has been to find the iconic images and traditions of African culture ... and tweak them just enough to become a seamless part of her vocabulary of fantastika" (17). Like dadalocks that entwine plant and animal, Okorafor's fiction is interstitial, slipping somewhere between genres, then slyly entwining fantasy, science fiction and magic realism. …

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