I recently read my first ever African-Speculative-Fiction title, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. This was my second attempt. I had found the book dissociating and I felt it was the genre I was struggling with, not the title. So a combination of not-wanting-to-fail and curiosity led me to learning about the genre. That kind of pool of discovery always excites me. While trawling my podcast collection, I bumped into an episode of the New York Public Library Podcast where cultural maverick Paul Holdengraber interviewed author, Junot Diaz. Diaz is an American of Dominican Republic roots, and writes fiction, including speculative fiction. You can listen to the podcast here>>> One thing that stuck with me from this discussion was what Diaz described as the role of the writer in speculative fiction. He said that the writer is a dictator, in the most political of meanings. That it’s all about him or her, furthering his or her own interests without much regard for anyone else. Although that statement was linked to his book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it certainly lived beyond. (It’s also the perfect gobbet!)
How my second and successful attempt came about was circumstantial. I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee and I just grabbed the book as I dashed off. Said friend is notorious for being late and a book is always great company when stood up. I got to our meeting place and he was not there. So I ordered my coffee and although I didn’t feel like I had gathered enough information on the genre (read: confidence), I got into the book.
I remember feeling the need to yield, and resisting at first. I felt the book demanded a certain humility of me and my academic sensibilities needed reason before I could give in. The truth is, I had to yield because that was the only way I could participate in the book. It commanded me to imagine only as it dictated in its 232 pages. It felt dangerous, but I gave in. The pull of the creatures, characters and worlds unknown living in those pages was much stronger than my fragile ego. I was going to get to know them, all of them!
Okorafor took me to her worlds where, although some dynamics were borrowed from our world, she controlled how those dynamics existed. She wasn’t just dictator – she was god. My feminist sensibilities fluttered wildly at the thought engaging a god who is female. Note I did not call her goddess, but god, because in The Book of Phoniex, Okorafor was the only god. I love love love the idea of a black, female god who is a feminist. A black, female god who creates and governs worlds where women naturally assume physical strength and social capital without question.
When I yielded to her, to this god, I felt like she opened me up to possibilities I couldn’t have imagined. I found my mind traveling to ‘what if’ and ‘why not’ spaces. I felt empowered to think beyond the visual I am accustomed to.
I love how she deliberately weaved in ‘issues’ yet did not make them the core of the story. The issues influenced the development of the characters and therefore, the story, but they were not the story. Slavery. Feminism. Afrophobia. Immigration. Relationships. Identity. Politics. The Panopticon nature of patriarchal social capital. Revolution. Science. Oral Tradition. Time. All these and more were weaved in beautifully and effortlessly into an engrossing story.
I couldn’t put this book down. Over a weekend, with parties and family and sleep, I finished it. Any moment I could salvage – whether it was a paragraph or a page. I consumed it and loved it. It left me feeling warm, like you do when you and your many siblings (cousins included) sit around a fire emakhaya and uGogo tells one of her folktales. It was juicy. It was good.
As always, there are some gobbets I’d love to share from the book. I do have to say though that even though the book is a mine of gobbets – because African stories are about passing down wisdom – they are not obvious, they do not fly out at you. Go with me here. The depth is apparent but it is packaged differently from other books I have read. In this book, the glorious gobbets are part of the story, they cannot exist out of the story, this story. I couldn’t extract them without spoilers and I don’t think it’s a genre thing. I think it’s an author thing. Okorafor is a story teller, in the most elemental of ways. She tells the story the best way she knows how and is less concerned with sounding deep or intellectual. Yet, even with this creative freedom that’s in a way anti-intellectual, she achieves great depth in The Book of Phoenix.
What remained with me beyond the end of the book was the powerful protagonist, Phoenix Okore. A creature, human in all the good and bad ways and superhuman in ways I could not have imagined. Especially not for her – she’s a black woman: where in any media have you seen a black female superhero? But that’s what you get when you have a black, female god, who is an unapologetic feminist.
A story is not told until it it’s told.
One must stop to listen to a story. The storyteller starts it again. She starts it in her own place, in her own moment, in her own point of view. As long as you listen, she is in charge of your destiny. You and the storyteller share everything, even your existence.
The language of a people is scared. It is their identity.
A woman with wings should never be so burdened
It’s the calm and silent waters that drown a man
I love books. I adore everything about them. I love the feel of the pages on my fingertips. They are light enough to carry yet so heavy with words and ideas. I love the sound of the pages flicking against my fingertips.
Books make people quiet, yet they are so loud.
A woman was not dangerous so no need to panic. An African was a threat so do not hesitate to kill her. A winged human being was an abomination, not angelic so when it’s over, forget her death quickly.
Why did these people think I was afraid of them “harming” me… If I were a terrorist, wouldn’t they have assumed I wouldn’t fear harm? Shouldn’t they have assumed that I would give my life for my cause? These people thought little of minorities and terrorists. Deep down, they saw us as cowards, no better than misguided sheep.
To them, I wasn’t human enough to be a threat… I was nothing to worry about or fear. They saw me as they saw Africans made slaves during the trans-Atlantic slave trade hundreds of years ago. They saw me as many Arabs saw African slaves over millennium and how some still see Africans today… They were the definition of arrogance and entitlement.
And the best gobbet yet…
Human beings make terrible gods.