Over the next couple weeks, I will be reading Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor with the McLicious lady over at comp lit and mediaphilia. Earlier this month, Hannah challenged me to take a step out of my sci-fi and fantasy comfort zone and nibble on something different. Some discussion and haggling later, we settled on Okorafor’s 2011 J/YA fantasy-meets-magic-realism novel about American-born Sunny, a twelve-year-old whose family has moved back to Nigeria. Already facing the triple outsider jeopardy for being the new kid, an American, and albino, Sunny discovers that she might also be part of a secret society of people with latent magic powers. Oh, and there’s a killer on the loose, and Sunny has just seen the end of the world in a candle flame.
The albinism angle was that first made me perk up and take notice; I vaguely remember NPR telling me that albinism is more common on the African continent. While I couldn’t find concrete statistics for Nigeria (estimates go from several thousand people with albinism living in Nigeria to several million), the rates I did find range from 1 in 20,000 worldwide to a high of 1 in 1,420 in Tanzania. In countries like Tanzania, which has been seeing some news media exposure recently over albino killings, people with albinism face discrimination and persecution for being either “cursed” or “magical” (or both). I was intrigued when I saw that Okorafor really does give her character magic powers. Will this be part of a social commentary, or will it be a story about a girl finding magic powers? Both?
The other element that makes me curious about the book is that it’s just plain different from what I usually read. Most of the characters in my YA and genre fiction reads tend to be white and from the US (or England – or, okay, Russia) or from futurist/medieval worlds based in the Western mythos. Sometimes, I get surprise racial diversity (Hannah will beat me over the head for using that word) in a sci-fi or fantasy settings, such as indie novel, City of Promise, which gave me a black vampire and her Asian love interest, and, perhaps, the Percy Jackson or Hunger Games series, which are comfortable pulling in secondary characters from different races without making a big deal out of it. Hannah, who has read Okorafor before, tells me that the author’s novels are great examples of how to write about race without tokenism or alienation.