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.
Intrigued? You can read the prologue and the first chapter at the publisher’s site, and if you like, come read along with us! You can check out Hannah’s post about the buddy read here.
Ooo! This novel is one of my absolute favorites (and the reason why I now launch into total fangirl mode anytime someone even remotely mentions Nnedi Okorafor). Looking forward to reading your subsequent posts about it!
I’m still on a weird fence when it comes to how I feel about this book. On the one hand, it’s very much Hogwarts on the African Continent. On the other, Okorafor dresses that storyline in a culture that doesn’t ever really make it into the mainstream western YA readership. I’m not sure I can separate my reaction to concept from my reaction to story (and whether it’s something I should do in the first place…)
But I am looking forward to getting my hands on Binti, the novella that got the Nebula this year.
True, it’s definitely Nigerian Hogwarts (right down to having a Knight Bus/Funky Train), but I was willing to overlook that because, despite the similarities there, the world has many unique details that are thoroughly its own – and like you said, how often do we see anything like it in most Western YA publishing? Plus, I felt like the story accomplished a lot of things that Harry Potter didn’t – like having competent adults as authority figures, among other things. As far as I’m concerned, the unique things it does right far overshadow any similarities it may have to an existing property. (Plus, it makes it super easy to recommend to people who are looking for Harry Potter readalikes! xD )
Also, Binti is fantastic. I listened to the audiobook a few months ago and now I’m really looking forward to the sequel.