By Christopher Borrelli
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Nnedi Okorafor may not be a household name, but eventually, you’ll probably learn to say it. Okorafor is the author of young-adult fiction, adult fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction, Marvel comic books and a new memoir, “Broken Places & Outer Spaces.”
Not long after Nnedi Okorafor finished her freshman year at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1993, she came home to Flossmoor and played tennis. She played daily, she played for hours. That had always been the plan. She had been playing tennis since she was 9. She was nationally ranked; a few years earlier, she helped win the state championship for Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and now she was playing in college. All of which was expected. She and her sisters, Ngozi and Ifeoma, dominated HFHS tennis for years. Nnedi had been the scrappiest and most physical. She would be taunted with the N-word, she would hear “Go back to Africa,” and she would think: It doesn’t matter how racist people can get, she would find a way to win anyway.
But she came to hate high-school tennis (“When you play so many bad players, your own game goes down”); then in college, she didn’t really like anyone on that team.
So by the end of freshman year, she was quietly harboring a plan to quit the game and gravitate toward track, with the Olympics in mind. Which didn’t sound unattainable: Her father was a cardiovascular surgeon, her mother a health administrator, both came from Nigeria, both had doctorates, and both demanded their four children stand out.
The only hurdle was Okorafor and her sisters had been diagnosed years earlier with scoliosis, to varying degrees of severity.
Nnedi wore a back brace and would remove it before matches; she had always played through the pain. But that summer, when Nnedi returned to Flossmoor and her parents brought her to the University of Chicago Medical Center for a regular round of X-rays, her spine appeared to be getting worse. The doctor recommended surgery. Because her spinal cord was involved, there was a small chance of paralysis, but the alternative was that her organs would compress, she would be disabled before 25 and most likely, her life would get significantly shortened.
She was 19.
After the surgery, Okorafor woke up paralyzed.
Helen, her mother, recalls: “The family was shocked, devastated. I mean, we knew (the surgery) wasn’t simple, but Nnedi was a big athlete, and now she couldn’t stand?” The surgery had been elective, and Ngozi remembers her parents looking riddled with guilt.
As for Nnedi, she lay in bed in Hyde Park, unable to turn.
She was unsure if she would walk again. She swung from depressed to panicky. At night, when her family left and the room darkened, praying mantises and grasshoppers climbed her walls. She swore they were real. The bird, too. She saw a crow slamming into her hospital windows. She doesn’t know if it was the medication, or her imagination.
A friend left her a paperback of “I, Robot.”
She didn’t read it, not for many years. Instead, she wrote in its margins. She had never written much for fun, but that summer, stuck in bed, wondering if she would walk again, she started to learn how to make up her own stories.
And now 25 years later, Nnedi Okorafor is the future of science fiction and fantasy.
Today, at 44, Okorafor is successful, honored and in constant demand. She is a friend and collaborator with George R. R. Martin, and either the Next Big Thing or the Best New Old Thing You Still Haven’t Heard Of.
She is a lifelong Flossmoor resident and a literary shape-shifter, author of young-adult fiction, adult fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction, Marvel comic books and a new memoir, “Broken Places & Outer Spaces.” She is a self-defined Africanfuturist, and a TED talker, and at least for the next couple of years, the developer of more TV shows than you have streaming services to watch them on.
What she is not is a household name.
Eventually, you will probably learn to say it. Her last name is pronounced o-CORE-a-FOUR. Her first name is NED-dee. Not NEEDY. She hates when people call her Needy.
She walks now, but a bit mechanically, and stooped; she’s called herself robotic. Yet there’s a forward momentum, and a self-possession, in that way she carries herself. This is, after all, a person secure enough to dedicate “Binti,” one of her best-sellers, to a jellyfish that she once admired. And that was before HBO and Martin began developing her 2010 novel “Who Fears Death” as a series. Last year, the “Game of Thrones” creator even escorted her to the Emmys. “To raise my profile,” she said with air quotes.
Martin, for his part, suggests she’s destined to be a force, regardless of powerful friends. “I think Nnedi has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in science fiction we’ve seen in years,” Martin said. “There’s an eloquence and intelligence that’s not like a lot of writers who do this. It’s an entirely new worldview that’s she’s reflecting.”
Go beyond Martin and HBO, there’s Marvel, for whom Okorafor has become one of its primary writers of Black Panther comics. Go beyond Marvel, there’s Viola Davis and Amazon, for whom Okorafor and Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu are creating a series adapted from the Octavia Butler novel “Wild Seed.” “When (Davis’ production company) asked who I most wanted to work with, Nnedi was the obvious choice,” Kahiu said. As with Butler _ arguably the most celebrated black woman writer of science fiction _ Kahiu sees in Okorafor a fascination with gender and identity, but also “with the politics of immortality, and what it means to be a male or female shape-shifter.”
And those are just projects Okorafor discusses on the record.
She calls her work “Africanfuturism,” as opposed to the more common “Afro-futurism.” The difference, she says, is her books, sometimes with aliens, sometimes with witches, often set in a recognizable, future Africa, with African lineages, are not cultural hybrids but rooted in the history and traditions of the continent, without a desire to look toward Western culture (or even pop culture). If that makes her work sound a touch polemical, understand: Her writing voice is accessible, and as harrowing and bracing as her stories often are, “Who Fears Death” is set in a violent, future Sudan, about a child born from rape with supernatural abilities, the pace is borderline breezy.
In February, Okorafor spoke at the Homewood Public Library; she pulled a crowd of more than 200. “The truth is adult programs here normally draw about 20, maybe,” said Kelly Campos, the librarian who asked Okorafor to appear. “And I get why she’s getting huge. I’m a black woman. When I was younger, you didn’t see black or brown faces on covers of (sci-fi and fantasy) books. Her characters have core things about them that are there because of an ethnic or marginalized background. And she’s not straining to do that, she’s telling science fiction and fantasy from a point of view.”
Again, Okorafor is far from the first black woman to write science fiction and fantasy from a distinctly black-female perspective.
Go slightly beyond Butler, barely scratch the surface, and you find N.K. Jemisin waiting, whose “Broken Earth” novels have won the prestigious Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel the past three consecutive years.
“But when many people think about the history of science fiction and fantasy writing, they tend to think of a certain Jules Verne kind of writer from England perhaps,” Martin said. “That’s because this is a world that’s been dominated by Americans and Brits, and we might be talking about alien planets or a 100 years in the future, we might be talking about Middle-earth, or we might be talking Westeros, and as far apart as those may seem, there are similarities, because the people who have written those books came from the same cultures, read the same classics.”