How Nnedi Okorafor Is Building The Future Of Sc-Fi (Being George R.R. Martin’s Protege Doesn’t Hurt)

Aliens travel light years only to land in front of the White House.

"There's always a Western point of view," said Gary K. Wolfe, a science-fiction editor and professor emeritus at Roosevelt University (who writes occasional science-fiction reviews for the Tribune). "Then you get to Nnedi, who wrote a (2014) novel called 'Lagoon,' which in many ways is alien-invasion stuff. Except the aliens arrive in Lagos, in Nigeria. Science fiction has ignored a continent. And it's a gold mine of ideas for a smart writer, and of course, there will be people to exploit that gold mine. But an approach to a genre from the point of view of people who were enslaved and forcibly moved? That's a necessary place for this to go."

But it's not an easy trip.

Okorafor bristles at the inevitable suggestion "that all this is happening now because of the success of 'Black Panther,' when some of us were planting those seeds long before anyone had heard of Wakanda." Because she is working with Martin, she anticipates the assumption they are making an African "Game of Thrones." Or that her excellent "Akata Witch" books, about a Nigerian American girl who discovers a heritage of magic, are African Harry Potter. "I've heard it, and I get the appeal of easy marketing," she said, "but I don't want my work to look as if it's standing on the foundations of white writers. I intend my stuff to be here for a while, not riding anyone's coattails, but built to last."

One hint at how awkward all of this might look to traditional bookselling is that Okorafor has had about a half dozen publishers for her dozen or so books so far, including Penguin, Houghton Mifflin and Simon & Schuster. Even Betsy Wollheim, publisher at DAW, which bought "Who Fears Death," said the book, which has child soldiers, rape, female genital mutilation, and fantasy and magic, was deemed such an improbable sell that Nnedi's agent was "flabbergasted" when she bought it.

Naunihal Singh, a friend of Okorafor's who teaches African politics at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said, "Having lived in West Africa I see the impulse, and she's right, the everyday in Africa is somewhat fantastical, the spiritual does sit alongside the everyday, the architecture has science-fiction elements, the people talk a lot about the future. But I don't think publishers understand how to present that, or sell a writer who doesn't care about labels on her work or hard lines between reality and fantasy."

"I've known this area my whole life," Okorafor says as we drive around Flossmoor and Homewood on a chilly day. She moved to the south suburbs as a child and never left. She has internalized the place, as you would expect a master builder of worlds might do. She knows every set of train tracks, and every viaduct they cross; she knows that storefront still occupied by the same real-estate office, and the church once bought by a famous football player that now sits empty and decaying. She has internalized every dip in the landscape and every rise. She can see where things are new, and where things never changed, and not just what is there now but the decades that came and went.

Passing a tennis court unlocks memories of a coach who would not stand up to the people who didn't want black girls playing on it; passing a funeral home, "I try not to look", she says that after father died at 63 in 2004 and she left the wake that day, she went home and began writing "Who Fears Death." And it reads raw, like it was soaked in an ache.

She notes her longtime gym.

She points to the resilience of her Family Video store.

We turn into her childhood subdivision. She holds a hand to face and lightens, and you can see in her expression how this neighborhood, 40 years ago, once seemed new and never quite lost its charm. You see a sledding hill in a cul-de-sac, and leafy shade that can hide deer, pheasants and an occasional coyote. "Spielbergian," she says, and it is.

Okorafor lives in an unremarkable apartment building in Flossmoor. She often writes at a thick wooden dining table, and behind her, on the wall, there's a patchwork of Post-Its from a recent "Wild Seed" development session with Kahiu.

"No Time Travel," warns one.

There's not much else on the walls but a poster from her "Shuri" comic for Marvel. The place feels like both an anchor and steeped in transience. "It's where I hide," she says. "It's homey, it's where I grew up, it's quiet and I don't want a lawn." From here, she spins multiple plates, leaving for days of meetings and speaking gigs. She says her mother lives four minutes away (conveniently, because Nnedi also has a 15-year old daughter), then adds in the next breath she only recently left her mother's house, at 38. It's a Nigerian thing, she says, to stay close to family. Her sisters and brother, all with Ph.D.s and impressive-sounding careers, Ngozi, a lawyer, spent years in the Illinois governor's office; Ifeoma is a chiropractic physician; and Emezie, her brother, an MIT and University of Chicago graduate, is an animator, live only a short drive away.

Their parents met in Nigeria, came to the United States, started the family, then moved around the country with her father's medical residencies. Sometimes, as in South Holland in the 1980s, the Okorafors were one of the first black families in a white town.

They had buckets of paint dropped into their swimming pool; Helen, their mother, said that her children first heard the N-word while riding a South Holland school bus. Though by the time they arrived in the Homewood-Flossmoor area, the sisters' reputation was preceding itself. Ngozi said, "We were already ranked when we arrived (at HFHS). Mom saw tennis was a practical way to pay for college, and it was our lives. We traveled with the National Junior tennis circuit, at the same time as Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport. And we would get hate mail at home. People complained about our eligibility."

"They were pre-Venus and Serena," remembered Tanya Harry, a Los Angeles schoolteacher who has stayed close friends with Nnedi, "and they could be a fearsome sight. These three black sisters who just walked in their power. They played so determined."

But Nnedi, she said, was a target.

"Kids made fun of her appearance, and she was chased in hallways, I remember being settled into a class and these kids burst into the room to taunt her. She was tall, skinny and dark-skinned, so people expected to her to get shy and nerdy, but she was not embarrassed about herself. It intimidated the people who wanted to pick on her." In fact, Ngozi said that Nnedi grew so exhausted of the abuse, and the air of resentment she felt on the tennis team, "that when they tried to demote her to (second string), she just quit. And two days later the principal is at our house apologizing, to get her playing."

The paralysis came about two years later.

Nnedi recalled: "I might have lost it completely, just go into some dark place. And then, I just started writing." She was always a reader, "but it never crossed my mind to sit and write." She loved Stephen King, and thought of science fiction as mostly cold and inaccessible. So she didn't think of her first stories as science fiction, but pulling from life, and the surreal sights she remembered from family vacations in Nigeria. She wrote another story about a track match, and the way she saw stars the harder she pushed.

Except in her story, the character breaks through into another dimension.

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