"I think that act of pulling whatever was going on inside me and focusing it took me out of myself," she said. That summer, she alternated physical therapy with writing. She started using a walker, then decided to return to Urbana-Champaign for her sophomore year. Ngozi drove her. "We dropped her off at her dorm. She was on a cane. It was tough to see. I doubt I'd have returned like that, but Nnedi, she pushes through."
The least interesting thing about Nnedi is her success. Yet she sold her first book, "Zahrah the Windseeker," about an African child outcast with special powers, before she finished her Ph.D. in English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She turned down a job writing HBO's "The Leftovers" to teach creative writing at the University of Buffalo. She wrote five books before she sold one, and Roosevelt's Gary Wolfe was on her Ph.D. committee at UIC because the program didn't have anyone "who knew enough about science fiction literature." Her parents were horrified she wanted to be a writer, not a scientist. But that's less surprising than that her mother then demanded Nnedi get a master's degree in journalism, for career insurance. (She did, from Michigan State.)
"I would wonder where she gets her stories," her mother said. "She was definitely more interested in her (Nigerian) background than we were, but then we took it for granted. Now I just think sometimes you don't see the same things your children do, you know?"
The first time I visited Nnedi in Flossmoor, there were white-out conditions and her daughter's school was on lock-down; the second time, April rain soaked the neighborhood and there was a walk-out at the school because of a black-face video. Both times Okorafor seemed in a heightened state of anxiousness, the kind that infects the overly busy and overly committed. She runs her mini-empire from this small space, she explained, "and there is a lot of interest in (adapting for TV and movies) almost everything I have written, but I am concerned about it being done properly, and because I won't option anything that I don't get some say in, I can only allow so much. I am one person. I can't co-write everything."
Martin said "Who Fears Death" is still in the script stage; it's too early to say where it's headed. In the meantime, Okorafor's profile rises. Her health is fine, but the bottoms of her feet feel "eternally numb." So she drives with a flashlight. She does it to see her legs in the dark. "You rely on perception, but me, it's like my feet aren't there. If I flip on the light and see my feet, I'm OK. Which is a mental thing, but it's a physical thing too." And so she goes to the gym, the same gym that she has been going to since she was 11. They all know her there. "People recognize me, then they ask, 'Whatever happened to tennis?'"