Writer Nnedi Okorafor was born and raised in the U.S., but she says her immigrant parents were always talking about Nigeria. “We had the American experience, but they also didn’t leave home behind …” Okorafor says. Nigeria “didn’t feel like a place of the past. It felt like a place of the now and the future.”
Their frequent trips back to visit family and connect with their heritage were formative for her. “There were stories there,” Okorafor says. “Even before I was a writer … I noticed those stories and they were always something that my sisters and I would talk about.”
The tales she heard as a child informed her latest middle grade novel, Ikenga. The book set in present-day Nigeria and follows Nnamdi, a boy who vows revenge after his police chief father is murdered. But how much power can a 12-year-old have? Turns out, a lot – especially after he’s given an Ikenga, a magical object that turns him into a superhero.
An Ikenga is “really quite a complex thing,” Okorafor explains, “but most simply put … it’s an Igbo spirit or symbol of strength. … But there’s a lot more to it.”
On how a surgery she had as a teen led her to become a writer
I was an athlete and then I had scoliosis and had to have corrective surgery — have my spine fused. … I was supposed to be back on the tennis court and on the track within a few weeks. … [But my body] responded to that surgery with paralysis and they didn’t know why. I was 19. It was traumatic. …
The only way that I kept myself sane, I started writing these stories. That was how I started writing, and I haven’t stopped writing since. So that was really the path that opened up storytelling to me — because I never had written anything prior to that. … I didn’t come from the kind of family that went in that direction, that even considered that direction — [it was a] very scientific, academic family. So the fantasy aspect, definitely it came from that journey because there was a very mystical aspect to losing the ability to walk when you were a mega athlete and then learning again. …
I was definitely drawing from my journey with paralysis in Nnamdi’s journey. … When I went through what I went through, I discovered this … superpower in a lot of ways, which was storytelling. I discovered it through that pain, you know, that loss. And I had to learn how to embrace it, because if I didn’t, I would have gone to a very dark place. And I think Nnamdi does the same thing.
On seeing the world through the eyes of a child experiencing grief
[It’s] a middle grade story, but it’s dealing with some heavy issues, and it’s dealing with it from a child’s point of view. … That’s really, really valuable for young readers to first start learning how to unpack things, and how to piece things together, and understanding how everything affects everything. That’s a really important lesson to learn as a kid. But also for me — as a writer — it was interesting going through all of that through the eyes of a child as well.
On whether the themes in the book were inspired by present-day corruption
I started writing this in 2009. … What we’re dealing with now in the United States, it’s not something that just happened. It’s been been going, and going, and going, and if we’re talking about Nigeria, Nigeria has been battling corruption for a very long time as well. … I couldn’t say that it was inspired by current events, but its connection to current events is certainly no accident.
On having a more global perspective
It was like I grew up hybrid — this hybrid culture where … I’m learning about two different histories and blending them together. And so when I sat down to write, that’s what naturally came forth. … When it comes to looking at things historically, I look at it in a very broad, global way. Everything that happens, you know, I’m making connections not just from one country, but from two countries.
On receiving pushback from religious conservatives in Nigeria
If there’s no pushback, you’re not doing it right, you know? … If everyone loves what you’re doing, I would start questioning what you’re doing. I think that, like, if you’re pushing at something, if you’re really, really looking closely at something, you’re not going to please everybody. There will be people who disagree with you. And that’s good. That’s good because that’s how conversations happen. …
Of course, I’m going to get pushback, especially from religious conservatives … those who don’t want me to bring forth these, you know, indigenous and traditional beliefs. … But one thing that I’ve always wanted to do is … celebrate indigenous … cultural and mythical and cosmological beliefs within my stories. Because, you know, I feel like colonialism has stifled a lot of that. It’s stifled a lot of that and made those things taboo or to be viewed as evil — and I think that’s highly problematic.
So yeah, I’m fine with the pushback. I expect the pushback. I’m ready for the conversation. … Good conversation is how people learn and how people think about things.
Samantha Balaban and D. Parvaz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.