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.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When Nnamdi's father, a police chief in Nigeria, is murdered, he vows revenge. But how much power does a 12-year-old boy really have? Turns out, a lot - that is, after he's given an Ikenga, a magical object that turns him into a superhero known as The Man. "Ikenga" is the new middle-grade novel from Nnedi Okorafor, who has won almost every major science fiction and fantasy award for her books. And she joins me now. Hello.
NNEDI OKORAFOR: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is an Ikenga, for those who may not know?
OKORAFOR: Oh, boy. An Ikenga - it's quite a complex thing. But most simply put, it's an Igbo - which is a Nigerian ethnic group - it's an Igbo spirit or symbol of strength.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sort of like a magical object - right? - that gets given to Nnamdi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: His father is the chief of police. And life was pretty good until his father is murdered. And everyone sort of suspects that the murder is tied to his dad's efforts to cut down on corruption in his town. So where does Nnamdi go from there? What does he decide?
OKORAFOR: So Nnamdi is - you know, he's a 12-year-old boy. First, he's kind of struggling with figuring out how to live his life. He - OK, so the story is set in present-day Nigeria in a small town called Kalaria. And that's in Imo State. It's a very specific part of Nigeria, in Imo State. This is the part of Nigeria that I know very well. And this town has trouble with corruption.
And that corruption comes in the form of all of these very colorful characters, criminals. Like, there's the kingpin, who's the chief of chiefs. And his - and Nnamdi's father - you know, he was embroiled in this need to take down all of these criminals. And that's really what the story stems from. So Nnamdi kind of decides to step into that role to finish what his father started.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, of course, nothing ends up exactly as planned. And there's sort of a very timely theme in this book. I made note of this line where a character talking about Nnamdi's father says he believed in justice, but, quote, "I could never believe that justice could ever be truly served under a corrupt system." Was that inspired by current events in this country or elsewhere?
OKORAFOR: I mean, I started writing this in 2009. These themes are - one, they're universal, and two, they're ongoing. What we're dealing with now in the United States is not something that just happened. It's 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this is in particular a hard thing to see through a child's eyes, isn't it?
OKORAFOR: Yeah. And that was - you know, he has to deal with understanding that things are often more complex than he would have thought. You know, there were a series of things that happened prior, long before he even existed, that made for these things to happen and to understand how it's all connected. I think that's 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. I learned a lot of things going through the journey from that perspective, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious what inspired this story. You say that this is from a very specific part of Nigeria that you know very well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems rooted in real life.
OKORAFOR: Yeah. Well, for one thing, the Ikenga is a real - I have an Ikenga, you know? And this is where that whole idea of the fantastical blending with the mystical is - it's something that I like doing a lot in my stories. But also, you know, from a young age, my - I was born in the United States, but my parents have been bringing me back to Nigeria with my siblings to meet family and all of that, reconnect with our heritage, all of that. And there were stories there. They've all - even before I was a writer, there were stories.
One thing that I've always wanted to do is celebrate Indigenous Nigerian - probably most specifically Igbo - cultural and mythical and cosmological beliefs within my stories because, you know, I feel like colonialism has stifled a lot of that and made those things taboo or to be viewed as evil. And I think that's highly problematic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask something else about you growing up and how you sort of came into this career. You had a pretty traumatic-sounding surgery when you were a teenager. You were paralyzed for a time. Did that have any effect on your desire to write and also to write fantasy in particular?
OKORAFOR: It's the reason why I write. I was an athlete - then when, you know, I had scoliosis and had to have corrective surgery, have my spine fused and everything. It was supposed to be normal, and I was supposed to be back on the tennis court and on the track. And I was in that 1% who responded to that surgery with paralysis, and they didn't know why.
So it was - I was 19, and before that, I wanted to study bugs. I wanted to be an entomologist. I always loved the sciences. Sciences and math were my strongest areas. When that happened, though, the only way that I kept myself sane - I started writing these stories.
And that was how I started writing because I never had written anything prior to that, never thought to - the fantasy aspect definitely - there was a very mystical aspect to losing the ability to walk when you were a mega-athlete and then learning again. There's definitely a mystical aspect to that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, it's interesting when I hear you tell the story of your surgery and recovery. And I want to bring it back to the book because it reminds me of this idea of the character Nnamdi, of feeling helpless then to feeling like you...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Have a superpower.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it seems like you made that journey, too.
OKORAFOR: Yeah. I was definitely drawing from my journey with paralysis in Nnamdi's journey with coming to terms with what he was given because we have this 12-year-old boy who is given this ability that's huge. It's huge, and it's destructive. It's unwieldy. It's scary. But it's amazing, and he can do amazing things with it. And he had to learn to not view it as a terrible thing and instead view it as something great.
When I went through what I went through, I discovered a superpower, in a lot of ways, which was storytelling. I discovered it through that pain. 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. Yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nnedi Okorafor - her new novel is "Ikenga."
Thank you very much.
OKORAFOR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.