Books by Nnedi Okorafor
Long Juju Man /
Zahrah the Windseeker
Shadow Speaker /
Who Fears Death
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Thanks for giving me the opportunity to conduct an
interview. First off, this is embarrassing for me but
how do you pronounce your name?
No worries. I keep the phonetic spelling of my name on
file in my computer for just this question (which I get
all the time J): Neh-dee (Nnedi) Oh-core-ra-for (Okorafor)
Is there a story behind the name Nnedi?
My full name is Nnedimma Nkemdili Okorafor-Mbachu.
Imagine if I put that on my books. Talk about scaring
people away. Ha ha. “Nnedimma” means “Mother is good.”
Nnedi means “Mother is”. Apparently when I was born I
came out looking exactly like my grandmother.
What kind of research did you have to do for
Plenty. But for different things. I did a lot of
research on the Sahara Desert, the Wodaabe people of
Niger, the Hausa people of Nigeria and Niger, various
forms of Islam, the Aïr Mountains, the country of Niger,
a lot of scientific stuff (especially for the capture
station), etc. I did a lot of scientific research,
mainly involving creatures. The many creatures of my
stories are usually based on creatures that I’ve
personally encountered or that I have read about.
Can you share with us your experience with paralysis?
I’ve always been very athletic. I was always the kid who
was chosen first during playground games. Both my
parents were athletes, my three siblings were all
From the age of
nine I focused on the sport of tennis. All through grade
school and high school, I played semi-pro tennis. I also
was exceptionally good in track and field. Up to the age
of 19, my life revolved around two things—sports and
books (reading them).
Starting at the age
of 12, I developed scoliosis that progressively grew
worse as I grew up. When I was 19, after my first year
of college (I was on the tennis team), I learned I had
to have spinal surgery or I’d definitely be severally
crippled by the age of 25. There was a one percent
chance of paralysis. Which gamble would you make? Yeah,
even today, I’d still choose the surgery option.
May 18th. I went
into the hospital walking and woke up a day later
paralyzed from the waist down. I spent the rest of that
summer learning to walk. I returned to school using a
cane. It was awful.
incident also made me turn inward for a while. It also
forced me to give up sports. Though all my strength
remained, I’d lost my agility and my balance was
terrible. You can still knock me down pretty easily.
So, I had a tragic
sense of loss, hints of rage, a creative mind, and a lot
of unspent energy. The conditions were right for the
discovery of fiction writing. I discovered it that very
semester when, upon a friend’s advice, I took a creative
writing class. The rest is history.
Did it have any impact on your writing?
My experience with paralysis IS why I started writing.
One thing I took
from the experience was a sense of urgency. I basically
had one great talent snatched from me and then another
took its place. I remain plagued by a need to write as
much as I can before this gift gets snatched from me,
too. It’s part of why I write so much and so fast.
Secondly, what I
learned from sports, what is a large part of why I was
able to walk again, was a very strong sense of
discipline. I use that same discipline when I write
novels. It’s another reason why I write so fast.
paralyzed forced me to disregard the physical for a
while and travel inward. That’s where I found much of
the weird stuff you find in my work. That’s where I
discovered the storyteller within. Friends of mine say
that the whole paralysis thing was fate. Maybe, but it
When did you decide to pursue writing seriously?
It was more of a gradual thing. After my first creative
writing class, I didn’t stop writing. I just fell in
love with it. I started knitting novel and I didn’t even
know it. I had no intention of getting published. It was
purely for the love of story. I did this type of
continual writing for about five years. I wrote three
novels. Then somewhere along the line I started getting
short stories published. When I wrote my fourth novel, I
started thinking about getting it published. I think
when I got my first agent, I realized that I was writing
What is it about fantasy or science fiction that
attracted you as a reader? As a writer?
I see the world as a magical place. I believe that was
why I was attracted to fantasy and science fiction as
both a reader and a writer. This kind of literature also
seemed to address issues of otherness in ways that
really resonated with me.
You’ve mentioned in an interview that among many things,
you’re a horrible speller and didn’t do so well in
English. How has this affected your writing or what
steps did you take to overcome them?
In high school, my best subjects were math and the
sciences, especially geometry, calculus, and biology. I
excelled in grammar, too. Plus I had always read
voraciously. However, when it came to the subjects of
literature and writing, I was pretty bad. Maybe I didn’t
have the best teachers or maybe it was all just a matter
of time or maybe the books we focused on didn’t spark my
interests. I think it was a combination of all these
things. Eventually, I got it together by college.
As far as spelling,
there’s no hope there. Ha ha. I think it’s genetic. My
mom, who has a PhD in health administration and was at
the top of her college class, is also a terrible
speller. My mom and I also both have weird issues with
knowing our left from our right. I have to really think
about it. Thank goodness for spell-check.
Can you elaborate on the importance of formal education
in your development as a writer?
I learned about structure during my masters and PhD
(English with an emphasis on creative writing). Point of
view, character development, theme, form, these are what
I took from academia when it comes to my writing.
Fiction writing requires creativity and no university
can teach that. However, it also requires craft, and
that a university can teach very very well.
Is incorporating Nigerian elements into your stories a
conscious decision on your part or does it fall more
along the lines of “write what you know”?
Nigeria and the greater Africa are where my muse resides
right now. Maybe someday that will change. I don’t see
that being soon. It’s not a conscious choice, it just is
what it is.
It’s not always
writing what I know. I’ve never been to Niger (where
takes place). Well, I’ve flown over it. I’ve written an
adult novel that incorporates a mix of Nigerian,
Sudanese, and Tanzanian magic and culture. I’ve only
been to Nigeria.
If I’m doing
anything conscious it’s that I’m filling in blanks. I’ve
always wanted to read fantasy set in Africa that is
about Africa and Africans, that’s set in the now or the
Do you foresee yourself as the “next Octavia Butler”?
There will never be another Octavia Butler. But she is a
great influence on my own work. She showed me that what
I was doing was possible and publishable. I just want to
be “Nnedi the Tall Nigerian American Woman who Writes
that Weird Stuff.”
Is there a shift for you when writing adult fiction vs.
young adult fiction?
I write YA and adult fiction in the same way. I don’t
figure out what it is until it’s done.
How about your short fiction vs. your longer fiction?
Usually my short fiction is just the start of my longer
fiction. Only once in a while do I really write a short
story that is a short story. I have a story in a science
fiction anthology called
Seeds of Change.
What in your opinion are the elements of your writing
that distinguishes your young adult from your adult
fiction, if any?
When it’s all said and done and I look at my YA and
adult work, I see that my adult fiction is significantly
darker and far more graphic.
You’ve mentioned that you’re both a feminist and a
womanist. Could you define for us what each of them
means for you and how they sometimes clash with each
To me, to be a feminist is to believe in the equality of
men and women, despite differences. It also means that
you acknowledge that there is inequality and seek to
right that wrong in your own way. So I’m a feminist.
Womanism is feminism for people of color, feminism that
actively incorporates the complexity of race into the
equation. Yeah, I’m that, too.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in
becoming a writer?
My family and, I guess, culture. In my family, and
amongst Igbos as a whole, the most respected careers are
in medicine and engineering. Writing is a hobby.
I remember my
father scoffing at the idea (he was a cardiovascular
surgeon and a Chief of Surgery in Chicago). I definitely
had to prove myself. So when I decided I was serious, I
knew I had to do more than just get published. I had to
get a PhD in writing (Nigerians love degrees) and get
published by a top publisher, amongst other things.
What projects are you currently working on?
I just sold a YA fantasy novel to Penguin Books titled
“Sunny and the Leopard People.” It’s about a Nigerian
albino girl who discovers some serious strangeness in
her neighborhood and eventually becomes a part of it.
I’ll be editing that soon. And this summer I wrote a
sort of part two to The Shadow Speaker
tentatively titled “Stormbringer.” Then there’s also my
Who Fears Death, that is currently being
Okorafor-Mbachu is the author of
Who Fears Death
(DAW, 2010), The
(Disney Media Group, 2007; rpt 2009) and
Zahrah the Windseeker
(Houghton Mifflin, 2005; rpt 2008). Her short stories have appeared in
numerous anthologies, magazines and journals, the latest
being “Spider the Artist” in
Seeds of Change
(Prime Books). Nnedi is a 2007 NAACP Image Award Nominee
and the recipient of several literary awards including
the 2008 Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. She is
currently a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at
Chicago State University.
is a speculative fiction fan from the Philippines. He
has lots of online doppelgangers, including a
Singaporean politician and a Filipino basketball player,
but people should be warned that the “real” Charles Tan
is a bibliophile who stalks his favorite authors. His
blog, Bibliophile Stalker is updated with daily
content including book reviews, interviews, and essays.
He is also a contributor for
* * * *
Nnedi Okorafor—Behind the Words, Part 1
* * * *
Who Fears Death
By Nnedi Okorafor
Well-known for young adult novels (The
Zahrah the Windseeker),
Okorafor sets this emotionally fraught tale
in postapocalyptic Saharan Africa. The young
sorceress Onyesonwu—whose name means Who
fears death?—was born Ewu, bearing a mixture
of her mother's features and those of the
man who raped her mother and left her for
dead in the desert. As Onyesonwu grows into
her powers, it becomes clear that her fate
is mingled with the fate of her people, the
oppressed Okeke, and that to achieve her
destiny, she must die. Okorafor examines a
host of evils in her chillingly realistic
tale—gender and racial inequality share top
billing, along with female genital
mutilation and complacency in the face of
destructive tradition—and winds these
disparate concepts together into a
fantastical, magical blend of grand
“My life fell apart
when I was sixteen. Papa died.”
Those are the opening lines of
Who Fears Death.
I remember when I wrote them. I was thinking of Chinua
Things Fall Apart. I was thinking of change,
cultural shift, chaos. Okonkwo’s death. And my own
father’s very recent death. Yeah, all that in those two
In more ways than one, the opening scene of
Who Fears Death,
titled “My Father’s Face,” was the beginning of it all.
Originally, it was not the beginning of the novel. This
scene takes place well into the story when my main
character Onyesonwu is sixteen and has been through so
much. The original beginning was when Onyesonwu was five
years old and happy, living with her mother in the
desert. Nevertheless, “My Father’s Face” was the first
scene I wrote.
Though my stories tend to be mostly linear, I’m a
non-linear writer. I’ll write the middle, then the
ending, then the beginning and kind of jump around until
I’m done. Then I’ll tie all the scenes together and
neaten it up. Nevertheless, when
Who Fears Death
was all said and done, I wasn’t surprised that “My
Father’s Face” turned out to be the beginning of the
I started writing
Who Fears Death
just after my father passed in 2004. I was very very
close to my father and writing was my way of staying
sane. I based “My Father’s Face” on a moment I
experienced at my father’s wake when everyone had
cleared out of the room and I found myself alone with
I was kneeling there looking at his face, thinking how
much it no longer looked like him and how terrible that
was. My morbid thoughts were driving me into deeper
despair. Then suddenly I felt an energy move though me.
This energy felt highly destructive, as if it could
bring down the entire building. Almost all the details
in the scene I went on to write were true, I felt
them…well, up to the part where Onyesonwu makes her
father’s body breathe.
As soon as I wrote that scene, everything else rushed at
me. My father’s passing caused me to think about death,
fear, the unknown, sacrifice, destiny and cosmic
trickery. Only a week or so after my father’s passing, I
read the Washington Post article, “We
Want to Make a Light Baby: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said
to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing” by Emily
Wax. I was absolutely infuriated. The storytelling
spider in my head started weaving faster. I realized
that this article was showing me why the people in my
story’s town disliked Onyesonwu and why she was so
My mother, my sister Ifeoma and my brother Emezie flew
with my father’s body back to Nigeria for his burial.
When they returned, I learned through my siblings about
the way widows were treated within Igbo custom, even the
ones with PhDs…like my mother. I was again infuriated.
And I was reminded yet again of why I was a feminist.
A year later, I went to Nigeria for the one-year
memorial where I met my cousin Chinyere’s fiancé Chidi.
His last name was Onyesonwu. I was intrigued. I knew
“onye” meant “who” and “onwu” meant death. I wondered if
it was an ogbanje name (these named often have the word
“death” in them). I’d always been interested in the
concept of the ogbanje. Amongst the
back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes
were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a
way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.
I asked my cousin’s fiancé what his name meant (I
thought it would be rude to ask if it was an ogbanje
name. Plus it was his last name, not his first.). He
said it meant, “Who fears death.” That night, I changed
my character’s name and the title of the story. When I
did that, it was as if the novel snapped into focus.
During that trip, I touched my father’s grave. I heard
stories about the
Biafran War and arguments about how what happened
during this civil war was indeed the genocide of the
people. I saw death on the highway and thanked the
Powers That Be that my daughter (who was some months
over one year old) was asleep. I got to watch the women
in my father’s village sing all night in remembrance of
my father. My maternal grandmother, mother, daughter and
I were all in the same room at the same time—four
generations. My sister Ngozi and I visited the lagoon
that seemed so huge when we were kids but was really
quite small. It was populated by hundreds and hundreds
of colorful butterflies.
I wrote, conceived and incubated parts of
Who Fears Death
while in my father’s village, sometimes
scribbling notes while sitting in the shade on the steps
outside or by flashlight when the lights went out. I
wrote notes on the plane ride home, too. When I think
back to those times, I was in such a strange state of
mind. My default demeanor is happy. I think during those
times I was as close to sad as I could get.
When I got back to the States, I kept right on writing.
Who Fears Death
was a tidal wave and hurricane combined. It
consumed all of my creativity and sucked in all the
issues I was dealing with and dwelling on. It mixed with
my rage and grief and my natural furious optimism. Yet
when it came to writing the story, I was more the
recorder than the writer. I never knew what was going to
happen until my character told me and my hands typed it.
When I finished
Who Fears Death
, it was seven hundred pages long. A Book 1 and a
Book 2. Don Maass (my agent) felt this size was too
great and suggested that I pare it down. This process
took me another two years.
One of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest
idols, Nigeria’s great writer and Nobel Laureate
Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.
It pounces.” This tiger of a story definitely pounced on
me without proclamation or warning. I’m glad I was ready
for it.—Nnedi Okorafor
posted 25 January 2011
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* * * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale." Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates in ours.
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 11 April 2012