Monday, October 26, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Dossier: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011)

Location: Nigeria

Package Type: Book

Itinerary:  “Harry Potter in Nigeria” is the high concept here, as a Nigerian raised in America living in Nigeria again Sunny, an albino and the titular Akata Witch, finds out that she is a “Free Agent”, someone capable of magic but not raised by magic-using parents. By means of new friends far more versed in the magical world, Sunny learns what it means to have magical ability, and starts to learn about her power and abilities, while at the same time a serial killer is killing children. A serial killer that has ties to the Leopard People magical community that Sunny has herself just become a part of.

Travel Log: I don’t read a lot of YA, and so for the Nerds on Tour, I decided I would challenge myself by going for a YA novel, to further expand my horizons and my reading experience with this part of the Project. And I was very glad that I did. I was absorbed from the beginning, even before Sunny discovers that she has magical powers, by the strength of the writing to bring the reader into the protagonist’s Nigerian world. 

For all of the “Harry Potter in Nigeria” vibe that the novel gives off as mentioned above, especially in the second half of the novel, where the novel really resonated with me, and will likely resonate with other Western readers is the mundane world Nigerian setting. Sunny is a quasi-outsider to this world, having moved to Nigeria in the past, and the character of Sasha provides an even more Western, American character to allow for explanation, explication and exploration of what life is like in this part of West Africa. Okorafor does this in the large and the small, showing the reader a world that is not theirs, right from the first paragraph (where the author explains the unreliability of the power supply). 

Languages, cuisine, culture, family interactions, sports, Sunny brings the reader into her world, and there is just enough explanation and internal monologue to allow a reader to make connections, correlations and understand the world she is in. Okorafor keeps a careful balance between explanation and immersion, allowing readers to come into a world she knows very well and wants to very much introduce her readers to. I could see how things were slightly simplified and focused for a YA audience, but for a novel set in an unfamiliar place, people and culture, that results for me a better experience in getting myself familiar with Sunny’s world. 

The author uses those skills and techniques, in turn, on Sunny and with Sunny as we the reader go on her journey into the magical world of the Leopard People. And what a world. The author provides a culture-centered built from the ground up that resonates with the Harry Potter experience in some of its structure and building elements, (a small group of students drawn together, a magical sub-world hidden from the mundane world, magical competitions, dread secrets and history coming to the fore). And for all of that, this feels like it is a response and a retooling of some parts of Harry Potter that always annoyed me--Sunny and the others are expected to go to regular school, learn mundane subjects as well learn magic from the Leopard People. The pedagogic style of how Sunny and her friends learn magic is vastly different than the boarding school experience we get in Harry Potter. All in all, it feels a lot more plausible as a secret world that could actually work, that feels real and complete. 

This dossier would not be complete without a discussion of Sunny and her friends, our entry into this world. Reflecting the reader’s own disorientation with the world being presented, Okorafor has made Sunny an albino, meaning that she is an outside already, giving readers who are an outsider to the culture, society and world presented someone they can really identify and connect with, and that goes, I think for adult readers as well as the YA reader audience the book is. Add in Orlu, Chichi and the American Sasha, and you have a fast friend quartet of young protagonists who are learning, growing, making mistakes and providing excellent character beats and development in this unfamiliar world. I also appreciate they are messier, more well rounded, and more complicated than more archetypally drawn characters often found in YA fiction. 

Overall, I can strongly recommend Akata Witch not only to readers of YA, but readers of fantasy who want to learn more about West Africa, its world, people and culture.


The Adventure: 4/5

The Scenery:  5/5.

NerdTrip Rating: 9/10 Outstanding in its category, a trip relevant to the interests of many in SFF. Even if YA may not necessarily be your bag, this is a trip that you will likely love.

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know?@princejvstin.