Guest Post: Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker by Gary K. Wolfe
(first published in Locus, December 2005.)
One has to look closely at the jacket copy and promotional material for Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s first novel Zarah the Windseeker to realize that what appears to be a young adult fantasy based on Nigerian folklore—which would be worth our attention by itself--is in fact a young adult science fiction novel based on very clever analogues of Nigerian folklore. Okorafor-Mbachu, whose parents came from Nigeria but who grew up largely as a suburban Chicago teenager and did a master’s paper on video games, takes full advantage of this dual perspective in establishing the setting of her novel, the lushly overvegetated planet Ginen (a name which suggests the mythical homeland of the African diaspora, a notion reinforced by Okorafor-Mbachu’s naming the principal city on the planet Ile-Ife). Ginen is so uncontrollably fecund that much of the planet is covered by a dangerous and forbidden wilderness called the Great Greeny Jungle, and the human population, mostly located in the Ooni Kingdom, have not so much suppressed the jungle as learned to live with it: as in a few earlier SF tales (such as Geoff Ryman’s “The Unconquered Country”—interestingly, also set in an analog of a third-world nation), virtually all their technology is grown rather than manufactured, from their high-rise office towers, one of which is 4,188 feet high, to portable computers grown from seeds. Okorafor-Mbachu doesn’t spend a lot of time letting us explore this intriguing society, for whom Earth is but a vague myth, because she has a young adult adventure to get to, but there’s enough here to suggest that there may be room for more tales of the Ooni Kingdom, not all of them necessarily young adult.
And the young adult adventure, as it unfolds, comes to depend less on originality of plot than on Okorafor-Mbachu’s unflagging inventiveness in introducing us to a variety of strange creatures and places, from Little Shop of Horrors-style “carnigourds” to peaceful, technology hating intelligent gorillas to birds that continue to fly after they’re dead to a terrifying monster called the elgort. As with any YA novel, the minute you hear of something called a forbidden jungle you know that’s where the kids are going to end up, and in this case the kids are the narrator Zarah, who feels like an outsider because of having been born “dada”, with dreadlocks supposedly conveying magical powers—which, as Zarah discovers as the novel opens, include the power to levitate--and her risk-taking boyfriend Dari, who talks her into venturing into areas prohibited by their parents, such as the Dark Market, where Zarah meets another dada woman who will figure later in the novel. But when Dari convinces Zarah that they should explore the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, he is bitten by a poisonous War Snake. Zarah accompanies him in the ambulance to the emergency room (the novel makes good effect of these occasional transitions from the mythic to the contemporary and back; we also learn that an uncle of Zarah’s runs an auto-parts business), she learns that he will never recover from his coma until he’s injected with serum from an unfertilized egg of the dreaded elgort. This, of course, sets up the terms for Zarah’s quest, as she returns to the jungle alone on a mission to find a beast that no living person has seen and survived.
On occasion, Okorafor-Mbachu’s narrative voice wavers a bit—there are bits here and there that seem like shout-outs to adult SF fans, such as a joke drawn from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, or that seem to echo tutelary figures in fantasies ranging from the Narnia stories to The Last Unicorn, but for the most part Zarah the Windseeker is a consistently compelling and provocative tale that suggests new ways of treating folkloristic material, particularly African folklore, in a science-fictional setting. The traditional elements of the YA fantasy—the teenager as outsider with secret powers (in some ways, Zarah’s dreadlocks are the descendants of Van Vogt’s tentacle-haired Slan), the violation of community taboos, coming of age and testing one’s capabilities (Zarah’s ability to levitate or fly seems associated with her puberty), the quest to save a friend—are all handled by Okorafor-Mbachu with the grace and wonder of a young writer who remembers well the feelings she’s writing about. That’s about all we really need to conclude that this is a very promising first novel, not only in terms of YA fiction, but in terms of science fiction and fantasy as well.
My blog notes are here.