Friday, October 28, 2005

Pink Polka Dotted Jumping Frogs! Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Zahrah the Windseeker is probably aimed at 12-13 yr olds. It's a bit chicklet-lit for my tastes (lots of stuff about looks and mirrors, a diary format, and written in the first person almost as a "problem" book) but it is very interesting.

Zahrah has dadalocks, heavily dreaded hair in which green vines grow. The rest of her people, whether they come from the North, the South or the West, grow Afros. Zahrah is teased and a little bit isolated, but she has one friend, Dari, a boy fascinated by the Greeny Forbidden Jungle which lies beyond the town. He has been reading an electronic book all about the Jungle, and written by a group of explorers, many of whom died getting the information, but the book is largely ignored by a society that prefers to believe the jungle barely exists.

When Zahrah discovers she can fly, Dari takes her off to the jungle to practice, and there he is bitten by a war-snake. To save him, Zahrah goes off into the jungle to find the unfertilised egg of an elgort, the most fearsome beast in the jungle. On this journey she encounters a pink polka-dot toad who keeps asking her what she wants, and the wise gorillas who refuse the "tech" of humans and lead there own lives. I'm not a huge fan of encounter-narratives but all of this is done well and the characters Okorafor-Mbachu thinks up are interesting. The Guide to the Jungle tho is the most intensely irritating book since The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's written in an intensely jovial tone which may be supposed to remind us of the faux boyishness of colonial explorers. I just wanted to smash it. But as Zahrah clearly did too, that's ok.

Lurking behind this novel is a simple question: where are we? Zahrah's people don't seem very numerous. They are surrounded by forest. They use plant-life technology (ie living light bulbs and computers that grow from seed). There is an odd reference to Alice's adventures in Wonderearth. Earth is a mythical wonderland. What I particularly like about this book is that very, very slowly, Okorafor-Mbachu takes us from a fantasy land into a science fictional world, without ever having a moment of "revelation. She also resists the idea of a stranded people "regressing" seeing instead a complex interaction of lost culture replaced with a new, creole culture as the colonists adapt. There is extraordinary vibrancy here as Okorafor-Mbachu constructs the sense of a culture which is actually changing. This is a very rare thing in "lost colony" novels.


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