Nnedi Okorafor Is Putting Africans at the Center of Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Nigerian-American writer never saw an African future in the sci-fi literature she read, so she started creating one.

Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor Twitter

“In postapocalyptic and apocalyptic narratives when they show the whole world freaking out about something that is happening to the Earth, they never show Africa,” says Nnedi Okorafor, the author of 11 books of science fiction and fantasy, among them the award-winning Zahra the Windseeker, The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death. “I wasn’t seeing it, so I started writing it.”

Okorafor is talking about science fiction-fantasy writing, a genre that, within a publishing industry known for its lack of diversity, is especially lacking people of color. Indeed, a recent spate of examples gives credence to this: the outcry against casting a black Stormtrooper in Star Warsthe outcry, again, over the casting of a black Hermione Granger in the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; and the outcry against the black character Rue in The Hunger Games. “I was pumped about The Hunger Games,” said Twitter user John Knox IV. “Until I learned a black girl was playing Rue.” And on and on and on.

This resistance to the portrayal of black characters makes no sense. The entirety of the science fiction-fantasy genre is based upon the overarching experience of the global African Diaspora. Enslaved peoples, colonization and genocide—with the women of the oppressed group at specific risk for being targets of sexual violence—are the usual narratives of the sci-fi-fantasy genre. These are all experiences that people of the global African diaspora have lived—and live—every day. So why is it that the public imagination has such a hard time envisioning people of color in science fiction and fantasy worlds?

The Root sat down with Okorafor to discuss the lack of people of color in science fiction and fantasy, how Nigeria and America influence her work, and her impressive writing career.

The Root: How did you start writing?

Nnedi Okorafor: Before the age of 21, I wanted to be an entomologist. I loved sciences and math. Around the age of 13, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. I was the state champion in tennis and a track star. Over time, the curvature of my spine became more extreme. After my first year of college, my doctors said I needed to have spinal surgery or my organs would collapse from the disease. After the surgery, I was paralyzed from the waist down. I was in the hospital for a month, and eventually over time, the sensation in my legs returned, but I could no longer play competitive sports. The only way I could stay sane was to start writing little stories.

TR: Why did you decide to write science fiction-fantasy?

NO: From the very beginning I was writing what was considered literary fiction. But because of my own world view, I see the world as a magical, mythical place. My professors called it magical realism. At some point, I turned that up more and the fantastical elements became more pronounced. And when I was published, people started classifying my work as fantasy. In 2000, the science fiction stuff kicked in, too. When I traveled to Nigeria, I would see Nigerians interacting with technology in a way that I was not seeing reflected in literature. I was not seeing Africa as a whole reflected in writing about the future.

Being an American, I knew of science fiction. The foundation was already there. The thing that kicked me into writing it was not the existing sci fi, but considering Nigeria and wanting to see Africa in the future.

TR: How do Nigeria and America influence your writing?