“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 Wars; the 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?
NO: The very first story I ever wrote when I was a sophomore in college was set in Nigeria. That’s where I have always felt my creative muse is located. The worst things in my life have happened in Nigeria; the most wonderful things in my life have happened in Nigeria. Being raised as a Nigerian American is all over my work. That hybridity, the conflicts, the similarities—the fusion of those two cultures combining and conflicting—that is why I am who I am and why I write what I write.
TR: Why did your family leave Nigeria and immigrate to the U.S.?
NO: Both of my parents were at the top of their classes academically and athletically. My mom was known throughout Africa for the javelin and also made the Nigerian Olympic team. My dad was a nationally known hurdler. They were both the valedictorians of their high school and college classes. They came to the United States in 1969 for school and planned to go back to Nigeria. But then they got stuck here because of the Nigerian Civil War.
TR: How do you feel the Civil War changed Nigeria?
NO: Even to this day, there is the ghost of that war that still lingers. Every Nigerian family knows that ghost, whether they want to talk about it or not. It has caused a friction that is extremely powerful—especially between the various ethnic groups—and a communication barrier that needs to be flushed out in order to properly move forward.
TR: What was your own childhood in America like?
NO: I was born in this country and raised in a predominantly white neighborhood where I was the only black person in the classroom. We were the first black family to move into our south-suburban-Chicago neighborhood. It was extremely racist. We were called the n-word and chased down the street every day. They threw paint in our pool, and we got hate letters.
But I remember my childhood being very positive because I had my sisters with me. And my parents consistently took us back to Nigeria, to a country full of all black people who were our relatives. Those trips helped us understand that the world was bigger than the racism we were experiencing in Chicago and allowed us to see various perspectives.
TR: What inspired Binti and Lagoon, your latest books?
NO: The movie District 9, which portrayed Nigeria so awfully, was the beginning of Lagoon. I began to think about aliens [and what it] would really be like if they did come to Nigeria. Binti was inspired by a trip to the United Arab Emirates, which was the first time I saw a jellyfish out in the wild. I wanted to pay homage to that jellyfish. But it was also really inspired by my leaving Chicago to come to Buffalo, N.Y.
TR: What do you make of the lack of black people in science fiction and fantasy books?
NO: It’s a full-bodied problem. It’s systematic. It’s not that the writers aren’t there. The writers have been there. They are there. But the gatekeepers have kept people out. And it’s an audience problem: Audiences seem to be used to a certain type of narrative, a certain kind of main character—a certain type of everything. And those certain types don’t include people of color. So when people of color are written, there is usually some kind of filter they are seen through—whether written by a white author or watered down until it’s comfortable.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.