Home Truths and African Magic

Nnedi Okorafor
Akata Witch
(Viking Juvenile, 2011)

An adolescent misfit discovers that she is in possession of supernatural powers. Recruited to a secret society, she finds that her gifts can save the world from an apocalyptic struggle.

Browsers of the Young Adult aisle might think, “So far, so Harry Potter…” of Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel, Akata Witch. But this Nigerian-set adventure offers a provocative meditation on ethnicity and identity, while also challenging Western critics who neglect Young Adult writing.

Akata Witch is deft, sophisticated, and no more “supernatural” in its conceits than the politicized magic realism of the great South American authors. African critics have been quick to recognize Okorafor’s significance as a writer. She won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, the so-called “African Nobel,” for her 2005 debut Zahrah the Windseeker, but until Who Fears Death, an adult meditation on weaponized rape, she was doubly marginalized in the West as both a science fiction and YA author.

The soccer-loving hero of Akata Witch, Sunny, is also shunned twice over: she is an albino and an akata, a derogatory term for black Americans who live in Africa. In a reversal of the Western beauty myth’s Barbie-like standards, Sunny, with her blonde hair and skin “the color of sour milk,” is viewed as ugly and, at one point, is dismissed on suspicion of being a white girl.

Ethnicity spills into the secret realm of magic in this novel. African-American magicians in the United States find that “Everything’s biased towards European juju,” and must operate from a secret headquarters in South Carolina, sardonically known as “Tar Nation.”

Despite this pointed commentary on race, the defining characteristic of Akata Witch is cross-cultural tolerance. Sunny’s world is Afrocentric, but inclusive, and Okorafor peppers her writing with references to Douglas Adams, the Englishman whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy similarly entwined populist genre-writing with a compassionate and cosmopolitan worldview.

Akata Witch may have wizards and warlocks galore, but its overriding message is a hardheaded one regarding life’s realities. Sunny learns to live without American luxuries like 24-hour electricity, and her friends are told in no uncertain terms that their lives are dispensable when they go to battle a villainous magician: “The world is bigger than you are, it will go on without you.”

The balm for this blunt truth is a realization that, without being greedy, we must appreciate the gifts that life chooses to grant us. The thrill of Sunny’s first soccer match grips the characters, and the reader, just as much as the blood and thunder of the climactic showdown. Akata Witch reminds young readers that neither fantasy heroes nor Western nations have a guaranteed “special destiny,” but it also celebrates the shared adventure of everyday life on our planet.

Contributor

Matthew Finch