Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor (2011)

Akata is a derogatory Nigerian word for an African-American — like Sunny, who moved from New York to Nigeria with her Nigerian parents a few years ago, when she was nine. One day she sees a frightening image of the future in a candle, and discovers that she is a witch born to Muggle parents “free agent.” Her albino skin turns out to be a manifestation of her ability to move between our world and the spirit world. Her friend Orlu and neighbor Chichi have grown up in the magical “Leopard” world, and they begin to teach her its wonders. But as Sunny saw, the end of the world is coming, and it’s up to the three friends — plus troublemaker Sasha, also newly arrived from the States — to stop it.

Okay, let’s get the totally unavoidable Harry Potter comparisons out of the way. The first third of the book is made up of the requisite “Sunny sees the magical world and starts magic school” sequences, and I couldn’t stop drawing parallels. There’s Diagon Alley Leopard Knocks, full of wonder for Sunny, where the kids buy the books they’ll need for their magical education. There’s Dumbledore Anatov, the wise teacher who tosses them into danger without ever giving them quite enough information. There’s the mysterious, dead magical relative whom Sunny’s family won’t discuss. There’s the scene where Sunny breaks a magical rule to terrify a bully and is taken to the Ministry of Magic Obi Library to be punished. And of course, there’s the team of untrained kids who must save the world.

Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t matter. “There are only x stories in the world” and all that, and the details of this one are fabulous and original enough to distinguish itself. Okorafor’s imagination is just as boundless as Rowling’s (and in fact her magic holds together better), and she has created just as immersive a world.

And I’m kind of burying the lede here, but: it’s not a white world. Kids who love fantasy — white kids, black kids, everybody — devoured Harry Potter, but Hogwarts grew from a very particular British fantasy tradition and boarding school tradition, and with a few secondary character exceptions, everyone’s British and white.

I don’t think there’s a single white character in Akata Witch. And not only that, but the American characters — the only Westerners — are singled out for their Americanness; being American is Other, even explicitly in the title. Nigeria, an African country, is portrayed as a place where normal people live out their lives — not crushingly impoverished people, not people in a war zone, but kids and adults who go to school and have jobs and cell phones. Sunny’s parents had jobs in the U.S. and chose to move back to Africa. I don’t even know how to say how rare that is in an American children’s novel.

Stacy Whitman of Tu Publishing talks about “mirrors” and “windows”:

mirrors to see your own experience reflected back, windows to see into another world. Author Zetta Elliott recently added a dimension to that which I like, the idea of “sliding glass doors” to walk in and experience someone else’s world.

Akata Witch is a much-needed mirror for African-American kids and West African kids who like fantasy, and a heck of a rich, entertaining sliding door for everyone else. Highly recommended.

(Also highly recommended is the rest of Stacy’s 3-part piece on diversity in children’s literature, which begins here.)

Also reviewed by: The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Brooklyn Rail, and Waking Brain Cells. Odnani gives some fascinating background about the Igbo magical tradition from which the book draws.

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6 Responses to Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor (2011)

  1. Sam says:

    Thanks for the rec, Ruth! I might check that out when I’m in the mood for a grown-up book. :)

    Charlotte, I’m sure you have PLENTY to read after BEA, but I’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say when you read it.

  2. Charlotte says:

    I rushed out and bought this….and now it’s languishing unread. Sigh!

    Once I get home again from BEA, I am going to read this.

  3. Ruthling says:

    I’ve also read and enjoyed _Who Fears Death_ (if you want to borrow it) although it wasn’t quite satisfying in some way, perhaps because it was billed as post-apocalyptic SF rather than what it turned out to be which was more fantasy with a tiny bit of SF backstory.

  4. Arianna says:

    Ohh sounds so good! I’m excited to read it!

  5. Sam says:

    I don’t want to read about graphic genocide, rape, and female genital mutilation! This is why I read YA! (But I’m glad the book was good. :) )

  6. Martha says:

    Ooh, I read an adult fantasy novel (“Who Fears Death”) by her and liked it a lot. You might like it; it had some similarities to this one, but in a vaguely post-apocalyptic African setting, and with some pretty intense subject matter (genocide, rape, female genital mutilation).

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