“I’ve always been fascinated by candles.”
Sunny is twelve years old. She was born in America, but moved back to Nigeria (where her parents are from) as a small child. She is also an albino. These things alone would make her an outsider; her white skin casts her as other, and her American upbringing leaves her on the fringes of friendship with her Nigerian classmates. They call her “akata,” a derogatory term for African Americans. She is also, unbeknownst to her at the start of the novel, one of the “leopard people,” i.e. a mofuckin witch. She learns of her heritage from her new friends, Chichi and Orlu, while her community is rocked by a series of seriously creepy serial murders. I tried to include as many words that began with “seri” in that sentence like you asked me to. I hope you’re all happy.
Nnedi Okorafor‘s Akata Witch has been on my radar since a dear bosom companion whose dissertation is on something something post-colonial African lit something something (sorry, bro, I can’t remember what exactly it’s about) told me about it. I think I had checked it out from the library twice and returned it unread before I finally got down to it. Anyways. I read Akata Witch, and there were elements that were so juicy that I couldn’t stop sinking my teeth into them and wanting more. However, there were too many mediocre or annoying aspects to this novel for me to actually love it.
First, the juice: THE WORLDBUILDING. MY GOD. This is exactly the kind of magical world that fantasy for young people NEEDS. It does not center around some vaguely medieval European world, or a bunch of white North Americans or Brits or what the fuck ever. It takes place in Nigeria, and the magic and the mythology and the entire wizarding world is based on and infused with Nigerian culture and folklore and food. Sunny’s world is refreshingly different but so lushly realized that it isn’t exoticized; it feels like you are experiencing something that you are simultaneously totally unfamiliar yet comfortable with, because Okorafor is that good of a descriptive writer.
Okorafor does a pretty incredible job of exploring race dynamics and what it is to be an outsider through Sunny’s unique position as a (very) light-skinned African American living in Africa. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, and her feeling of otherness is compounded when she is first inducted into leopard people society as a “free agent,” or someone who comes from non-magical parents. Her sense of alienation was resonant of the experiences a person with less money or a different racial background might feel when trying to assimilate into, for example, a mostly white and wealthy school setting. She belongs, technically, but she’s reminded at every opportunity how other she is, how much she has to prove that she deserves to be there. Beyond Sunny’s own perspective, Okorafor also introduces the character of Sasha, a young, insanely intelligent, and trouble causing African American sent to Nigeria so he can stay out of trouble. Through Sasha Okorafor is able to explore issues of racism in language that for adults might seem a bit obvious but for kids is just right.
There are also fairly badass feminist threads woven throughout the story; power is passed through the women of the family, the divine creator of the world according to leopard people mythology is a fairly indifferent woman (ha), there is commentary on the position of women in Nigerian society through the eyes of young girls. All of these things are done so well and, again, are so very absent from much of what’s being written for young people that I want to give Okorafor credit for creating such an awesome fucking magical world that acknowledges kids’ intelligence by giving them something meaty to chew on in their own language.
Now, the story. It’s basically like Harry Potter, only the main character is an albino Nigerian girl and not a white British boy. Girl is an outsider, girl learns she is magical, girl starts immersing herself in a magical world with the help of outsider friends, band of young ass wizards fight crime or a big bad or whatever. THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM. I love Harry Potter, and the experience of reading Akata Witch strongly mirrored what I felt when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It has all of the same sense of wonder and excitement that this character who has had a real shit time of it is a part of something bigger than her wretched beginning.
However, beyond the worldbuilding and the actual process of Sunny becoming initiated in the razzle dazzle world of leopard people, there are some weird plot elements, namely those surrounding the serial murders. The four young wizards (Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha) are called upon to do battle with the dark wizard who is cutting children’s eyes out and shit (natch), and this magical mystery/crime fighting element falls flat. I don’t know if she felt like she needed to incorporate some sort of Harry Potter esque mystery into what was actually a strong narrative on its own, but it felt tacked on and poorly developed. The final confrontation is bizarre because the kids have done nothing to actually solve the mystery; the adults in charge just figured out where this dude was going to be conducting some Buffy esque apocalypse ritual and told them to have at it even though they’re like, twelve. I know there is some whole poorly explained mystical coven thing going on, but again, it’s not explained very well, and neither is the magic Sunny uses to fight the big bad. She just does some vague…somethings…and somehow it all turns out OK. What? Everything else about this magical world felt so lush and tangible that I actually can’t forgive Okorafor for this climactic blip of lazy writing.
There was also some weirdness as to what the intended age for this book actually is, at least for me. The protagonists are all quite young, but there is a lot of reference to fairly graphic violence throughout that marks the readership as a bit older. AT the same time, the writing style is SUPER young, as in middle grade, thanks to some fairly forced and overly juvenile dialogue.
In other words, this one is a mixed bag. What Okorafor does right, she does really, really fucking right, but there are also some fairly mediocre elements that I couldn’t ignore. Should you read it, though? Absolutely. It’s a super fast read and it’s a real treat.
Where I got it: the library