Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kabu Kabu - Nnedi Okorafor

In August I read Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death (2010). It was my first experience with her writing in the long form and I found it to be one of the most thought-provoking novels I've read all year. When I saw Kabu Kabu, a short story collection published by Prime Books, pop up on NetGalley I jumped at the chance. Kabu Kabu is a very diverse set of stories. I guess you could call most of them fantasy or magical realism, sometimes with a bit of science fiction mixed in. It's one of those collections that take a bit of time to read. I think it took me three weeks to read all twenty-one stories. It is one of those collections that work best in small portions.

The stories themselves are pretty diverse but a number of themes crop up in a lot of them. Okorafor is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants to the US, more specifically of the Igbo people. The borders of Nigeria are a remnant of colonial times and the nation is home to a ethnically diverse population with the three largest groups, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo making up almost seventy percent of the population. The Igbo people make up the majority of the population in south-east Nigeria, a place Okorafor has been visiting regularly since her early childhood. Her experiences of visiting Nigeria have worked their way into such stories as Kabu Kabu, a collaboration with Alan Dean Forester and The Carpet. The prejudices of both sides are discussed in this story, sometimes in a humorous way, although at time exasperation also shines through.

The parts of Nigeria where the Igbo people are the majority of the population is also the oil rich part of the country. In several stories oil production plays a large part. She describes the environmental degradation caused by oil spills and the irony of the fuel shortages that plague the local population, as well as the other disastrous effects of attempts to steal fuel. In Spider the Artist, the only story I've read before, it was part of John Joseph Adam's anthology Seeds of Change (2008), she creates monstrous robots released by oil companies to protect their pipelines. It's a very dramatic story that despite the inevitable death and destruction contains a kernel of hope. The Popular Mechanic is another that blends a science fiction element with the reality of the situation in the Niger delta. This time Okorafor aims for more than just the oil companies.

Nigerian folklore shows up in a number of stories as well. The stories How Inyang Got Her Wings, The Winds of Harmattan, Windseekers and Biafra all feature the Windseeker Arro-yo, a character from an unpublished novel, is the main character. Windseekers have a number of supernatural abilities and Arro-yo is regarded with suspicion in most of the stories. Okorafor uses How Inyang Got Her Wings in particular to show the horrible treatment a woman who stands out can expect to receive. The treatment of women who dare to step outside what is deemed proper in a patriarchal society is a theme included in many of the stories. Pretty much all of Okorafor's female characters are unashamed of their ambitions or sexuality. In the Windseeker stories, featuring characters that are very obviously different, this theme is particularly pronounced. I understand Okorafor has written a young adult novel featuring a Windseeker as well. I haven't read that but based on these stories I might pick it up one of these days.

The most harrowing of the Windseeker stories must be Biafra. As the title suggests, the main character finds herself in the midst of that horrible post-colonial conflict called the Biafra War or the Nigerian Civil War. The story shows the tragedy of the conflict that to an extent still looms over Nigeria. Arro-yo is not one to takes sides, apart form separating those that are doing the hurting from those being hurt. It's a very powerful story.

Two stories are connected to other novels Okorafor wrote. In The Black Stain we return to the post apocalyptic world of Who Fears Death and digs into the history of the Ewu, children of mixed origin, the product of weaponized rape. As the subject suggests it is another tragedy. This time we see the story unfold from a male point of view. It's interesting to see how the main character swings from complete acceptance of the dehumanized status of the (fictional) Okeke people, to love for an Okeke woman so profound he challenges society and stands up for her. The consequences are nothing short of brutal.

The story Tumaki is lifted form Stormbringer, the sequel to The Shadow Speaker (2009). I haven't been able to find much information on it but to the best of my knowledge Stormbringer has not been published yet. Tumaki essentially a love story and one that once again shows the terrible consequences of a woman overstepping the boundaries society sets her. In some places, even reading is a crime. Personally I got the feeling I was missing a lot of the background of the story here. There is obviously a whole future history attached to the story and main character, a boy by the name of Dikéogu, has powers that are barely mentioned in the story. The strength of this piece is that we get to understand his fascination with Tumaki and even why it blinds him to the danger surrounding them. Given the rest of the collection the outcome of the story can't be too surprising to the reader though.

There are quite a few stories in this collection that end badly but Okorafor closes on a slightly lighter note. In The Palm Tree Bandit we see another woman doing something that is forbidden to her, but in stead of being harshly corrected, we she manages to overturn a custom. The foolishness of the men trying to figure out the identity of the bandit will make more than one reader grin. The occasional flashes of hunour in this story and a number of other ones (the opening story The Magical Negro is another one of those) are a nice counterbalance to the darker side of Okorafor's work.

The story contains a lot of different approaches to story telling. They span over a decade in the writing career of Okorafor. Her writing has obviously changed over time and since the stories, as far as I can tell, are not ordered chronologically, the collection might come across as a bit of a jumble. In fact, I'd be curious to know the reasoning behind the order they've been placed in. Personally the diversity of the stories and cross genre nature of the collection are things I enjoyed about Kabu Kabu but Okorafor does make the reader work hard to find the common ground and see the thematic links.  Kabu Kabu is a collection that requires a bit of patience and reflection to properly appreciate. If you are looking challenging reading material, stuff that crosses into territory not often visited in fantasy or science fiction, this collection might be just the thing.

Book Details
Title: Kabu Kabu
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 241
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-60701-405-8
First published: 2013

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