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Nnedi Okorafor’s Fantasy Explores the Transformative Strength of Female Rage

Whether in outer space or in the desert winds, Okorafor’s characters’ rage calls and clarifies.

Nnedi Okorafor at the Berkeley Center for New Media
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  • Photo Credit: Berkeley Center for New Media / Flickr

Whether in outer space or in the desert winds, Nnedi Okorafor’s characters’ rage builds, burns, and clarifies. Her main characters are almost always women, often outcasts, often rejected by their own families or social groups. In Okorafor’s novels and novellas, this rage grows, twists, and transforms, carrying the plot with it. These are more than traditional coming-of-age stories. They are stories of young women finding their voices and power, breaking the societal chains that hold them down, and grappling with their own fury at the unfair nature of a world that wants to keep them small.  

Okorafor writes in a style she’s called Africanfuturism, imagining future worlds that center on African mythology, history, and worldview. She coined this term, rejecting the commonly-used “Afrofuturism” for a term that fit her work and narrative better. She says, “I am an Africanfuturist and an Africanjujuist. Africanfuturism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.” 

Since her first novel debuted in 2007, Okorafor has been creating bold visions of the future and indelible characters whose rage and power are inextricable. Whether in a spaceship with Binti, a lab filled with superhuman genetic experiments in The Book of Phoenix, or in the Northern Nigerian desert of Noor, Okorafor’s Africanfuturism interlocks its characters with systems that weigh them down—and watches as those same characters break the systems down.

Although the imagination of Okorafor’s work leads its readers into a variety of unique worlds and experiences, any reader can expect a few key similarities: technologies that combine futuristic foresight with long-existing mechanics, entrenched and unfair systems or governments, and a fire burning within the narrator to make change. 

But unlike less complex fantasy fare, the desired change isn’t simply a wish to make the world a better place—it’s tied up with the way that difference has marked the narrator and fueled by rage or shame or both. Their (sometimes monstrous) power means that they are not ordinary women, but always outsiders. 

Reckoning with the darker realities of shame and rage makes Okorafor’s work singular. It neither blames its characters for their feelings nor turns a blind eye to the harm they cause as they attempt to bring an end to the world that built their shame. 

Onyesonwu, the powerful protagonist of Who Fears Death, channels her pain and rage and vows to take revenge against the man who fathered her. She uses her supernatural gifts to confront and challenge the societal and cultural beliefs that have perpetuated violence and discrimination against her and her community. Through her journey, Onyesonwu learns to harness her anger and use it as a source of power to effect change for herself and her people.

In The Book of Phoenix, the titular character Phoenix is a genetically modified superhuman literally separated from her peers inside Tower 7, a lab that created her and other superhumans. When she realizes that her home is actually a prison, she begins to understand herself as something more than a coddled book lover, content to live within its walls. Furious at being held captive and used as a weapon, she taps into her rage to escape and seek revenge against those who have wronged her

In Noor, AO (once called Anwuli) was born with disabilities that left her parents praying that she would not survive. Instead, the young girl grows up and learns to control the elements outside her body by becoming a sun priestess, utilizing the pent-up anger churning within her. She creates a vision of modifying her own body to become exactly what she wants—regardless of how others react to this “Artificial Organism” in front of them. 

When readers meet these women and other characters of Okorafor’s work, each is at a different stage of their emotional journey. Some, like Binti, are just starting to reckon with the fact that the world considers them different. Others, like AO, have made their supposed difference key to their character. In AO’s case, that even means asking others to call her AO as a reminder of who and what she is.

One thing, however, remains true across each story. As Okorafor’s heroines grapple with the differences that mark them—and make them stronger, smarter, or more powerful than ordinary human beings—each encounters rejection and shaming from those around them. Binti is separated from her peers at Oomza University. She is the first of the Himba people to attend. And her culture’s use of otjize, a sacred red clay, visibly marks her as someone different.

Their journeys help them transform that shame into rage into power. Yet even as this rage becomes power, pitfalls await. A woman’s rage can easily be used to discredit. Sometimes, this even results in Okorafor’s own characters losing confidence in themselves, seeing themselves as the villain the world would call them.

Whether that’s caused by Phoenix’s destruction of Tower 7, the blame laid at AO’s feet for the deaths of men in her village, or Binti’s sudden understanding that a centuries-long war is not as simple as her world has explained it to be, this reckoning forces characters to rethink their understandings of themselves and the world around them.

But righteous female rage can also clarify. As these characters learn from their feelings, readers learn alongside them. A new world is possible: one that uses new technologies to allow the world a chance at growth in harmony. 

Endings aren’t simple in Okorafor’s work. Even the most righteous of rage cannot make a world just overnight, but it can teach those around it to see the causes more clearly. Okorafor celebrates the necessity of raging against the machine—even when it seems futile. This refusal to simplify or to pretend that the world welcomes change is exactly what makes Okorafor’s work so vital in the 21st century.

Featured photo: Berkeley Center for New Media / Flickr