Nnedi Okorafor is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author of Nigerian descent. Her novels include Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature) and The Shadow Speaker (An NAACP Image Award Nominee).
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I had a lot of experience with racism when I was a kid. My family was one of the first black families to move into a white neighborhood in the South suburbs of Chicago in the early ’80s. My siblings and I were called “nigger” practically every day, we were chased down the street by racial-epithet-spewing older kids (thankfully, my sisters and I were very athletic and fast sprinters), people made fun of our hair and dark skin, blah blah blah.
My sisters and I used to play semi-pro tennis. We were very good. Because of this (and because people were racists), we received hate letters, opponents would shout racial epithets from across the tennis court (“GO back to Africa” was a popular one), tournament organizers would work evil shenanigans to make things hard for us. They didn’t keep us from kicking butt, though.
And then, of course, there was the general institutionalized racism. When I think back to it all, I realize that it was pretty rough.
My parents came to the United States in 1969. They came for graduate school. My father went on to become a cardiovascular surgeon, my mother a registered nurse and midwife who earned a PhD in health administration. They endured worse racism that my siblings and me. Yet despite all the obstacles this country threw at them, they were able to make use of this country’s wonderful resources. They persevered. The same was expected of my siblings and me. Therefore, racism did not cripple us.
My childhood was rosy and happy and wonderful. I was a really happy kid. I learned early on that life and people are complex, that good and evil can co-mingle. While I was experiencing American racism as a kid, my parents were also taking my siblings and me back to Nigeria to meet family and land. This had a great effect. It put things in perspective. It completed the story. It completed me.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?
Very much so, but not directly. My experience is a part of me, it’s not something I can extract and look at separately from everything else. I certainly didn’t become a writer because of racism. But my experience with racism has made me a tougher person and clearer about the paths I choose to reach my goals.
As an educator, my experience with racism gives me a sort of authority on the subject. I can tell [students] about my experiences with racism and how I still succeeded. I can tell them about how I watched parents in my neighborhood turn their normal kids into racists overnight. Or how my favorite teacher in 4th grade was also a bit of a racist but I still loved her. Or how my friendship with my best friend ended when we argued and she got angry and called me a "nigger." I can tell stories.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
People need to read literature. Literature is a very immersive medium. By that I mean that a good book can take you in deep. You spend hours and hours with a good book. It’s almost like hypnosis if the book is really good. It’ll make you disappear and become the character. And that forces a shift in perspective.
What better way to “step into another person’s shoes”? A good book will give a person the experience of someone else. That experience can lead to understanding and empathy. And this is why diversity is so important in literature. EVERY group of people needs to experience that perspective shift, step outside of themselves. And everyone deserves to be the hero at some point.
Nnedi Okorafor’s forthcoming novels Who Fears Death (from DAW) and Akata Witch (from Penguin) are scheduled for release in 2010. Her Disney Fairies chapter book, Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog (Disney Press), is scheduled for release in 2010. She holds a PhD in literature and is a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. Visit her online at www.nnedi.com.