Subscribe to SLJ
Bowllan's Blog
Inside Bowllan's Blog

Writers Against Racism: Nnedi Okorafor

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).  

                         Nnedi Okorafor

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?

                 Zahrah the Windseeker

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


  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, these posts are so incredibly wonderful. Thank you for asking Nnedi Okorafor to tell her story. Our university has a large number of students from Nigeria. We offer courses in Hausa and Yoruba, and our Nigerian students are always willing to be “living” language laboratories for our international language majors. I’m going to make sure they know Nnedi Okorafor’s work, if they don’t already. I’ve been a published fiction writer since the mid-1970s, and I’ve had many, many “publishing world” experiences, but in this WRITERS AGAINST RACISM series, I’m am constantly being directed down boulevards and streets and alleyways which I didn’t even know were on the map! The things I’ve witnessed have been both exhilerating and shocking. Thank you! Thank you!

  2. George Edward Stanley says:

    … exhilarating… Amy, did you ever find a computer program that asks, IS THIS THE WORD YOU MEANT?

  3. Amy Bowllan says:

    hahaha! Funny, George. I need to create the program myself. I LOVE TYPOS!!! We are HUMAN. :) Thanks for your thoughts, as always, they provide a wonderful lens we need to look through.

  4. Kathleen Gabriel says:

    Good stuff, Nnedi. Thanks for having her over, Amy.

  5. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    Nnedi, yes… empathy through diversity in lit.
    gracias Amy for Nnedi’s post.

  6. I think Nnedi’s post reminds us that racism most often rears its ugly head when different people are required to COMPETE–whether in sports, or in the labor market, or for prestige and other forms of power…competition seems to reinforce the idea of “us versus them,” and people fail to see who’s *really* on their team, who shares their values and goals and interests. Literature reveals just how much we really have in common…

  7. “Everyone deserves to be the hero at some point” How very true and well said. Excellent series.

  8. Susan Thomsen says:

    Amy, this is a WONDERFUL series here! Great idea.

  9. Amy Bowllan says:

    Thanks, Susan! While I provided the platform. It’s important to know that Zetta provided the guiding questions and writers. And George provided the insights and challenge to the White House. :)

  10. What a gorgeous book trailer!! I’m so very eagerly awaiting reading this book! There’s almost zero fantasy that isn’t Arthurian/Eurocentric, so this is exciting!

    And I love the paradigm shift of being immersed into a story. It IS hypnotic. And it’s a priceless experience. Write on, Dr. Okorafor!

  11. Okorafor writes very, very powerful stories that take me places that surprise me shock me thrill me. She’s a good choice for this nomination.

  12. Nnedi Okorafor’s books for me are must-reads; I am trying to track down a copy of the Nigerian release of Zahrah the Windseeker because it’s illustrated, and I don’t feel my collection is complete without it. ZAHRAH was captivating, SHADOW SPEAKER was enthralling, WHO FEARS DEATH is a book I’m still processing, but I know it kept me up all night, reading, wanting to find out the story. Can’t wait for Akata Witch.

    Tanita, while I agree with you that there’s far too little non-Eurocentric fantasy, there are good recs out there you may/may not have seen. Check out, particularly their POC in SF/F Roundtable series from about 2 years ago, and the Carl Brandon Society lists, if you haven’t already found them. Apex Magazine’s November issue is also still free to read online, had fantasy as well as some sf if I remember correctly, and was entirely by writers of Arab and/or Muslim descent. Amazing stuff, including Amal el-Mohtar, who writes fantasy that might fit your bill.