Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Published 2011 by Viking Press
349 pages, fantasy.
Reading this book made the chittim rain down around me. You will have to read it too to find out what I mean by that!
I kept trying to read this book.
I checked it out from the library last summer, because I'd heard it was good. That's all I really knew about it though, and something about the cover didn't really draw me in. I renewed it over and over, until I finally had to return it three months later, without ever cracking the cover.
More recently, I tried again. I know I tend to default to white, Anglo authors and familiar settings. I still didn't know what it was about, but I had a vague idea it was set in an African country. Again, I renewed it faithfully while I read other books.
It's due tomorrow, with no more renewals possible. So yesterday, I decided to give it a try. In case you ever wonder about the power of blurbs, as soon as I noticed that Ursula K. Le Guin praised it on the cover, I kicked myself for waiting so long.
And then I started the book.
Let's get this out of the way first: you will think of Harry Potter when you read this. There are four young people dealing with the magical world even as they deal with the regular challenges of puberty The POV character was ignorant of the magical world and her own elevated status within it until the age of 12. She is instantly recognizable to others because of a physical anomaly. The other children grew up in that world. The world is divided into magical and non-magical people, who are called a vaguely condescending name ("lambs"). There are rules about what underage wizards can't do, and our band of friends regularly flouts these rules. There are teachers, all wise, but not all kind, and there is a terrible evil that only the children can defeat.
And...there's a magical sport that is hugely popular. The sport is about as far from Quidditch as you can get, but this was still the parallel that made me go, "C'mon, is this really necessary?"
Still, there have always been stories about groups of kids dealing with magic, from Five Children and It to The Inquisitor's Tale. The story is fresh and original and stands entirely on its own feet. Not just because it's set in Nigeria, and not just because the protagonist is female, although both of those things are hugely important features of the book. The story focuses on the tension between the spiritual and the physical, between greed and a hunger for knowledge, between myth and everyday life.
The book also dives into issues of immigration, duality, and belonging. "Akata" itself is a derogatory word for African Americans, meaning something like "wild animal." Sunny, our hero, was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, and the family returned to Nigeria only three years before the story begins. She is asked frequently throughout the book to claim one nationality or the other, and she is confused about which to say and stubborn in her inclusion of both. Two of her friends are Nigerian born, and the fourth member of their group is a recent immigrant from Chicago, a boy seen as even less Nigerian than Sunny. Her name could be heard as Sonny. Her American friend's name is Sasha, and he gets teased for having a girl's name.* Two members of the group are girls, and two are boys. Two are impulsive and aggressive, two are reflective and peaceful. One theme of the book is that we all have more than one side. Another theme is that our perceived weaknesses can also be our greatest strengths.
Despite being a teacher, I rarely read a book and feel compelled to analyze it for theme. The fact that Akata Witch pulls me to analyze it to such an extent (my scribbled notes include "What is the importance of smoking to the story?" and "gender roles/soccer game") should not be seen as meaning the book is dry or didactic. It's magical and humorous, terrifying and alive. It also does a great job at setting up a higher stakes conflict for the next book.