Note: I have split this review into two parts.
Kabu Kabu is American-Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor’s first short story anthology. Drawing on her heritage and personal experience, she offers up an array of fantasy and science fiction based on the culture clashes of Nigerians visiting from America, Nigerian folklore and mythology, the power and vulnerability of women in traditional cultures, and the politics of a land being pillaged for oil by western corporations.
I’ve really come to appreciate short stories this past year, and this collection feels fresh and exciting, partly because African influences aren’t often seen in these genres, and partly because Okorafor has such a wonderful imagination. Traditional lifestyles are seamlessly melded with futuristic tech, politics finds its expression in fantasy, and Okorafor writes rural Nigeria with rich colours, tastes and depths, avoiding the dreary pessimism or stupid romanticism than you too often find in stories about African countries. Her stories are also full of intelligent, determined women breaking the stereotypes of tradition.
The collection opens, appropriately, with “The Magical Negro”, a parody of the magical Negro trope found in American cinema. In doing so, Okorafor brushes aside stereotypical portrayals of black Africans, making way for the people who populate her tales.
“Kabu Kabu” also serves as an introduction of sorts, and I can see why the collection is named after it. Okorafor and co-author Alan Dean Foster transport the reader from a familiar environment (Chicago – western, American) into a more fantastical one. Ngozi, a 30-something lawyer, is late for her flight to Nigeria, where she is going to celebrate her sister’s wedding. The taxi she takes to the airport is a kabu kabu – an illegal Nigerian taxi. “Heroin drop-offs, 419 scams, and all sorts of other Nigerian-oriented shady business flashed through her mind” and she can’t believe got stuck with a sexist, reckless Nigerian driver in an illegal cab before even getting to the airport. Her experience becomes even more outlandish when the driver starts picking up ‘masquerades’ – “mythical beings […] spirits and ancestors”. Not only is Ngozi in an awkward situation, she’s terrified by the creatures she encounters.
This is a good stepping stone for the stories that follow. At first I found them a tad disorienting, because the folklore and mythology are unfamiliar. It’s not because it’s Nigerian per se – African settings are not new to me – but folklore and mythology in general is pretty fucking weird and often it’s only your familiarity with it that allows you to forget that. So these stories could be alienating. In the horror story “On the Road” a supernatural event is preceded by the presence of numerous green and orange lizards. Then a woman has her hands amputated, before seeing a giant lizard made out of hot gravel rise from the road, with vines from the forest wrapping around it. And I had no bloody idea what the point was. Much like Ngozi can’t comprehend the creatures that get into the taxi with her.
But Ngozi eventually accepts the bizarre nature of the taxi, and one of the things I really like about this anthology is that the more you read, the better-acquainted you become with the culture, its mythology and politics. You might go in with many of the same stereotypes that flashed through Ngozi’s mind, but by the end you have a more nuanced understanding. For example, large green lizards make a brief appearance in one of the later stories as creatures from the spirit world. The lizards in “On the Road” suddenly make a bit more sense. A cute story called “Long Juju Man” a little girls tells us how everyone in the village knows about ghosts and how they love to eat rotten fruit. She runs into the legendary Long Juju Man – a sorcerer (“juju” is magic) who loved to play pranks, and died when he fell into a deep pit he’d dug for someone else. In “Bakasi Man”, I came across the line “Like my mother always says, ‘He who digs a pit for others will inevitably fall into it.'” It’s a simple phrase, but knowing the origin enriches the meaning.
“Bakasi Man” itself is about a hunchback, and apparently:
hunchbacks are not normal people. Even when they die, security has to be stationed at the gravesite for at least the first year, to prevent robbers from digging them up. It’s the hump that people want. A hunchback’s hump is said to be the source of his or her great power.
The story entwines folklore with politics, as a hunchbacked man rises to power by exploiting inter-tribal conflict. Okorafor is ambiguous about the hump – it is really the source of power, or is it powerful because people believe in it?
Tribal conflict comes up again in desperately bleak “The Black Stain”, a post-apocalyptic story about a family from a privileged tribe (the Uche) that loathes and enslaves another tribe (the Okeke). One interesting aspect of this story is that the Uche hate the Okeke because of their association with technology, which seems to have had a role in the unnamed apocalyptic event(s). Ironically, the Uche family make their money by selling scavenged computer parts. At first it seems like the story is very rural, very traditional (and very stereotypical), until you realise that it’s actually futuristic and society has passed through a technologically advanced stage only to be returned to a basic existence by unnamed post-apocalyptic events.
What makes the story so bleak is not just the grotesque racism or the setting, but what inspired it – the “Ewu” a monstrous child born of weaponised rape. Again, the story is ambiguous about the supernatural: it’s unclear whether monstrosity is ‘real’, or if it comes from the prejudice and oppression ingrained in those beliefs.
There are also four related stories about Windseekers – people who can fly and control the wind. They used to be a common sight in the skies, but in recent times people have ceased to believe in them and persecute them as witches.
The first of these stories is “How Inyang Got Her Wings” about a young woman who starts to fly when she hits puberty. Here we pick up the first few details of the Windseeker mythos – how Windseekers have ‘dada hair’ (dreadlocks), have a close connection with nature, and need to follow tradition by finding their soul mates if they wish to avoid disaster. “The Winds of Harmattan”, tells the story of Inyang’s aunt Asuquo, who was also a Windseeker. Like Inyang, she has a strong sexual appetite and men quickly become infatuated with her, but because she fails to marry the right man, she’s doomed.
Inyang appears decades later as a woman named Arro-yo (although I didn’t realise this until I read Okorafor’s notes at the end of the book) in the stories “Windseekers” and “Biafra”. “Windseekers” takes place in the lush science-fantasy-ish land of Ginen with its plant skyscrapers and organic tech. Inyang/Arro-yo has always resisted tradition and it’s in this story that we see the effects – the violent sexual tension between her and the man she should have married.
In “Biafra”, Arro-yo returns to Nigeria after travelling the world for many years, only to find it completely changed and in the middle of the Biafran War. Feeling guilty for selfishly staying away for so long, Arro-yo uses her powers as a Windseeker to alleviate as much suffering as she can, and this story has the most heart-wrenching scene in the anthology.
“Biafra” is one of the more brutal stories, but political issues come up often to drive the story or form its background. Another set of related stories deals with the the extraction of oil from Nigeria. One of these – Spider the Artist – was my absolute favourite from the anthology. A lonely unemployed woman is abused by her husband and as an escape, she sits in her backyard playing beautiful music on her father’s guitar. Sitting in her yard is dangerous though – oil pipelines run through it, and in the near-future world of this story, spider robots patrol the pipes against people who try to steal fuel, brutally slaughtering anyone who so much as touches them. The spider robots are known as Zombies, “the same name we call those “kill-and-go” soldiers who come in here harassing us every time something bites their brains.” What I loved about this tale was the relationship that forms between the narrator and a Zombie who comes to listen to her play music.
The events of “Spider the Artist” are rewritten in “The Popular Mechanic”. Here, the spider robots do not exist, but one of the main characters laments that the government has turned its people into “Robot zombies scrambling for a sip of fuel”, since locals can only get fuel illegally even though millions of litres are pumped out of the country every day. He becomes part robot himself, after he loses an arm in an explosion. His arm is replaced by a prototype mechanical arm that a western company is testing on Nigerians – a form of exploitation hiding behind the seeming benevolence of free advanced medical care.
The protagonist of “Icon” – an African-American journalist – portrays the oil issue from the other side of the fence:
The story was significant because the culprits were from the NDPM, the Niger Delta People’s Movement, a Nigerian terrorist organization bent on sabotaging and destroying any efforts Shell and other oil companies made to extract oil from this strip of the Niger Delta.
The journalist is not really invested in the issue though; he just wants a story like Shell wants Nigeria’s oil.
What I also wanted to discuss was the culture that is depicted in Kabu Kabu, random observations and my overall thoughts about the collection, but that made the review too long for one post. I’ll post the rest in a day or two 🙂