There was a lot I wanted to discuss about this collection, so I split the review. Part 1 is an introduction and deals with the folklore/mythology and politics that come up in the stories. Part 2 will deal with culture, miscellaneous observations, and wrap up the review.
Okorafor is American-born, and several of the stories involve the cross-cultural experiences of American Nigerians. In “Kabu Kabu”, Ngozi speaks about how much she misses Nigeria, while the driver of her taxi – an Igbo man – criticises her for not being Nigerian enough. Ngozi reappears as a child in “The House of Deformities”, where she and her sister Adoabi are visiting rural Nigeria. It’s based on a true story and is the first short story Okorafor ever wrote. For the most part, Ngozi and Adoabi love Nigeria and don’t mind the electricity being switched off at 8pm, having to wash in cold water, or not having TV. They’re not looking forward to going back to the states. The story is driven by their only real concerns: a scary news report about a man who kidnaps children (which feeds into Adoabi’s love of Stephen King and Clive Barker’s horror novels) and Ngozi’s revulsion at the toilets, which tend to be broken, disgusting, or absent.
“On the Road” features a Chicago cop staying with her grandmother and Aunt in a village, where she opens the door to a monster. Her grandmother scolds her for her lack of common sense:
“If you see a monster at your doorstep, the wise thing to do is shut the door.” She sucked her teeth and shook her head. “You Americanized Nigerians. No instinct.”
One thing that all the Nigerians love, no matter where they were born, is the food: fried plantain, punted yam, “egusi soup heavy with goat meat and stock fish”, spicy jollof rice, sweet fresh fruit. What intrigued me most was the palm wine, made by tapping the sweet sap of a palm tree and fermenting it. According to Nigerian culture, climbing and tapping palm trees is something only men are supposed to do. Not that that stops Okorafor’s women. In “The Popular Mechanic”, a father shows pride and affection for his daughter because she climbs and taps the palm trees to make wine for him. In “The Palm Tree Bandit”, Okorafor rebels against tradition through a story of a woman who secretly taps palm trees at night. There’s a touch of fantasy to it, and the ‘bandit’ eventually develops into a myth that revolutionises the culture.
The tension between women and culture comes up frequently in Kabu Kabu. I say “tension” because it’s not a simple matter of women being bound up within traditional, typically sexist cultures and being unable to do anything about it. Okorafor’s characters frequently resist tradition, work around it or just ignore it. They might give a nod to tradition but they won’t bow to it. In the post-apocalyptic “Tumaki” a young Muslim woman and her parents understand the need for hijab in their society, but at the same time she’s a skilled mechanic and spends most of her free time reading in her personal library. “Spider the Artist” initially seems to have a depressingly downtrodden woman:
No matter my education, as soon as I got married and brought to this damn place, I became like every other woman here, a simple village woman […] whose husband knocks her around every so often.
Rather than being defined as a victim however, she can contextualise her situation, finds an escape in the beautiful guitar music she plays, and goes on to form the most interesting and progressive relationship in the book.
Naturally, issues of sexuality and the body come up too. “How Inyang Got Her Wings” demonstrates a kind of female beauty that is very different from the western ideal (although no less harmful). Inyang, who has a lithe, muscular body, does not consider herself to be as attractive as her large sisters:
Inyang envied the way their huge squashy behinds and legs jiggled under their colorful rapas and how their lumpy arms couldn’t even wrap around their melon breasts. They were beautiful and normal.
Inyang knows she will never be sent to the fattening huts, where young women are made beautiful by being kept in seclusion, fed fattening foods and circumcised before marriage. Inyang was born with dada hair – dreadlocks – and women with dada hair are considered undesirable, believed to be the children of an evil water goddess. Nevertheless, she finds a kind of freedom in her ‘ugliness’. Her muscular body makes it easier to run through the forest, and because she doesn’t have to worry about virginity or marriage, she can enjoy acting on her sexual desires and chooses several lovers instead of being betrothed to one person. This is what made this one of my favourite stories in the anthology – not only is it a great coming-of-age story, it’s rare to see a YA tale where a young woman gets to enjoy sexual freedom like this, while also having to deal with the consequences. Most of the Windseeker stories address the sexual desires of the protagonist.
With themes and characters like this, not to mention the folklore and mythology I discussed in part one of this review, anyone who knows my tastes can understand why I like this collection. “Spider the Artist” and “How Inyang Got Her Wings” were my favourite stories and I enjoyed most of the others or at least some gem of an idea or a character within them.
There was nothing I actively disliked; my least favourite stories were just the ones that didn’t do much for me. War and real-world politics don’t resonate very strongly with me, even though they fit perfectly here. The political stories I enjoyed usually hooked me with something else. Some of the stories are just casual little bites of entertainment that amuse without making a strong impression, like “Long Juju Man” about a child trying to get a basket of eggs to her aunt without a prankster ghost breaking them, or “The Ghastly Bird”, about the dodo and an academic who loves them. “Asunder” is a more serious parable about love. “The Baboon War”, Okorafor admits, uses a cliche about black people fighting with baboon, but she says this actually happened to her mother; she just put a more fantastical spin on it for this tale. I quite liked “The Carpet”, a horror story about an evil carpet that has the classic feel of a haunted object story, but in a unique situation (also based on one of Okorafor’s experiences when visiting Nigeria).
This reminds me – be sure to read Okorafor’s notes at the end of the collection, as she gives brief insights into her stories. However, you can skip Whoopi Goldberg’s introduction, which is just a pointless bit of fluff praising the book. Not that it doesn’t deserve praise. Fans who are serious about broadening their sff horizons or who are always looking for something fresh and thought-provoking should undoubtedly be reading this.