A few weeks ago, I got the news that my proposal for ICFA was accepted, making this the second time I will be going to the conference as a scholar. I wanted to document the experience as the paper itself comes together with you guys, and report on the event itself. The paper that is in the works currently is titled “Pre-Crime, Free Will, and Institutionalization: An Exploration of the Themes of ‘The Minority Report’ and Psycho-Pass“. I hope to inspire you guys to visit the conference sometime, or perhaps present for ICFA 39!
For clarification, ICFA is the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, held yearly in Orlando, Florida as a scholarly conference for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The first time I attended was almost two years ago because of a paper I wrote in Professor Andy Duncan’s class at the University of Alabama. He’s won the World Fantasy Award a number of times as well as the Nebula, and has been Hugo nominated, so you should check him out sometime.
But I digress. I wanted to share with you that very paper that began my journey that hopefully will continue in the scholarly world. It unfortunately does not have any outside sources other than the source material, which is my only regret and will be rectified for the next paper. Additionally, it’s about 2400 words or so, so I warn you now before you get into it! Finally, this paper has spoilers for Who Fears Death, Lagoon, and Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, so beware!!!
Rewriting the Great Book: Subverting the Story of Zoubeir in the Works of Nnedi Okorafor
Male heroes swoop in to save damsels in distress. A woman’s death becomes the impetus for the protagonist to take action against a great evil. These tropes, among many others, plague not only science fiction and fantasy but also the entirety of fiction. Nnedi Okorafor, however, is a standout example of an author who completely turns these tropes on their heads. While Okorafor employs these subversions in all of her novels, this is especially apparent in Who Fears Death, where Onyesonwu proves again and again that she is as competent, if not more so, than her male counterparts and ultimately becomes the chosen heroine that saves the world. This subversion is most succinctly illustrated in Chapter 39 of Okorafor’s novel, which is a self-contained story that acts as a foil to the rest of the book. Particularly with the sacrifice of the pure maiden who ultimately receives no recognition, the story of Zoubeir the Great, Suntown’s greatest chief, embodies many of these typical devices seen in literature. In choosing to recount it, Okorafor manages to capture all that Onyesonwu finds wrong within her world and the destiny that she is determined to change by rewriting the Great Book.
But what is so wrong with her world that she seeks to change everything in the first place? While the main objective of her journey is to confront her biological father, bundled in with this is the rewriting of the Great Book. This document is both an origin story for the genocidal conflict between the Okeke and the Nuru as well as serving as a religious text for the people of the Seven Rivers Kingdom and the surrounding desert. Therefore, changing this book is to ultimately change the narrative of the region, to put an end to the genocide, weaponized rape, and misogyny rampant in this post-apocalyptic Africa.
Zoubeir the Great’s story of how he escaped death to ascend to chiefdom is the only passage of the Great Book that is fully retold within the novel, immediately after Binta’s death. Described as a Nuru favorite, “it’s supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness” (Okorafor 242). It begins by describing the birth circumstances of Tia and Zoubeir, the latter born in secret due to the nature of his conception while the former’s birth was, as Onyesonwu says, nothing special. Zoubeir, of course, is recognized by the town as special and a natural leader while Tia, short and silent, is the ideal woman. When soldiers arrive after the Suntown chief falls ill and hears of the existence of his bastard son, Tia selflessly sacrifices her life by becoming a human shield so that Zoubeir may fulfill his destiny. And yet, even though they had chemistry between them and were by all accounts great friends, there is nothing built in her honor and she becomes a footnote in history. The chapter ends with Onye proclaiming her dislike for the story that has turned to hatred after Binta’s death.
The most overt reason for this hate is due to the parallels between Binta and Tia’s deaths. Binta is murdered defending Onyesonwu, though she is verbally defending her friend rather than becoming a human shield. Both characters are described as so beautiful that even their fathers lusted after them, a recipe for an abusive childhood. And out of the traveling companions, Binta is the shortest and quietest. The fact that Tia is forgotten and never mentioned again in the Great Book is likely the most infuriating aspect of the story for Onye. That essentially it was Tia’s duty, and by extension, Binta’s as well, to sacrifice themselves for the chosen one because they were poor, pure, and women. Telling this story, then, shows Onyesonwu’s commitment to not allowing Binta to be forgotten to the sands of time.
However, this story can be viewed in a much wider context than as a commentary on Binta’s death. The relationship between Mwita and Onye is mirrored to an extent by Tia and Zoubeir, with the roles within the story gender swapped. Mwita, while viewed as an Ewu, is born to parents who love one another, and his birth is not significant in the way Onyesonwu’s is due to this fact. Onye, in contrast, is the bastard child of rape by the general Daib, a great sorcerer and a man with significant political power. Zoubeir’s birth circumstances can be viewed in a similar light, the implication being that the sexual relations between the Suntown chieftain and his mother are not entirely consensual, if at all. Both Zoubeir and Onye are destined to do great things, while Tia and Mwita both end up sacrificing their lives in order to allow the chosen ones to live and fulfill their destinies. Though many of the circumstances are similar, Onye also does not allow Mwita to be forgotten, as the conception of their child and the subsequent consequences creates enough chaos to allow the Great Book to be rewritten. The gender switch, in this way, both subverts the typical heroic trope of female sacrifice as well as underlines how problematic it is.
Onyesonwu also performs the ultimate subversion of the female martyr at the end of Who Fears Death. Throughout the novel she knows of her ultimate fate, being stoned to death by the Nuru because of her actions, and for all intents and purposes does initially allow this fate to happen. However, rewriting the Great Book also translates into rewriting her fate. The final chapter of the book, marked as simultaneously another first chapter, details the thought process during her escape. After transforming into a Kponyungo, a firespitter from the desert that resides in old salt beds, she completely rejects her fate of death:
No, she was not a sacrifice to be made for the good of men and women, Okeke and Nuru alike. She was Onyesonwu. She had rewritten the Great Book. All was done. And she could never ever let her baby, the one part of Mwita that still lived, die. Ifunanya. He’d spoken those ancient mystical words to her, words that were truer and purer than love. What they shared was enough to shift fate. (Okorafor, 385)
This is a complete refutation of the duty of women to sacrifice themselves for the greater good that is integral to the story of Zoubeir and Tia. Rewriting the Great Book means rejecting this notion of the necessity of sacrifice, and therefore also rejecting the roles that are delegated to her gender. Women can be powerful too and save the world without becoming martyrs, with the ability to live within the new world they have helped to create.
Viewed more broadly, the story of Zoubeir and Tia, and by extension the Great Book as a whole, reflects the social and gender norms of both Onyesonwu’s world as well as parts of our own. People of the Seven Rivers Kingdom look to this story and “hope the girls will want to be like Tia the good young woman and the boys like Zoubeir the Great” (Okorafor, 242). But what does this mean exactly? Zoubeir is the strong male figure, who commands respect among his classmates and is forever remembered by history for his achievements. Tia is quiet, of small stature, and puts up with physical abuse, as well as possible sexual abuse, from her father. Her life is snuffed out to help a man fulfill his destiny, and she is never recognized for how vital her role really was. She is even marginalized at her birth, the midwife staying with Zoubeir’s mother rather than Tia’s “because she had a feeling that this woman’s child was a boy and the other woman’s child was a girl” (Okorafor, 243). Women, then, are marginalized in the Great Book, not worthy of recognition, always having to take a back seat to the desires and destinies of men. After all, Zoubeir’s existence is the product of a man who was not content with the four wives he had, Onyesonwu criticizing this by saying “honestly, was this chief not the stupidest man on earth? Why couldn’t he be happy with what he had? Why couldn’t he focus on things other than his carnal needs? He was the chief, no? He should have been busy” (Okorafor, 243).
This gender dynamic is readily apparent throughout Who Fears Death. From the female circumcision required by the Eleventh Rite, to Aro’s initial refusal to take Onye in as a student due to her gender, to Mwita’s struggle throughout the novel to come to terms with being delegated to the role of healer and companion of the great sorcerer, the inherent misogyny in Onye’s world is on full display. Mwita’s frustration with not passing his initiation is the best example of this. Time and time again, throughout the novel, he expresses his distaste for the situation, seen in great detail in his outburst upon arrival at the nomadic town of the Vah where he states “I should be the sorcerer, you should be the healer. That’s how it’s always been between a man and a woman” (Okorafor, 253). Onyesonwu explains how this is the one aspect she dislikes about Mwita:
Those old beliefs about the worth of and fate of men and women, that was the only thing that I didn’t like about Mwita. Who was he to think he was entitled to be the center of things just because he was male? This had been a problem with us since we’d met. Again, I think of the story of Tia and Zoubeir. I despise that story. (Okorafor, 254)
Her hatred of the story of Suntown’s greatest chief is yet again expressed, this time in a different context, in her frustration with patriarchal gender roles. Yet, if Onyesonwu had been born a boy and thus fit society’s narrative, as she was supposed to, she would have been a tool of Daib’s in his eradication of the Okeke. Her character is a deviation from the norm, a subversion within itself. Against all odds, against the prejudice she faces for being both Ewu and female, she changes the world for the better. It is only natural for her to hate the story of Zoubeir and Tia in this context. The story reflects what needs to be changed about the world, what she views as the intrinsic problems that are at the heart of the conflict. It is no coincidence that she states that the story is a favorite of the Nuru, the race that both subjugates the Okeke and enjoys all the privilege that she is denied because of her mixed race and gender.
Okorafor also laces her other novels with similar subversive themes, particularly with her use of African female protagonists. One facet of Akata Witch, for example, explores how Sunny handles prejudicial treatment due to her gender and her status as an albino Nigerian-American. Her father throughout the novel shows a preference for his older sons over his daughter, culminating in an outburst toward the end where he insinuates that Sunny leaving the house for long periods of time will end up with her pregnant, as her grandmother did (Okorafor, 338). Sunny also has to prove herself to the other boys on both teams during the soccer tournament at Zuma Ajasco. As girls are not traditionally allowed to play in the match, she is required to show skill above and beyond the average player on the team she tries to join in order to earn the right to play in the first place. The other team also underestimates her during the match because of her gender and throws jeers at her such as “girls belong on the damn sidelines” (Okorafor, 260). However, Sunny uses this underestimation to her advantage and becomes the talk of the festival because of her incredible skill at the game, even compared to Pele by the spectators. Through this, she opens the avenue for other girls to be able to play in future tournaments.
Lagoon, too, employs similar themes with the characters Adaora and Ayodele. Adaora, a marine biologist, finds herself at the beginning of the novel at Bar Beach after being assaulted by her husband, who due to the influence of Father Oke begins to think that his wife is a witch. Adaora has to come to terms with her husband’s religious revival and his subsequent misogynistic treatment of her, a much different picture of the man she originally married that built the lab in the basement of their home. Ayodele, the ambassador of the alien species that arrives in Lagos, decides to portray herself as female even though she is a shape-shifter. This opens her up to many of the negative stereotypes against women regardless of being a different species, highlighted in a scene where Moziz, the boyfriend of Adaora’s housekeeper, thinks kidnapping Ayodele will be simple because “she just woman; she no dey harm” (Okorafor, 57). Regardless of this treatment, however, both Adaora and Ayodele, along with Anthony and Agu, become the impetus for change within Nigeria.
Through using the foil of the story of Zoubeir and Tia, Okorafor has managed to highlight the status quo of the world of Who Fears Death. It represents everything Onyesonwu wishes to change about the society around her, the epitome of what she finds problematic. It is the system that has allowed for so much death and destruction, the system that has kept her from living a normal, peaceful life. Rewriting the Great Book thus means destroying the racism and misogyny of the Seven Rivers Kingdom, in hope of creating a world where the story of Zoubeir and Tia is not possible. Where sacrifices will be remembered and revered rather than being forgotten, or optimally become completely unnecessary. Most significantly, though, with the reveal of the setting being the post-apocalyptic Kingdom of Sudan, Okorafor makes it impossible to ignore the connections her novel has to the world around us. This becomes especially apparent with her inclusion of similar themes in books set in our world. She forces us to see what is wrong with our Great Books, our status quo, our gender and racial norms. She makes us, through the story of Suntown’s greatest chief, realize just how problematic the tropes prevalent in fiction are. And above all, in this sense, urges us to do as Onyesonwu has and rewrite our own destinies.