Features

“My Science Fiction Has Different Ancestors” — Nnedi Okorafor at TED

Chicago's SFF mastermind on writing, Afrofuturism, and 'Binti.'

A few weeks ago, Chicago’s own Nnedi Okorafor spoke about writing, Afrofuturism, and her award-winning Binti series at the TEDGlobal 2017 conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Check out the entire video below, or scroll down for highlights. The third and final novella in the series, Binti: The Night Masquerade, comes out January 16, 2018 from Tor.com Publishing. Photo courtesy of TED.

On “classic science fiction” vs. Afrofuturism

I can best explain the difference between classic science fiction and Afrofuturism if I use the octopus analogy. Like humans, octopuses are some of the most intelligent creatures on earth. However, octopus intelligence evolved from a different evolutionary line, separate from that of human beings, so the foundation is different. The same can be said about the foundations of various forms of science fiction.

So much of science fiction speculates about technologies, societies, social issues, what’s beyond our planet, what’s within our planet. Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing. It’s all about the question, “What if?” Still, not all science fiction has the same ancestral bloodline, that line being Western-rooted science fiction, which is mostly white and male. We’re talking Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, etc.

So what if a Nigerian-American wrote science fiction? Growing up, I didn’t read much science fiction. I couldn’t relate to these stories preoccupied with xenophobia, colonization and seeing aliens as others. And I saw no reflection of anyone who looked like me in those narratives.

On Nigeria and America

So I’m Nigerian-American. I was born to two Nigerian immigrant parents and raised in the United States, one of the birthplaces of classic science fiction. However, it was my Nigerian heritage that led me to write science fiction. Specifically I cite those family trips to Nigeria in the late ’90s. I’d been taking trips back to Nigeria with my family since I was very young.

These early trips inspired me. Hence the first story that I ever even wrote took place in Nigeria. I wrote mainly magical realism and fantasy inspired by my love of Igbo and other West African traditional cosmologies and spiritualities. However, in the late ’90s, I started noticing the role of technology in Nigeria: cable TV and cell phones in the village, 419 scammers occupying the cybercafes, the small generator connected to my cousin’s desktop computer because the power was always going on and off. And my Americanness othered me enough to be intrigued by these things that most Nigerians saw as normal.

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