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June 1 2010 12:00 AM

MSU graduate Nnedi Okorafor examines life in post-apocalyptic Africa in "Who Fears Death"

WFD2.jpgThe death of her father pushed Nnedi Okorafor to write “Who
Fears Death,” her latest novel.

“The opening scene in the book happened to me,” she said.
“That is an emotional look at a young girl attending her father’s funeral. The
book was therapy for me.”

The dust jacket of “Who Fears Death” is illustrated with the
image of a young woman profiled against a desert scene. Are those angel wings
sprouting from her back? Look closer.

That’s about all I will tell you, but the wings will give
you a hint about what lies inside the pages of this sci-fi fantasy thriller.

This is the first adult novel of Okorafor and, although it
is the coming-of-age story of a young African girl, Oneyesunwu, there are
enough grisly depictions to make it adults-only.

Horrific scenes of rape, genital mutilation and genocide are
played out against the struggle of a young woman to create a world worth living
in. Oneyesunwu’s name was chosen carefully by her mother. It means “who fears

Oneyesunwu, a product of genocidal rape, is different — and
not just in a physical sense — with lighter skin and facial characteristics
that show her cross-tribal parentage. Her mother recognizes she is special in a
magical way and destined to confront the genocidal holocaust of Africa.

In many ways the book, set sometime in the future, is an
alternate gender-bender “Star Wars” with a female protagonist out to change a
much grimmer world. It has a pure science-fiction quest mixed with large doses
of magical realism.

The author admits she has written 15 unpublished novels.
“This one was different,” she said. “I felt it was dictated to me — it just
came. It was as if I wanted to find out what happened next.”

She said she had “nightmares” about some of the themes when
she was editing them. However. one of her biggest fears about her newest book
is her mother’s reaction to some of the more explicit scenes in the book.

“She’s reading it now,” Okorafor said. “She hasn’t said
anything yet.”

Okorafor is a writing professor at Chicago State University,
a graduate of the University of Illinois and a graduate of Michigan State
University’s School of Journalism masters program. She is the daughter of
Nigerian-born parents and has written two previous young adult novels, “Zahara
the Windseeker” and “The Shadow Speaker.” Although she settled into a writing
career, that path wasn’t always as clear-cut.

Nnedi said her time on the
campus of MSU was one of her best experiences as a writer.

“The workshop introduced me to
(African-American science-fiction writer) Octavia Butler and, while working on
my masters, I did a lot of writing. I admitted to myself that I was a writer
and came out of that closet.”

At MSU she credits her discovery of the MSU Special
Collections and the library’s Africana Collection with influencing her writing,
which complemented the African folk tales she heard from family members while
growing up.

Okorafor’s science fiction writing may have been strongly
influenced by Octavia Butler, but her writing style and dark thematic approach
are comparable to horror master Stephen King.

At MSU, she was pondering whether to pursue a career in
journalism or literature. She had applied for both an internship with a Chicago
daily newspaper and a slot in the prestigious Clarion Science-Fiction Workshop.
Then there was the bad news/good news. She was not chosen for the internship
but was accepted for the workshop, which was being held in East Lansing at that
time. As it turns out, even the bad news was good news.

She said it was the workshop that thrust her into the role
of a writer, one she has fully embraced. As for that journalism career —
there’s no looking back.

Okorafor will be at Schuler Books and Music in the Eastwood
Towne Center, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 2.

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