June 2 2010 12:00 AM

Nnedi Okorafor weaves a scary tale of survival


The 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 comingof-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 death.”

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The author admits she has written 15 unpublished novels.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 master’s program. She is the daughter of Nigerianborn parents and has written two 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.

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

“ The workshop introduced me to ( A f r i c a n - A m e r i c a n 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.

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

Nnedi Okorafor

7 p.m. Wednesday, June 2 Schuler Books and Music in the Eastwood Towne Center 2820 Towne Center Blvd.

Free (517) 316-7495 www.schulerbooks.com