Akata Witch: Young and Magical in Nigeria

A MiddleWeb Blog

It’s hard to know where to begin with a review of a book where so much is going on: the authentic, detailed reflection of Nigerian-American culture? The overt tackling of racism, ableism, and sexism in one narrative?

The fact that your characters should and can speak several languages? The magical insects that sing you to sleep and create art out of cracker crumbs?

Sunny, the twelve-year-old female main character, embodies this liminal whirlwind: “My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people” is one of the first things she says. She is Igbo and lives in Nigeria, but was born and raised for most of her life in America.

She “has West African features” (she pointedly never uses the word “race,” a problematic term at best even outside the world of the book and doesn’t fit Sunny at all, which is part of the point), but is also albino, with light skin, hair and eyes.

Sunny is smart and strong, but bullied regularly at school. Her parents are successful and educated, but her father is abusive. She is (she finds out) a powerful witch, but this does not clarify her life: she is also a “free agent,” a rare type of spontaneously occurring witch who does not fit the typical bloodline transmission of magical powers.

And (yep, one other thing) she is part of the first pre-teen witch coven in West Africa with three other young people, but they all fight as much as they support another.

A fast and full-throated narrative

Keeping all these threads woven together in one unified story is both Sunny’s challenge and her author’s, and both accomplish their end with some enthralling feats of bravery and imagination.

I have not enjoyed a voyage like this, of pure discovery, in a book in a long time; there is something completely new to me on each page. Often there are six or seven somethings, which would be my only semi-quibble with the book; it is so filled with invention that I wanted it to spend more time with some of its own creations.

In adopting this fast and full-throated approach, however, Nnedi Okorafor mirrors back to her reader not only the joy and terror of Sunny’s first entering the magical world she creates, but also the overwhelming nature of Sunny’s trailblazing journey of knowing and accepting her own powerful, inimitable self.

Building an original world

Akata Witch shares many features with that other Famous Genre Defining Fantasy Series Which Shall Remain Nameless Here, including a witch-wizard village brimming with magical accoutrements for sale, an implement of magic (in this case a knife) which chooses its owner, funky and funny modes of transportation, large cloaked sports gatherings, and the world’s own mysterious form of currency.

Akata Witch has already been compared to That Other Series many times. I find that whether Akata Witch was inspired by these other books, however, is not the point.

Or is it? All world-building requires similar functions of society to be invented, developed and shared. Why are we so eager to define Akata Witch’s world through comparison to Western stories of the same type?

Indeed, if you dig down into the roots of most (if not all) forms of art, you will find Africa – from twerking to storytelling, hip hop to jazz. I rather like the idea that it is Okorafor’s Leopard Knocks, millennia ago, which was the foundation of Hogwarts, and not the other way around.

Great article here on the author. Do go buy this book.

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

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