The theme for May’s book in the Merry Misfits Book Club was ‘A book from a niche genre, or a genre you don’t normally read’. I chose Afrofuturism, and the internet as a whole seemed to recommend this book.
So, to start out, let’s talk about Afrofuturism. When Black Panther came out, it seemed like it was the topic on everyone’s lips. Afrofuturism, essentially, is a genre within science fiction where the society and technology is influences by African culture, rather than European or Asian culture. Think, basically, the opposite of Firefly. A lot of Afrofuturism, like the fictional country of Wakanda, divorce their worldbuilding from the influence of the slave trade and white colonialism that so devastated the continent in the real world. They try to envision what a technologically advanced African nation would look like today, had that ugly period of history not happened. We know today what American High Tech looks like, we know what Japanese High Tech looks like, but what would Ugandan High Tech look like?
Obviously, I could go into the distasteful details of why we don’t have much of that, but this blog post is about this book and looking forward to a future with more Afrocentric sci-fi. There have been many examples of things seen in popular culture eventually making their way into real life, so let’s hope that one day, African high tech cities are also a reality.
All right, let’s start off with Zahrah, herself. She is born dada, which means that she was born with little vines growing out of her head. As she gets older, these vines thicken and weave into her hair, and it’s thought in the culture that dada children are just born different. She’s got a bit of bullying at school about it, but otherwise doesn’t suffer much in the way of discrimination, and she is largely shielded from that bullying by her friend, Dari. Zahrah is a little shy at first, curious about the forbidden Dark Market and about herself and what being dad will mean as she grows older.
Dari, on the other hand, is a baby revolutionary. He’s a crusader for exploration, science, and knowledge. He’s the first one to venture into the Dark Market, and he’s a voracious reader, eventually finding and devouring a guide book about the Forbidden Greeny Jungle that borders their homeland. He’s charming and charismatic, but a little bit of a troublemaker.
Nsibidi is a woman Zachary and Dari meet in the Dark Market, with her pack of fortune-telling baboon-like creatures. She’s a mysterious and reluctant mentor figure in a lot of ways. Her hesitation to tell Zaharia everything she wants to know, in part, fuels the adventure.
Oh my god, the worldbuilding, y’all. You guys know by now that I consider worldbuilding a pillar of writing, you gotta set the scene right.
The planet is called Ginen, and Zahrah lives in the northern Ooni kingdom, in a town called Kirki. Ginen is a densely vegetated planet, and the advanced technology is derived from specially bred plants. Lightbulbs are literally planted in the wall of the house, a child is given a computer sprout that grows and develops with them. Even the library is an actual living plant, with sturdy enough structure to hold several stories of bookshelves, staircases, and of course, loads of people.
Kirki is bordered by a dense jungle called the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, that is, you know, forbidden. Weird stuff happens in there, it’s a whole different world. Time moves weird, people go crazy. It’s unnatural.
Now, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but you don’t put a girl with exceptional powers and a boy who can’t not prod on the border of a forbidden jungle and not expect them to go in.
Inside the Forbidden Greeny Jungle is where, in my opinion, Okorafor-Mbachu really shines. The plants, the creatures, the character building! That’s all I’ll say because I don’t want to spoil it.
Zahrah grows up in a loving family, the victim of fairly predictable bullying at school. But she has one ally, Dari, who is funny and smart, and always stands up for her. Early on, Zahrah gets her first period, which sparks some changes in her. The actual symptoms of her first menses are pretty mild overshadowed by the discovery that she can levitate.
A lot of stuff gets weird, fast. She ventures into the Dark Market, where she meets Nsibidi, Dari finds a travel guide for the Forbidden Greeny Jungle and suggests they go there so she can practice flying away from the gossip mill, and then something terrible happens that lands Dari in the hospital. Because the people of Ooni don’t venture into the jungle, the doctors are ill equipped to treat Dari. The only possible cure comes from the most feared creature, deep in the jungle. So Zahrah takes Dari’s travel guide, a sassy compass, and heads into the jungle. What happens inside is absolutely wild, and I won’t spoil it for you.
The first theme I want to discuss is Zahrah’s coming of age. I love the way Okorafor-Mbachu deals with it. Periods are always a bit tricky to deal with in fiction, because people are still so damn squeamish about it. But Zahrah’s mother explains, her father is sympathetic and caring, even Dari shrugs it off like it’s just something that happened to Zahrah, as normal as losing a tooth, it less shocking than cutting her dada locks, which could become a possibility after they meet Nsibidi. She has some mild cramping, but otherwise, the most notable thing about it is the coming of the power that comes with her dada identity.
I like how it’s handled. It’s not an obstacle to overcome, a gross thing to hide from other people, an inconvenience to deal with while she’s trying to get along with her life; but the end of childhood and anonymity, the blossoming of her power, and the beginning of her taking her place in society in more ways than she could have known at the beginning.
Friendship is also a big theme. At no point, no matter what happens, Zahrah never loses sight of the fact that she is Dari’s only hope. Her love for him fuels her through a dangerous and confusing landscape. He had been her loyal supporter, even though he was quite popular on his own. They take each other, their opinions, feelings, and personalities seriously.
Understanding over fear (both in terms of superstition about the Forbidden Greeny Wood, but also in herself–it is better to understand than to be fearful)
The last of the major themes, in my opinion, is the importance of understanding over fear. The Forbidden Greeny Jungle is almost an analog for Zahrah herself, her power, and womanhood. The people of Ooni avoid the jungle because of its strange and mysterious properties, but during her time inside, Zahrah discovers that while it is different that Kirki, it has its own rules and can be understood. It has to be respected in order to get through, but she found that after she left, she did miss it. Study, compassion, and patience are all that’s needed to make sense of a confusing landscape.
This book got a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads, a lot of people criticised it for having a relatively simplistic plot for such dense worldbuilding, but I don’t think you need a complicated plot, if you have a solid story. The setting is practically a character in itself, it’s so rich. But a simple, solid story can be just as satisfying as a more complex one. As it is, this story is definitely an odyssey. There’s drama, high tension, mentors, a descent to the underworld, characters from African mythology, and so much that is worth talking about. Yeah, maybe the wording is a little tell-y, but it’s clearly Young Adult.
Not everything has to be Game of Thrones. Personally, I don’t think Game of Thrones needed to be as ‘Game of Thrones’ as it was, but that’s me.
So that’s what I think of Zahrah the Windseeker. Next month, I’ll be reading The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale. What are you reading?