Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kabu-Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is a collection of short stories so I cannot really write a synopsis other than to say most of them are led by women, who are African or of African descent , all of them are powerful and all are set in beautiful, amazing rich worlds – or our own world with some excellent fantastic twists.

And it’s huge. In fact, it felt far huger reading it than I seemed when I first saw how big it was. There are the best part of 20 stories there – they’re not all extremely long but by the end I was beginning to feel a little fatigued. It wasn’t that they were boring or bad or dull stories – it’s just that after story 16 my brain did kind of ask me “what, it’s STILL story time?!”

This is not a criticism – this is advice. Read this book, but don’t try to tackle it all in one sitting.

Part of the reason for that is this is a book that absolutely denies any kind of skimming or lazy reading. This book is meaty. This book is complex. Many of these stories tackle big, weighty issues in stark terms. There are many different issues concerning racism, Black Americans in Nigeria and conflict with Nigerians, colonialism, exploitation of Nigeria by western powers and industry, of arrogant foreigners assuming they can step into Africa however they wish. Issues  of shaming people for their natural hair, genocide, dehumanisation, degrading beliefs as “superstition”, scapegoating population, scapegoating religion, stereotyping – both religious and racial and a whole lot of challenges of assumptions. We have societies where fat women are considered the epitome of beauty or where a veiled Muslim woman is a mechanic working in her mother’s shop.

This book is stark. I don’t mean grim-dark with lots of excess awfulness everywhere in an attempt to be gritty – but stark. It’s unflinching. It both challenges that idea that Africa in general and Nigeria in particular is some grim, desperate place (even in the dystopian stories presented – which in themselves are unique simply for being African dystopians) while at the same time not flinching away from actual problems and creating some kind of unicorn inhabited utopia.  It’s stark – it looks at the whole, the bad things depicted are not presented as uniquely African or Nigerian, they’re not sugar coated and they’re not exaggerated – but they are examined and exposed and they demand you think.

All the worlds are African-centric (primarily Nigerian), from the Nigerian-American lawyer catching the Kabu in Chicago and running into all kinds of shenanigans on the way, through to the stories set in post-apocalyptic Sudan. The stories contain a lot of African beliefs, mythology, folklore and stories bringing a lot of stories we just never see in so much of Urban Fantasy –or any genre for that matter – making them extremely unique. But it’s not just the monsters and magic that are different, there is a true sense of time and place throughout the stories with the surroundings and the food (especially the food which always takes a strong place in each story).

To add to the depth of the story, I think many of these short stories connect not just to each other but also to the other books the author has written (confirmed in the notes at the back of the book). By taking these already realised worlds we have a pre-built richness already underpinning many of the stories – especially the more fantastic ones which are linked to Zahrah the Windseeker and Who Fears Death. Each story adds another layer to these already incredibly powerful worlds.

Each story is really tightly written – description is common, but the description adds to the overall feel of each story’s setting. There are a lot of words – but they are used elegantly to paint a perfect picture of the setting – and to hit you with the full force of the emotional impact each story has to give and the powerful lessons that each story invokes.

Throughout the book we have a series of women who are powerful. Many of them are happily sexual without shame even when in cultures that try to shame them for it. Most of them set their own paths, often refusing to fit in and conform and compromise who they are. Sometimes it’s a little thing - like a little girl winning her war against the baboons on her way to work, or the girls having the courage to face the outhouse with the vultures on the roof. Or the girls who stayed in an abandoned house, despite the hardship and discomfort (and menacing rug), because of their pride and respect for their families. Sometimes they’re much deeper and heavier – the woman who was betrayed by her family, by the man she loved and trusted and persecuted for witchcraft for being different. Or the woman who returned to her home torn by war, or the woman who was willing to kill the man she loved to be free to explore the world alone. And then there’s fun stories – like the grandma who created a legend because she thought women not being allowed to climb trees and tap pine wine was ridiculous. So many different ways of displaying it, but so much power being shown from all of these women.

I was disappointed that in all of these many stories with the gazillion of different characters coming from all of them, we didn’t have one single GBLT person. With this many stories with such a large cast it’s always sad to see that erasure.

I would definitely recommend this book. It’s powerful, emotional and beautifully written – so much so that I would say it is a book best broke down into sections, reading a story here and a story there (it's a bit weighty to tackle them all back to back and you lose the power of the shorter ones), especially since so many of the stories work well with Nnedi Okorafor’s wider work. Every story is fun or powerful (or both, which is hard to do) with some strong lessons and some truly amazing emotional impact. And rarely have I come across short stories that so readily and completely transport me to their works.