February 2014

Alison Barker

Cultural Crossroads

The Third Space of Nnedi Okorafor's Kabu Kabu

I like to believe there is a living room inside my head. I think I first started decorating the room when I was around ten or eleven, maybe younger. The private room inside my head contains only the things that through life's love-worn experiences have proven the most important to me. It has a wide, built-in bookcase with a small gathering of well-worn books that in any other library would have little cause to mingle: John Bellairs's Anthony Monday series, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, and Dorothy Allison's Skin, to name a few. Their pages are warped with my palm sweat, fossilized evidence of my roller-coaster anticipation, glee, and a peculiar, delicious discomfort. A giant armchair that is both impossibly soft and strong sits by a floor-to-ceiling window that opens onto a rickety balcony, over a perpetually foggy expanse of marsh. (My grey matter?) I like to think of this living room as a place to check-in intellectually with the ideas and dreams that began in my childhood. I am slow to add new books to the bookcase. It serves to remind me of where I come from (intellectually, that is) as I travel through life.

It wasn't until I read Kabu Kabu that I decided perhaps this living room is my way of fortifying my process of making meaning, my "happy place" that protects against external forces that seek control and influence over my mind.

In Kabu Kabu, Nnedi Okorafor's ability to convince me of her imagery and her insistence that there is a third space -- possibly created by the double consciousness of her African-descended Western characters -- mesmerized me and left me wanting a three-book epic.

And, ever-eager to find metaphors that leap tall buildings in single bounds, I humbly offer the suggestion that a kabu kabu, the titular, magical, illegal mini-van cab in Ms. Okorafor's Kabu Kabu, operates similarly to my brain's living room in that it preserves important aspects of a culture while it travels. In its preservation, though, that culture is changed, and therein exists the "third space" of narration and meaning making by a book that seems to exist fully in African, American and fantasy cultures.

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"I'm not a perfect fit anywhere."

This is how Ms. Okorafor responded to Jeremy L.C. Jones's question, "When you look out on the literary landscape, where do you see yourself?" in a 2009 interview with online sci-fi and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld.

Thank goodness for that. Okorafor, whose first novel for adults, Who Fears Death, was reviewed at Bookslut by Kylee Stoor, has also written Akata Witch, Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker, Long Juju Man, and the forthcoming Lagoon and Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola. Just as Stoor noted in her October 2010 review, the complexity of Okorafor's plots defy easy synopsis. This is because she often combines quest elements with realistic fiction. And fantasy.

The first of the twenty-one stories in Kabu Kabu is entitled "The Magical Negro," and it sets the selfsame trope on its head with a brief allusion to countless fantasy stories with white protagonists who gain insight and wisdom from a magical Negro. These two stereotypical figures meet, and the white hero considers the Magical Negro's facial features, dialect and skin color, and wonders if the man is a trick on his brain, a manifestation of evil shadows who seek to control him. And then the Magical Negro reaches the end of his patience with this old narrative, tired of countless white men before him seeking wisdom in life-or-death scenarios that configure the Magical Negro into a buttress for uninspired racist myths: "'Sheeit,' he drawled, looking directly at you. 'You need to stop reading all this stupidness. The Magical Negro ain't about to get his ass kicked no more. Them days is ovah.'"

The Magical Negro doesn't reappear in the book, but he acts as emcee to the ensuing performance. The opening serves as a reminder of what many of Okorafor's characters speak back to: the uselessness of persistent, inaccurate, and out-dated ideas generated by the colonial dichotomy between Africa and the West.

I found myself focusing again and again on how this collection of stories and its titular novella, co-written by Alan Dean Foster, are preoccupied with meaning making. The novella is about Ngozi, a Chicago attorney of Igbo Nigerian descent, who tries and fails to make her first flight to her sister's wedding in Nigeria. She is whisked away in a kabu kabu, an illegal cab, hand inlaid with colorful glass beads and cowrie-shell rosaries. Outside the cab Ngozi is a successful, independent woman. Inside, the Nigerian driver feels free to comment on her lack of ass, her dada dreadlocks, and Ngozi is confronted with the feeling that no matter how independent she becomes, there will always be a degree to which her Nigerian culture will treat her in specific gendered ways. Ngozi is suspicious of the driver just as any cultural outsider might be, and in this way Okorafor invites western readers outside of the Nigerian diaspora to relax in her westernized narrators' attitudes.

The collection feels all at once personal and universal: Okorafor tends to use female protagonists to explore cultural crossroads, a preponderance of bold, Technicolor imagery, convincing scenarios of near-future bioterrorism and mash-ups of ancestral and natural forces that rebel against humans' constant pursuit of control. Vivid images serve to combine Okorafor's interest in technology, Igbo folk icons, and the intersection of rural and urban lifestyles: a monstrous lizard made of hot gravel performs a nightmarish coming of age for a Chicago beat cop, a vampiric cab passenger suited from head-to-toe in Armani teaches an American-Nigerian attorney to watch her belongings, a spinning, seven-foot car wash brush turns into a ceremonial masquerade and then provides a portal to African ancestral homelands, and a Porta-Potty sits above an underground vat of kidnapped children. That list barely scratches the surface.

The funny things is, the more fantastical the imagery, the more personal and sacred the space feels in Kabu Kabu. Legendary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart was an inspiration for Okorafor's first adult novel, often spoke about the advantage he possessed as a writer raised at the crossroads of western and African cultures. His first and best-known novel illustrates his genius ability to create and inhabit a third space from which he created African and western characters. Okorafor's stories remind me more of Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," George Saunders's "Sea Oak," and perhaps a little of Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits, but her success in creating a new spaces that disrupt expectations and still feel old and personal -- this is what reminds me of Achebe. The late Achebe wrote in Home and Exile that he had great hope in the twenty-first century's "first fruits of the balance of stories among the world's people's." Perhaps he would consider Okorafor's work among them.

Many of Kabu Kabu's stories depict the struggle between individual human agency and destiny, and Okorafor complicates this struggle with a third element: the ways that humans, on a collective scale, have attempted to foist their control over a natural world that they do not understand. Okorafor has said, "I love the idea of the earth rebelling," and this comes through in this collection. In Kabu Kabu, Chicago's South Wabash Avenue, X-Men, and cybernetic arm transplants mingle with palm wine, arro-yo origin myths, and the lingering effects of the Biafran war. In fact, the earth is a character in most of these stories. Sometimes it's in cahoots with human ancestors, sometimes not.

I don't know that Okorafor has a living room in her brain. Her writing is so active I don't know if her creative home could be housed in a living room. Maybe it's a gathering of real and supernatural creatures, inside a kabu kabu that swerves around street corners at high speed. It is difficult to review a collection as a single work, and this collection is gathered from very disparate sections of Okorafor's writing. She annotates each story in the back of the book with a description of the story's origin, and often, the stories have been mined from her first unpublished book. A writer shows a lot about how she thinks with her writing and arrangement, but the annotations at the back of Kabu Kabu illustrate this directly, and reading each piece and deciding whether to read its description before or after was part of the fun in reading each story.

Kabu Kabu will stop long enough for you to jump in and buckle up. The further you read into her collection, the longer you'd like to be a permanent passenger in Okorafor's transatlantic, transworld kabu kabu.