When I was an undergraduate, our professors were very determined to make sure that us students had as well-rounded a reading background as possible. They made and encouraged us to read as many literary classics and award-winners as we could, to explore as many genres as we dared, and if we chose, to pick a handful we would specialize in so we could go into more in-depth reading. Most of us had already read many of the classic Greek and Roman material (if one hadn’t read Homer, at the very least, then it was almost impossible to get into the program), and many of us had read The Arabian Nights or were in the process of reading it.We were also very familiar with many Philippine and Western classics, and some (such as myself) were already certain which genres we were going to focus on.
But this was not enough to our professors. There was a much wider world of reading, they believed, and they ensured that our horizons were broadened. A great many Chinese and Japanese authors were thrown in our direction, along with a healthy serving of Eastern European and South American authors (Wislawa Szymborska and Octavio Paz were my personal revelations during this time). And since most of us had read very little African literature beyond some grasp of various mythologies, they made sure we got a good serving of prose and poetry from that particular area of the world. Adhiambo Owuor’s short story “Weight of Whispers” was the start, and then we were assigned Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road, which for many of us was a revelation regarding the wonders of African literature.
I hadn’t thought of The Famished Road in a while, not until Hope asked me to look for a novel titled Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. I got myself my own copy to read, especially since she thought I might find it interesting, and then I gave her her copy. And since I just finished reading Leviathan Wakes and therefore needed something in the fantasy line of reading, I decided to go for Akata Witch and see what it was all about. Now, I’d lost quite a bit of my faith in young adult fiction since Harry Potter came to an end and the Twilight Saga filled in the gap, but every so often I do find something good: Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy is a great example of this. Fortunately, Akata Witch is another great example of young adult fiction in a post-Harry Potter world.
Now that I mention Harry Potter, Akata Witch is very similar to that. Sunny Nwazue is a strange mix: born to Nigerian parents in America, who then moved back to Nigeria when she was nine. This might not have been so bad, in truth, if it only involved adjusting to an entirely new culture, but Sunny is also an albino – something which has some rather negative connotations in the folk superstitions of Africa, on top of all the other prejudice that goes on against women and foreigners (or anyone born outside of Nigeria) that Sunny has to deal with everyday. However, Sunny isn’t as ordinary as she thinks she is: she’s very, very special, because she turns out to be one of the Leopard People, a select group of people who can work magic. With her friends Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, she realizes that there’s more to the world than she thinks there is, and that they might be the only ones who can stop something very, very evil from setting foot in the world.
Almost immediately, the parallels with Harry Potter are extremely obvious: young person thinks they’re not quite special, but it turns out they are, and moreover, said young person is possessed of unique magical talents that said young person must use in order to combat evil. In order to master their capabilities, the young person must attend a secret school where various teachers and mentor figures guide her or him on their way to defeating the aforementioned iteration of evil. However, to say that Akata Witch is a direct copy of Harry Potter would be doing the novel a great disservice, because while they share patterns in common, Akata Witch deals with a great many other things that Harry Potter does not.
One of the very first, most obvious things that distinguish this novel from Harry Potter is its setting: Africa, but Nigeria, more specifically. It does not, however, attempt to romanticize or make the setting overly exotic: it is simply a setting, like any other, and though it is very different from the ones familiar to the average Western reader, these differences are merely a result of the fact that this is a very different culture from typical American or European culture. Exotic details like food and types of clothing are mentioned casually, with minimal explanation as to what they are, and it is up to the reader to find out what they are, precisely, or infer from the narration what they might be.
Another interesting aspect about this book is how it handles issues of race and feminism. One would think these are rather sensitive issues to talk about in a young-adult book, but I really think Okorafor does it pretty well here. Issues about what it means to be a girl are brought up constantly: for instance, how Sunny constantly faces prejudice from boys, who don’t want her to play football because she’s a girl, even though she’s a pretty good player (something she proves in a very interesting scene in the middle third of the book). There is also mention made of women who may have children, but may not marry, for very specific reasons, and the prejudice they face in patriarchal Nigerian society. Another interesting thing is how some of the most powerful characters are women, with Sunny’s eventual mentor being one of them. As for race, that’s presented here too. Sunny herself faces prejudice for being born American and for being an albino, and her friend Sasha also speaks about how difficult it is to be an African-American in both America and Africa.
Not even Harry Potter addresses these issues as clearly as Akata Witch does, but what’s more important is that bringing these issues to light absolutely does not get in the way of the story. There is no attempt to be preachy or didactic at any point in the narrative, but keen readers will pick up those issues regardless, and recognize them for what they are. They will smile when Sunny finally overcomes her insecurities regarding her uncertain position in Nigerian society as a girl and as a Nigerian-American, and will be particularly pleased when she proves that being female has absolutely nothing to do with her skill as a football player.
Another thing that really pleased me about this book was how knowledge was put forward as being more valuable than material wealth. In the novel, the Leopard People use a special currency called chittim, which falls from the sky whenever the person learns something new, with the amount and value being dependent upon the degree of knowledge acquired. This knowledge has nothing to do with book learning: it’s about self-knowledge, about truths learned about oneself. One doesn’t get chittim for memorizing a juju, but one does get it if one performs the magic correctly. In Sunny’s case, for instance, when she first learned and accepted that she was one of the Leopard People, the revelation was such that she earned a substantial amount of chittim. Every time Sunny or her friends gains even more knowledge, they are rewarded. It’s interesting to note that it is apparently the universe that does this rewarding, since it is only the gaining of knowledge that makes the chittim fall from the sky, and while one can keep the chittim one earns, one can’t withdraw it from a bank, for instance, because it has to be earned from the universe with new knowledge. The wealthiest people in Leopard society, therefore, are those who have a great deal of knowledge: generally old scholars, since experience and book learning are both necessary for accumulating chittim.
This idea of measuring wealth based on knowledge is something that the Leopard People often compare with the way non-magical people (called “Lambs”) prefer to measure wealth by accumulating power and material goods. Leopard People frown on this tendency, and when other Leopard People begin to fall into the same trap, they are looked down upon by the rest of Leopard society, because they firmly believe that, once one of the Leopard People begins to hunger for more and more power and more and more money, then they begin walking the path to darkness – something which the main antagonist of the story is said to have done. At the very least, such folk are looked at askance by their fellow Leopards.
Other interesting themes, such as the importance of teamwork and balance, are also put forward throughout the course of the story, and mostly through the interaction between Sunny and her friends. Fortunately, they are a very interesting bunch: steady Orlu, with his tendency to think things through and stick by the rules; mischievous Chichi, who refuses to tell anyone her real age and is constantly pushing boundaries; and rule-breaking Sasha, who got into trouble in the Unitd States and was sent to Nigeria to learn to discipline his temper. Orlu is the one who is closest to Sunny, mostly because Sunny thinks he’s the most sensible – and she isn’t altogether incorrect in that regard. Chichi and Sasha are fun, but obviously a lot more prone to taking risks – mostly because they are extremely smart and extremely talented, both possessing photographic memories. Orlu, and then later Sunny, try to keep Chichi and Sasha in line as best as they can, but they don’t always succeed. Fortunately, their activities don’t get them into too much trouble, and their exceptional talents do prove invaluable during those moments when they must work together to overcome a crisis.
The world itself is, of course, endlessly fascinating. The take on magic here is straight out of African (mostly West African) folklore and superstition, including the concept of the masquerade – not in the sense of the Venetian masked ball, but in a more primal, more magical sense of the word. An article from the National Geographic‘s April 2012 issue, titled Tangible Spirits by Cathy Newman (photography by Phyllis Galembo), explains the concept of the masquerade as understood in Africa more thoroughly. The concept of the masquerade in Akata Witch isn’t all that different, but far more dangerous, because it involves actually summoning the spirit itself – something which could potentially kill the caster, and therefore is magic reserved only for those who are strong enough and knowledgeable enough to do so. Aside from the high-level magic of masquerades, there are other, smaller magics, accomplished through special rituals that may or may not involve human hair, human blood, animal parts, mysterious powders, drawing symbols with chalk, incantations, or all of the above. Instead of wands, the Leopard People use juju knives, which can also be used to draw symbols in the air for certain spells, or to cut a part of space into which to speak an incantation. Language is crucial here, with many spells requiring knowledge of a particular African language – a problem for Sasha, who doesn’t speak a lot of any African language; Sunny has no such problem, because she can speak Igbo. The system of magic is extremely intriguing, and while it’s rather confusing at first, it all gets explained enough later on that the reader can figure it all out rather easily, especially if one has already read books or stories about African myth and folklore.
Overall, Akata Witch is a well-told, well-built story that follows a similar format to Harry Potter, but is not Harry Potter at all. Sunny is a female protagonist after my own heart (sensible enough without being too sensible for her age), and the lessons she learns in the novel are certainly lessons any girl – or any boy, for that matter – could stand to learn, no matter what their age. The novel itself is a pretty self-contained story, but there is definitely a promise for more at the end – no surprise, as this looks to be the first in a series. Hopefully Okorafor gets that next book out soon, because I really would like to read more about Sunny and her friends and see how they handle their next adventure.