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Onyeka And The Academy Of The Sun coverFor many readers in the West, Nigerian fiction—if we were aware of it at all—used to be synonymous with Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart (1958) is often taught in secondary schools, and remains the most widely translated and read African novel globally. More recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has assumed the literary crown as the most widely read living Nigerian novelist, though she is surrounded by a wide array of incredibly talented contemporaries who are bringing Nigerian voices to larger foreign audiences. A growing subset of this creativity has been in speculative fiction, with works like the British-based Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy and the Akata novels and Binti trilogy by American-born Nnedi Okorafor.

The success of Thompson’s and Okorafor’s work in the West speaks to a hunger for alternatives to the traditional, Western approach to science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fictions. Much of American and British speculative fiction has turned inward, questioning genre boundaries and focusing on character-driven, thematic works, seeking a new voice and audience; yet new voices outside the West have been there all along, beyond the range of our attentions. That lack of attention is less a matter of merit than a lack of awareness—as both the fiction and influential anthologising of Wole Talabi have shown.

Two recent novels further highlight the promise of speculative fiction from authors of Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora. First, Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tolá Okogwu tells the story of a girl who discovers her latent magical powers, is sent to a school to learn to better harness them, and uncovers a conspiracy which threatens both the magical and non-magical worlds. This might sound a lot like a female Harry Potter. But what this simplistic summary overlooks is everything that makes Onyeka great: her unruly hair, source of both her frustration and the manifestation of her power; her friends back in London and at her new academy outside Lagos; and the X-Men-style technology and explanation of powers (mutated genes). The most complex, and to me most fascinating, difference between Onyeka and Potter is that these abilities, which lead to children being whisked away from their parents and raised apart for their safety and for national security, come at a terrible cost: using them slowly kills the user, with few living beyond their early twenties. And so we’re left with a kind of halfway home, where the children are educated and told they are special, all the while being lied to and used without knowing they await their own deaths. Billed as X-Men meets Black Panther, I read it more as X-Men meets Never Let Me Go (2005).

The second novel, Sànyà by Oyin Olugbile, takes a fantasy approach which borrows more from the classics than contemporary pop culture, with gods battling it out through their human proxies—a pair of ill-fated siblings whose love for each other serves to heighten the tragedy they steadfastly march towards. There are certainly echoes of Grecian tragedy here—Achebe drew from Sophocles and Euripedes, too—but with an adamantly authentic vision, from the historical setting of battling tribes and kingdoms to the gender reversal of the warrior sister and frail brother whose gift is weaving. This is a gritty, complex, dark work which uses the perennial philosophical debate over free will and fate to examine less esoteric, more down-to-earth concerns such as gender, identity, familial love, and the will to power. The surface of the text follows the Grecian mode of the hero’s hamartia leading to their inevitable downfall, the seeds of their destruction sown from birth: Sànyà has countless opportunities to choose otherwise, and is often advised to do so by her Òrìsà advisor (a goddess who has taken human form), but Sànyà’s ambition, her need to be seen as equal to or better than the male warriors of a patriarchal society, her desire to protect her brother, Dàda, even when he no longer needs nor wants that protection—these drive her relentlessly onward toward destruction.

Both novels share an emphasis upon the centrality of Black hair and identity. Onyeka’s hair is unruly, seemingly with a mind of its own. We again find echoes of Harry Potter here—the book, not the movie version—but Onyeka’s hair isn’t just an external manifestation of a latent and untamed ability like Potter’s (though it is that, too); it’s far more important to who she is as a person. It is her hair which causes her to be withdrawn, avoiding public places and having only one friend, because she’s been teased about it her entire life. And it is her hair which, when she goes to a public pool with her friend, Cheyenne, sets up both the near drowning and salvation of Cheyenne while simultaneously manifesting Onyeka’s powers for the first time. Her love for her friend and the danger and promise her powers represent are all there, concretely tied to the contradictory nature of Black hair as both a sense of identity and as drawing the unwanted gaze of the other, as something both dangerous and of which to be proud.

Sànyà’s hair, meanwhile, is the first part of her old identity that she casts aside when she flees home. But it’s not an easy choice: “She winced each time the knife cleanly sliced through the black mass. She had been taught that a woman’s hair was her crown, and her hands trembled as she fought her own doubts” (p. 91). For Sànyà, cutting her hair is both a statement of her desire to no longer be constrained by the stereotypes faced by other women and, unbeknownst to her at the time, a severing of ties with her brother, Dàda, who was born with locs, marking him as having mystical powers but also setting him apart from other young men whose shorn hair and muscular bodies mark them as warriors. Early in the novel, a villager remarks upon seeing the two siblings, “What a strange pair. I can hardly tell which is brother and which, sister” (p. 45). Her muscular build beside his frail one and long locs is a measure of their uncertain gender status, but it’s also deeper, with the two a blurred mirror image of the other, a kind of twinning which suggests that their fates are undecided: they could each go either way. As long as they live together, inseparable through their mutual love and outward similarities, their futures are as indeterminate as where they fit within patriarchal gender expectations. Fleeing her village and cutting her hair leads Sànyà towards pretending to be a man—which in turn leads, like Odeipus and the Sphinx, to a young warrior with nothing to lose and all the way on to her throne; it also leads to Dàda having to take care of himself through his intelligence and cunning, which leads him to a rival throne that he is unable to protect from invasion. And so the stage is set for the long-lost siblings to be reunited as entirely different people, completely at odds now through circumstance and experience.

Sànyà coverLest I be seen as making too much of hair here, Tolá Okogwu is a hair care educator and author of picture books about hair care for children. As a Western, Caucasian educator unschooled in the finer points of care for African hair types, the emphasis upon Black hair as a central feature of identity for the characters helped me better—albeit incompletely—appreciate the importance of hair and identity for people of African descent, and especially for the young adults in my classroom. For me, this is one of the things speculative fiction is for: to use the distance of the fantastic to reveal our own humanity back to ourselves. Effective literature, whether speculative or “literary,” is all about helping readers better understand what it means to be human: what it means to be ourselves, and a little bit about what it means to be someone other than ourselves. Onyeka and Sànyà do that in original and refreshing style.

Both novels also focus on supernatural abilities. Onyeka has psychokinetic abilities and can manipulate her hair like tentacles; other students at the Academy of the Sun (called Solari) have a range of abilities like control over ice or fire or emotions. If you’ve read or watched X-Men, you get the idea. Sànyà, meanwhile, has swallowed a stone containing the power of fire, and it becomes a kind of Promethean curse as it allows her to unite warring kingdoms into an empire, but also draws her into confrontation with her brother, who in response to her power is compelled towards the dark magic that is his birthright. Onyeka and the Solari attempt to use their powers to do good, as do Sànyà and Dàda, but these uses are self-destructive.

Solari power causes a neurodegenerative illness, and the more they use their power the swifter their decline and death. A putative cure is discovered, but to use it means the loss of their powers, leading to a compelling choice: to sacrifice their identity and live, or maintain their powers even as they are destroyed by them. Either path requires courage and sacrifice, and leads to deeper existential questions about what it means to live a full life. For Sànyà and Dàda, their powers are not so mechanically linked, but rather lead to greater ambitions and greater desire to exercise ever more power. Like the mass of binary stars, their power leads to a tighter and tighter orbit around the gravitational center that is their seemingly inevitable confrontation.

As with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, or the various spirits in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (2018), neither Sànyà nor Dàda are able to accept compromise or surrender their power and authority, and so like Okonkwo they become prisoners to their fates. For me, though, this was less a story of the tragic hero and their fatal flaw than it was a meditation upon the choices we all must make with those we care for: between being brittle or flexible, between compromise or intransigence, power and interdependency, love of self and love of others. Sigmund Freud found in the story of Oedipus a metaphor for the longings and desires we all pass through as we mature, and, while it has led to much armchair analysis and pop culture mockery, there is undeniably a symbolic resonance. I find a similar resonance here between Sànyà and Dàda: we may not have the ability to scream fire or wield dark magic, just as we are unlikely to encounter any winged lions with women’s heads besieging a city, but we do strive for a sense of identity that is unique to us and apart from our families, just as we strive to be recognized for who we are while struggling to reconcile that individuality with the compromises it takes to love other, imperfect, people. In that sense, while less obvious than Onyeka, Sànyà is also a novel about growing up, about being and becoming who we are.

As for the writing, while the tone and target audience of these books is wildly different, there are some similarities common to early career authors of young adult books: flat or unnatural dialogue, too much exposition, villains who monologue their plans, exaggerated emotional reactions. But an argument could be made for why each of these elements are so common to young adult and middle grade works which has less to do with authorial or editorial acumen and more to do with the audience and what allows those who comprise it to best connect to the characters and the plot. There is something refreshing about being able to sink into a plot and not have to attend to the literariness of each phrase, not have to appreciate with slow and meticulous steps each beautifully written paragraph. Onyeka is much more lighthearted, much less serious than Sànyà, but both were fun and engaging reads, and each offered a glimpse at a much wider world of possibilities for speculative fiction that is worth celebrating. Just as with travel, once you start stamping your reading passport, once you get the bug for reading world literatures and speculative fiction from diverse voices, it opens a whole new level of experience and appreciation, both for what’s out there and for what’s right at home. Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora have a long history of storytelling, and of late have become a hotbed for speculative fictions which challenge the genre boundaries and cliches of the West. Okogwu and Olugbile have joined a growing tradition which is helping breathe new life into the field.



A. S. Moser is a writer and teacher. His current project is a near-future novel about rising seas, the collapse of currency, and smuggling. For more, follow him on Twitter.
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22 Apr 2024

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We're delighted to welcome Nat Paterson to the blog, to tell us more about his translation of Léopold Chauveau's story 'The Little Monster'/ 'Le Petit Monstre', which appears in our April 2024 issue.
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