Nearly 25 years ago, Nnedi Okorafor was visiting relatives in Isiekenesi, Nigeria, when she asked her grand uncle a sensitive question. What could he tell her about Nsibidi, an old and often secret symbolic script?
“His response was, ‘You should not be asking me about these evil things!’” Ms. Okorafor recalled.
Predictably, his chiding only fueled her curiosity. She learned everything she could about the script and, many years later, incorporated it into her fantasy books. “There’s a secretness that was really intriguing,” said Ms. Okorafor, who has a tattoo on her arm with Nsibidi symbols that means “story teller.”
Magic, ritual and secrecy are threads that run through Ms. Okorafor’s wildly imaginative young adult fantasy series, which features a head-spinning menagerie of otherworldly spirits and deities drawn from Nigerian myths and legends.
This week, Viking published “Akata Warrior,” the second book in the Akata series, a dark, sprawling epic that some fans and readers have labeled the “Nigerian Harry Potter.” The story centers on Sunny Nwazue, a Nigerian-American girl who moves to southeastern Nigeria from New York, and learns that she belongs to the secret Leopard Society, a group of people with magical abilities. An albino with pale skin and hair, Sunny is treated as an outcast by superstitious locals who call her a witch. But once she discovers her powers, she becomes friends with three other Leopard children, learning to cast spells, read Nsibidi and move between the physical world and spirit realm.
Like her protagonist, Ms. Okorafor, 43, grew up straddling two worlds, never really fitting into either. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she was raised in Illinois, but spent holidays with her extended family in Nigeria.
“Nigeria is my muse,” said Ms. Okorafor, who lives in a suburb of Chicago. “The idea of the world being a magical place, a mystical place, is normal there.”
Over the last decade or so, Ms. Okorafor has published a dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, and has emerged as one of the genre’s most innovative and visionary writers. Her stories, which are often set in West Africa, use the framework of fantasy to explore weighty social issues: racial and gender inequality, political violence, the destruction of the environment, genocide and corruption. She’s won virtually every major science fiction and fantasy award, including the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, as well as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.
Now, after developing a cult following, Ms. Okorafor’s gritty, unconventional fantasies are catching on with a much larger, mainstream audience. Her novel, “Who Fears Death,” which is set in a postapocalyptic Africa, has been optioned as a series by HBO, with George R. R. Martin signed on as an executive producer. She’s writing a three-issue arc of Marvel Comics’s Black Panther series, as well as a Marvel comic based on her character Ngozi, a Nigerian teenage girl who is “bonded to the alien symbiotic organism Venom.”
In a genre that has long been dominated by white men and Western mythological tropes, Ms. Okorafor’s stories, which feature young black girls in starring roles as superheroes and saviors of humanity, have been hailed as groundbreaking. Her fan base includes some of the genre’s biggest names, titans like Rick Riordan, Mr. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman.
“The sheer joy of something like the ‘Akata’ series is the feeling that I simply have not read this before, and that is so rare,” Mr. Gaiman said in an interview. “It’s fantasy, yet it comes from a cultural place that isn’t the stuff we’ve already seen 1,000 times before.”
There’s a long literary strain of science fiction and fantasy that draws on African and African-American folklore, from masters like Ben Okri and Octavia Butler, and a deep tradition of magical realism in African-American literature. But until fairly recently, those stories have often been relegated to the fringes of science fiction and fantasy. The most popular fantasy franchises of the past few decades, from “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” to Mr. Riordan’s Greek mythology-based “Percy Jackson” series, have for the most part been rooted in European myths and legends, as are some of the genre’s canonical texts, like C. S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” and J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
That’s starting to change, as Ms. Okorafor and other African-American speculative fiction writers have risen to prominence, demonstrating that there’s an enormous appetite for fantasy stories that feature diverse characters and settings and tackle contemporary social issues. N. K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” fantasy trilogy, which takes place on a continent plagued by catastrophic earthquakes, has sold around 400,000 copies in English worldwide, won the Hugo Award for best novel two years in a row, and is being adapted into a TNT television series.
There’s a flood of new and forthcoming fantasy fiction that draws on African mythology, culture and folklore. The Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James is writing an epic fantasy trilogy that draws on ancient African myths and stories, and features bounty hunters, queens, witches, shape-shifters and monsters.
This month, Razorbill will publish “Beasts Made of Night,” a young adult fantasy novel by the Nigerian-American writer Tochi Onyebuchi. The novel takes place in a gritty, dangerous city of Kos, where so-called sin eaters make a living devouring rich people’s sins, absolving them. Mr. Onyebuchi, who has a law degree from Columbia University, envisioned the story as a parable about corruption and inequality in the criminal justice system.
Next March, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers will release Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel “Children of Blood and Bone,” the first of a young adult trilogy set in a mythical country inspired by West Africa. Holt paid seven figures for the series, and Fox 2000 acquired film rights. Ms. Adeyemi, 24, whose parents moved to the United States from Nigeria, said she wanted to write a fantasy series that drew on her cultural heritage, particularly the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba religion, but that also explored themes like racial and social injustice. “It’s an allegory for the modern black experience through the lens of an epic African fantasy,” she said in an interview.
Lately, Ms. Okorafor is finding herself in increasingly high demand. She recently finished a new novel, “Remote Control,” a fantasy set in near-future Ghana, and just signed a deal to write the third book in her Akata series. She’s also working on a graphic novel, set in a Brooklyn tenement that houses both African immigrants and aliens from outer space.
Ms. Okorafor’s rise as a fantasy novelist came about somewhat by accident. Growing up in an immigrant family, she never thought she could make a living by writing. “As is the case with a lot of Nigerians, and immigrant families in general, there were only three career options: doctor, lawyer and engineer,” she said. “And failure.”
She excelled at sports and science, and was fascinated by insects; she planned to be an entomologist, she said. Then, when she was 19 she had back surgery for scoliosis, and woke up paralyzed from the waist down. Imprisoned in her own body and terrified, she started writing short stories to keep her mind occupied. She recovered over the summer, and when she returned to college, took a creative-writing class. Her path was set.
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