EVERFAIR (2016)

downloadI came away from Everfair with a huge amount of respect for Nisi Shawl as a writer. Everfair is a novel that must have required extremely extensive research and planning, but even more than that, I was impressed with Shawl’s ability to balance viewpoints. No character’s point-of-view was ignored, overlooked, or presented any less seriously than any other, and there were a lot of different viewpoints. Everfair, set mostly in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century, does an incredible job of demonstrating why race relations and gender relations continue to be so hard to navigate, even by those who are trying their very best to be good, and by all accounts are good. It demonstrates how easy it is to, as a white person, male or female, forget the extent of your privilege and hurt or ignore or invalidate people of color. It reminded me how important it is to constantly question the way I treat others, to always be willing to accept I’m wrong, to always be willing to change, and that when it comes to the rights of people of color, the only voices we should trust are theirs.

The novel is split into two parts. The first part is the story of the colonists of Everfair fighting with the indigenous people of the Congo to end King Leopold III’s cruel reign over the Congo. The second part deals with what happens after King Leopold III is defeated. With their common enemy dealt with and WWI taking shape, how do the white colonists and the indigenous population live harmoniously in one country both feel they hold claim to? It’s this second part of Everfair that truly blew me away. Shawl deals with numerous complicated questions of right and wrong, and handles these difficult questions gracefully and insightfully. The novel is also a powerfully feminist one. There are many important and central characters in Everfair, but the main protagonist is a  woman who throughout the novel greatly inspired me. She is realistic in her flaws but also realistic in her strengths and that believability is what made her character and her story so powerful to me. Everfair presents a fictional, alternative history, but one that offers a lot to learn from.

Links: Nisi Shawl .com | Goodreads | Amazon

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006)

Half of adownload Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never even heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation and a place that saw human suffering to an extent and on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

There is no “best part” to this novel because every element of the story is as incredible as every other. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary or read a book or even seen a starving children in Africa ad where what’s happening seems so detached from your own life that its impossible to conceive of the suffering as happening to real human beings. Half of a Yellow Sun avoids this entirely. First, it’s enjoyable to read! It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and plots unfolding. And so, when you realize that these same characters, characters who have careers they worked hard for, who have families, who attend university, who write poetry, who have music collections, who have access to modern day luxuries, are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock you feel is real and intimate as opposed to a detached sadness for a suffering so far removed from your own life that its reality is inconceivable.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages previous and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s a certain type of joy that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering reaches an extent so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute must-read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Amazon

WHO FEARS DEATH (2010)

downloadI’ve skimmed through a variety of reviews of Who Fears Death after finishing it myself, specifically negative reviews, because there are a few things I didn’t like about the book that others pointed out as well. The ending was abrupt, anti-climactic, and unfulfilling, and this was mostly because the narrative relied on a self-fulfilling prophecy plot which allowed Okorafor to conclude the story with “spirit world magic stuff” instead of with a logical or thought-provoking conclusion. I also would’ve liked a little more world-building surrounding the magic system in the book, how it works, what it’s limitations are, and what it comes from. Somewhere out there is a lecture given by Brandon Sanderson in which he says something along the lines of how a magic system’s limitations, i.e. what it can’t do, are more interesting than what it can do, and that’s always stuck with me. But despite its flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed Who Fears Death and want to talk about what I loved.

Okorafor has a very blunt writing style that I like. She doesn’t beat around or even build up to anything; she writes authoritatively and suddenly. Time in the story passes quickly as a result of the way she writes. The story will skip forward without any real indication of how much time has passed except for occasional mentions of how old the main characters have become. Her writing highlights only the most important moments and conversations, the defining ones. I don’t mind this, and much prefer it to the opposite (spending too much time on tedious day-to-day things), but it did have the effect of making me feel slightly less attached to the characters. What I loved about Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is her ability to say so much in a single sentence. Every sentence is somehow loaded with information or context or back story. One chapter opened with this line: “It’s a day I’ve pulled up many times in the last year to remind me life is also good.” I loved the sentence so much I wrote it down because it’s so simple but so effective.

And while the plot of Who Fears Death was flawed, the content throughout the book is incredible. You can imagine how much gender equality comes up as an issue in a book that features a sorceress destined to save the world with a male partner destined to help her in a misogynistic society. Some of my favorite moments in the book are when Onyesonwu and her lover/partner Mwita have to navigate their switched gender roles. Mwita being jealous and Onyesonwu being arrogant or lacking patience and empathy. Another thing I loved about the book is the setting. It’s easy to assume at first, because of the use of magic and sorcery, that the novel is set in Africa in the past, maybe pre-civilization, but it is actually set in post-apocalyptic Africa. Computers are a thing of the past and technology as we know it is only used or even encountered occasionally. I love the idea that magic doesn’t have to be primitive. Magic follows technology in this universe instead of preceding it. Of course race is a huge issue in the novel as well and one of the most interesting points I think Okorafor makes when discussing race in the novel is that so often, people who are marginalized or discriminated against for being different in whatever way, are called upon to do the most for the society that judges or marginalizes them. And related to that is the higher standard marginalized people are often held to and how much pressure that puts on a person in society, at home, and between friends. Overall, I really enjoyed Who Fears Death. I thought it was meaningful, thought-provoking, and relatable, and I’d recommend it despite its flaws.

Links: Nnedi .com | Goodreads | Amazon