Some strange synchronicity.... Plotting out a survey of World Literature I was to teach I began seeking some end-of-semester new addition, a vaguely-formed notion that it'd be fun/useful to move away from the national frame, to think about literature in the era of globalization using science fictions. I'd had great success with Amitav Ghosh's sneakily-satirical counter-colonization sci-fi/conspiracy-thriller mash-up The Calcutta Chromosome
, so what else might be out there? I came upon this sharp little blog about the (ir)relevance of science fiction to Africa
, and saw that its author had written two very successful sci-fi/fantasy young-adult novels set in West Africa; the first, in fact, had won the Wole Soyinka prize for literature in Africa. (I'm not sure whether it's more surprising that a young-adult novel got that nod or that a sci-fi novel got that nod.) Her second, The Shadow Speaker
, was about a young girl with a complex family life on a quest in a world suddenly stricken by the Great Change--portals/shifting boundaries set up with other worlds, technology breaking down or (more surprisingly) mutating into strange new forms, strange magic now informing (or reforming) and disrupting reality. Sounds great--I ordered it, stuck it on the syllabus for late November.
Cue Theremin. Every September my in-laws give me my favorite gift (don't tell my parents), a sizable certificate to Amazon. I sit down to compile a list of forthcoming options that intrigue--I use their dough to find stuff I don't really know, that seems worth a gamble (and it's not *real* money, right?). On the list this year was Alan DeNiro, whose short fictions had gotten some raves for their slipstream beats and dark-comic energy; his first novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less
, dealt with a young girl with a complex family life on a journey in a world suddenly stricken by great changes--masses of barbarians invading St. Paul, armies (from the past?) raiding and ravaging the country, portals/shifting boundaries set up with other worlds, technology breaking down or (more surprisingly) mutating into strange new forms, strange magic now informing (or reforming--let's not talk about the dog) and disrupting reality. Sounds great--I ordered it, to be shipped upon release in late November.
I was half-done with Okorafor's novel when DeNiro's arrived. To read them simultaneously made my eyes cross, seeing Ejii and Macy and their experiences and the novels' world(s)-building as intertwined, despite the mere happenstance of these circumstances.
Both novels are worth your time, and I'd even recommend the extra-dimensionality by seeing them in strange alignment. There's something worth exploring in the eruption of this world-shifting genre at this particular moment in time -- we're certainly untangling some of the useful allegorical resonances in my class focus on globalization: the separate worlds we used to (imagine we) live/d in now suddenly, sometimes confoundingly blurry. New tech magic constantly shifting our lives. But these books both succeed by NOT falling into ye olde allegorical equations, avoiding the neat literary game of symbolic social commentary. They both work as adventures, as delightful high-wire acts of imagination--what if the duststorm was sentient, a raging soul? What if the refugees fleeing from the barbarians down the Mississippi were saved by a submarine? Each author raids her or his estimable subconscious stores to tease out a range of allusions and cross-cultural/-generic riffs and outright inventions -- the books kept surprising me page by page with plot twists that then got (for the most part) stitched right into the fabric of the emergent story.
Okorafor's novel is pitched at a younger readership, but that seems less constraint on imaginative possibility than a tighter set of rules for the prose--she writes cleanly, clearly, and only occasionally did this not-so-young adult reader feel simplistically. DeNiro writes with more surrealist fizz, a dark comic undertone that often delighted me ('though occasionally undercutting my investment in the world being built--when the eccentricity of the novel's reality seemed like a writerly joke rather than an existential one).
I will read more by both of these authors.