"Who Fears Death" by Nnedi Okorafor Wins the 2011 World Fantasy Award
Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has just won the prestigious World Fantasy Award for best novel, announced in San Diego at the World Fantasy Convention. Who Fears Death made Amazon’s Top 10 SF/Fantasy list for 2010. A professor of English at Chicago State University, Okorafor is a past winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature, the CBS Parallax Award, and the Macmillan Writer's Prize for Africa.
The other winners are:
Novella: Elizabeth Hand, "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" (Stories: All-New Tales)
Short Story: Joyce Carol Oates, "Fossil-Figures" (Stories: All-New Tales)
Anthology: "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me" (Penguin), edited by Kate Bernheimer & Carmen Gimenez Smith
Collection: "What I Didn't See and Other Stories" by Karen Joy Fowler (Small Beer Press)
Artist: Kinuko Y. Craft
Special Award-Professional: Marc Gascoigne, for Angry Robot
Special Award-Non-professional: Alisa Krasnostein, for Twelfth Planet Press
The award-winning novel, Who Fears Death, is a powerful combination of science fiction, fantasy, African folklore, and stark realism. It tells the story of Onyesonwu, a woman of extraordinary powers in a post-apocalyptic West Africa, a world of perils and mysteries, of lost technologies and brutal wars. Onyesonwu's name means "Who fears death?", and her birth is the result of rape used as a weapon in battle; this legacy affects the woman she becomes, and the novel portrays her education as a sorceress and her quest to bring order and peace to her life and world.
It took Okorafor eight years to write Who Fears Death. “When I wrote Who Fears Death, I had no outline. It was inspired by the passing of my father,” Okorafor said. “Seeing his body at the wake was traumatic. I was alone with the body at one point and feeling an immense amount of emotion that I felt could destroy everything in the room.” Who Fears Death opens with a similar scene.
The novel is told using an oral narrative, which according to Okorafor is “a traditional African method of storytelling. The story is even introduced with words spoken by Patrice Lumumba, an African man with a charismatic short life and a brutal death. But the story has also been translated (by me, the Nigerian American who loves and maintains great respect for both her cultures) to be suitable for another form of storytelling--the novel, a Western form. So even in this way, it is a hybrid. She’s telling her story to someone, so the story is told to that someone with that someone’s background in mind. And that someone is not from our time and is of a specific cultural background. This forced me to work hard to get the world across.”
Born in the United States to Igbo parents, Okorafor draws inspiration from her parents’ homeland—Nigeria—and from Chicago, where she has lived since she was six. Growing up, Okorafor was “sort of an outcast in multiple communities… with little interest in ‘fitting in.'” These days she writes about characters at odds with society—characters willing face their fears and try to overcome their situations, regardless of cost.
Writers shouldn’t shy away from dealing with difficult or emotional material. “If it scares you to write it, then you should definitely write it. [My fiction] is full of moments and situations that I wanted to pull back from or skip over. I didn't want to look at certain issues, practices, or situations. But I knew that if I was feeling that way then that's where the good stuff was, so I faced it.”
As for being nominated for the World Fantasy Award, Okorafor said she was “actually pretty shocked and very honored when I learned that I was a finalist. Who Fears Death is a really unique novel and I often feel like a bit of an outsider when it comes to these kinds of things. The books that are finalists are usually books that I'll read and enjoy yet think to myself, ‘But I don't write stuff like that,’” although she calls this year’s list of finalists “amazing.”
Asked by Omnivoracious what it would mean for her to win, Okorafor replied, “I haven't thought that far yet. I don't fantasize about winning awards. It's the kind of thing where I'll cross that bridge when I get to it…that path is full of so much confetti and happy dancing that I can't see it that clearly from here.”
Due to book deadlines, Okorafor was unable to attend the World Fantasy Convention this year, but presumably there has been much confetti and dancing at her home in Chicago this evening.
For more about Okorafor, read the Omnivoracious interview conducted last year.
Some material in this feature provided by Jeremy L.C. Jones or taken from prior Omni posts.