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Hugo Nominee Nnedi Okorafor: 'I Love Stories — And So I Write Them'


The Hugo Awards are handed out each year for excellence in science fiction and fantasy writing. They've been awarded since 1955 in categories like best novel and best graphic story. Tonight, author Nnedi Okorafor is up for best novella for her story about a girl named Binti.

NNEDI OKORAFOR: (Reading) I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer. I had no idea what I was going to do if it didn't work. My transporter was cheap, so even a droplet of moisture or more likely a grain of sand would cause it to short. It was faulty, and most of the time I had to restart it over and over before it worked. Please not now, please not now, I thought.

CHIDEYA: Well, that's one way to head off to college, at least for the title character, Binti. She's a teenager headed to the best university among worlds, some of which are at war with each other. Author Nnedi Okorafor joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome.

OKORAFOR: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: So how did you come up with this character, who has many fascinating talents we'll get into, and this world?

OKORAFOR: It's interesting because a lot of my stories are often based on several things, but their foundation is in the stories of the women and girls around me and also within myself. And Binti comes from a very insular family - a cultural family that's very close. And she ends up picking up and going and leaving her family and going just so that she can go to a university that is on another planet.

And the way that that kind of came along was, for me at the time, I had decided to take a position at the University of Buffalo in New York. They were having a bit of a hard time with it, and it was a decision that I had made. And it was a very, very big decision, and eventually I had to just do it. I had to just go. The first few months I was there, that was when I wrote "Binti," and I was kind of exploring my family's fears and a lot of their fears were logical. And I was exploring them, and I was thinking what if the fears that they had of me leaving and doing this really just kind of breaking from the family in this way - what if their fears came true? And that's where the plot of "Binti" came from.

CHIDEYA: And you're the American-born child of Igbo parents from Nigeria, and that ethnic group has tens of millions of people in the most populous country on the continent of Africa. So how has that heritage affected your world view?

OKORAFOR: I call myself Nigamerican (ph) as opposed to Nigerian-American because Nigamerican is one word. That's very much a part of my identity, and it's also very much a reason why I think I ended up writing science fiction and fantasy because I live on these borders - and these borders that allow me to see from multiple perspectives and kind of take things in and then kind of process certain ideas and certain stories in a very unique way. And that has led me to write this strange fiction that I write, which really isn't that strange if you really look at it through a sort of skewed lens.

CHIDEYA: And a lot of your work includes African characters and just a diverse cast of characters. The award for which you're nominated, the Hugo Award, has been rocked by controversy in recent years with a group of writers sometimes calling themselves the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies, voting as a block against what they argue is boring, multicultural message fiction. Why do you think there's so much pushback against multicultural science fiction and speculative fiction?

OKORAFOR: When people see something that is new to them, you know, new or different or that's so new that they don't quite understand it and so therefore can't analyze it from an easy point of view, the result is often fear. And fear often manifests itself as anger and rage and hatred, and I think that's where a lot of this comes from.

I think that inevitably science fiction and fantasy was going to become more diverse, and I think that certain people kind of react negatively to that because they've been used to being in a certain position for so long. And they feel that they're being moved from the center and becoming less significant when really that is not what's happening at all. Things are just becoming bigger and more exciting, and they're included as well. So I think that it's fear of the unknown. I think these are the last throes of that shift. It's - these are growing pains.

CHIDEYA: How does it fit into your overall writer's mission, however you define that for yourself, to have books not only for adults but children that are in the speculative-fiction genre, you know, things like your "Akata Witch" series? Tell us a little bit about that story and also how it fits into your view of what science fiction and speculative fiction and fantasy are?

OKORAFOR: OK. I'll start with "Akata Witch." "Akata Witch" is a story that is about a Nigerian-American girl who goes back to Nigeria and is dealing with all of her cultural issues, and then one day she finds out she's part of this magical society. She meets friends, and there's a community. And then there's a magical world. Basically, her world just really opens up because it becomes more.

As far as my own mission, I wouldn't say that I have a mission. I know that I was writing these stories because, one, I enjoyed writing stories. Two, I had all of these stories to tell. Like, I'd look around at my relatives, and I listened. And I wasn't seeing these stories that I wanted to see being told. It's not so much a mission. It's just that I love stories, and so I write them and so I produce them.

CHIDEYA: Nnedi Okorafor is an award-winning author. Her book "Binti" is up for best novella at the Hugo Science Fiction Awards tonight. Thanks so much for joining us, Nnedi.

OKORAFOR: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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