Saturday, 5 October 2013

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

Kabu kabu-unregistered illegal Nigerian taxis-generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor's Kabu Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn't know you needed. This debut short story collection by an award-winning author includes notable previously published material, a new novella co-written with New York Times-bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, six additional original stories, and a brief foreword by Whoopi Goldberg.
Goodreads description

Nnedi Okorafor is an American-born daughter of Igbo Nigerian parents and that mix of cultures is just perfect for the writing of magic realism. This collection of short stories draws on Okorafor's West African roots more than her American life. But the writer being American brings an outsider's point of view. The eponymous story is a good example of that. A successful American lawyer hails an illegal taxi (kabu kabu) to take to the airport for her flight to a family wedding in Nigeria, but the taxi takes her on a ride into the Nigerian supernatural. Another story features two American sisters staying in the house their parents built and furnished in Nigeria but which the family has denuded of furniture. 

The twenty-one short stories in this collection tackle some serious subjects: intolerance, genocide, stereotyping, war including the civil war, persecution of the other, and the environmental and social destruction wrought by Western oil companies. Foremost is the treatment of strong women who dare to break with the patriarchal society in which they live. There are several stories about windseekers - women who are physically marked out by their dada hair and independent spirit, and who can fly. They are feared and persecuted as witches. Fortunately the book comes with notes from the author, which give an interesting insight into what inspired these stories. The notes also explain that, as I suspected when I read the stories, some of the stories were originally parts of or side stories from full-length novels: the windseeker stories come from a novel Zahrah the Windseeker which won the 2o08 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. 

Some of the stories are very definitely magic realism, others are closer to fantasy and/or science fiction. Biafra won The Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism Short Story Contest. It also happens to be one of my favourite stories. I am old enough to remember the terrible images of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 - 1970) that fed into my childhood home via the BBC News. I can't imagine how they would haunt every Nigerian family. This story shows brilliantly how magic realism can tackle horrific subjects. The central character is a windseeker living in America: like so many of our people who were abroad, she'd felt the words deep in her bones. Come home! There are some incredible images in this story. A dying girl asked what the spirits of the girl's family and friends look like, replies: Like large pretty green lizards with long long rough tails. Helicopters are described as giant metal vultures dropping excrements of death.

I found Okarafor's work fascinating. I have only limited knowledge of the African heritage that inspires her work, but I can see how she is forging an African/American approach to magic realism. Her recent magic realist novel Who Fears Death has just been added to my to read list.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.
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