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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Akata Witch and Nanowrimo Hangover

Lambs think money and material things are the most important thing in the world. You can cheat, lie, steal, kill, be dumb as a rock, but if you can brag about money and having lots of things and your bragging is true, that bypasses everything. Money and material things make you king or queen of the Lamb world. You can do no wrong, you can do anything. - Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch
Hi everybody, I had a great time not writing this blog for two weeks and instead writing a novel that nobody will ever read. I've wanted to be a writer for easily the majority of my life, and while I love my job and am aware every single day of how lucky I am to have it, I've never been able to tamp down that desire to write and be paid for it. It was a little sobering to realize how much fun I was having when I was writing two-to- three thousand words a day on a story that was interesting and satisfying. I looked forward to it every day and now that the first draft is done, I feel a little empty.

To be honest, I don't know if what came of that flurry of activity is good or not. I think I need to give it a month or so before I can return to it with fresh eyes and see if there's anything salvageable enough to do something with, or if I chalk it up to another good practice that I might put up on my website and subsequently never sell a single copy. I bet this is similar to the feeling people get when they run a marathon. Which is to say that they worked on something every day, finished it, realized that while their accomplishment was impressive, it's also something that hundreds of people do every day and that nobody cares, and moved on with their lives.

This all took place in November, which is National Novel Writing Month, so there were events around town one could participate should one have the desire. I went to the library one town over on a Saturday afternoon to work on my opus and there were probably 20 other people there, all slaving away at their own masterpiece. It was fun because there were treats and water and there was something invigorating about being surrounded by other writers, but also I realized that the chances that any of us were going to come away with something publishable were so slim as to essentially be zero. Like being in the middle-to-back of the pack in a marathon, I realized that my accomplishment would be important to me and to the rest of the world it would be the same as if it never happened at all.

And yes, just like the health benefits associated with training and then running for a very long distance, I am probably a better person having participated even if nothing comes of it. But that faint peek at what it would be like to write every day and support myself with said writing made the fact that I probably never will hurt just a teensy bit more. It really sucked and it left me in a bit of a funk and I realized why so much time has passed since I last did this. I'm just not cut out for it. I love to write and it makes me feel good, but the inevitable rejection afterwards kicks my butt in a way that frankly takes years to heal.

So there's that.

In the meantime I did read a few books, including the Marvel book Infinity Gauntlet, which I will not write about today other than to say if the Infinity War movie that it's supposedly based on is anything like that comic story, it's going to be cuckoo bananas because that book is buck wild. For example, in the books Thanos kills every recognizable Marvel character in what is probably the movie equivalent of 4 seconds. The rest of the fight takes place between Thanos and a bunch of crazy immortal gods and the perpetually naked Silver Surfer and some dude named Adam Warlock. Also he's in love with Death, but Death isn't having it, so he makes himself a doppelganger who is literally just a female version of himself (who tears off Iron Man's head). I mean, this is a movie I would love to see but one I know won't exist, so let's move on.

The book I do want to talk about is Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor. I think the pitch I saw on Instagram or whatever was that it was Harry Potter in Nigeria, and I was like heck yes. What it really turned out to be was Harry Potter in Nigeria. Remember the Night Bus in Prisoner of Azkaban? It's the Funky Train in Akata Witch. There's no quidditch (thank heavens), but there is a plain old soccer match where the main character proves herself to the wizarding leopard world. Magic is juju and instead of a wand, you get a juju knife (which chooses you).

In Harry Potter, Rowling explores nativist tendencies by having the bad guys be obsessed with purity of wizarding lineage, with mudblood a kind of slur against your Hermiones and your what-have-yous. In Akata Witch, that exists, too. Sunny is a free agent, which means that her parents don't do magic. Free Agents are looked down upon. Also, because it's Nigeria and there are magic users all over the world, plain old racism is there, too.

If this all sounds like I'm taking Akata Witch down a peg for being derivative, I'm not. Aside from the basic structure it's hung on, it's profoundly original. I freaking loved it. Everything feels fresh and vibrant and mysterious. No word is unnecessary, and the book lacks all of the bloat I associate with Rowling's series. Okorafor draws on traditional Nigerian culture as the backbone and plays with the deep tribalism of the major ethnic groups in that country.   Sunny is an akata, which in the Yoruba culture is the name of a wild cat, as in one not living at home. In her case it's because she was born to Nigerian parents in the United States, but moves to Nigeria when she's nine. She's also albino. We learn that the leopard people revere flaws that normal humans would despise, because those flaws are often linked to their powers. In Sunny's case, she can turn invisible. Two of her friends are born in Nigeria but are from two different ethnic groups, and the other is an American teenager sent to live with family after getting into some trouble in the states. They eventually band together to take down a serial killer who targets young children.

It's stinkin' rad, is what I'm saying.

It doesn't surprise me how many stories take place where someone who is unassuming and finds themselves to be painfully normal or actively despised because of something beyond their control to find out that they are actually special. That's what we all wish would happen to us. Even in those universes, though, the vast majority of the human population really is boring. Most of us will never have a friend take us aside and tell us that we're rich in juju, or could be a jedi, or will get the dubious honor of having to clean up owl poop for the rest of our lives in exchange for never being able to use a ball point pen and paper again.

I don't read a lot of fantasy or sci-fi or speculative fiction, but I get it. Like the sad vampire cult of normies who wish they were more interesting in that one episode of Buffy, some of us pretend to be something we've always dreamed of every few Novembers before returning to the daily calendar of meetings, keeping track of sick leave and vacation, and dutifully putting money away in your 401k so that your kids won't have to pay for your end of life care.
There are more valuable things in life than safety and comfort. Learn. You owe it to yourself.
And listen, you guys, I know in my heart of hearts that there's some poor version of me cranking out books that only do OK who still has to work part-time jobs to make ends meet without affordable health insurance or a steady income. That dude looks at me when I'm out in the wilderness counting birds or finding pikas or looking into eagle nests and says "Man, that's some clean livin' right there." All I'm saying is it's fun to escape every now and then, and Akata Witch is a pretty good way to do that.