Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

Reviewed by Matthew Cheney

Kabu Kabu cover

Nnedi Okorafor's first short story collection begins and ends with tales that evoke histories and challenge orthodoxies. "The Magical Negro" liberates an unfortunate cliché of fantasy fiction to go his own way, and so plants a sign in the narrative ground to let us know that these journeys, though fantastical, will seek some roads less traveled. "The Palm Tree Bandit" (first published here at Strange Horizons in 2000) reconfigures a different sort of mythos, shaking up the cartography of West African folktales to open some paths for women to play around with symbols and tools too often reserved for men. Both stories are narrative manifestos, fictions that are also metafictions. They exude a hope common to the whole book, a hope in human imagination. We have, these stories suggest, imagined badly, narrowly, oppressively—but just because we have does not mean that we must.

The book itself exemplifies a faith in the improving power of imagination, and of the human ability to improve one's own imaginative skills. If the stories in Kabu Kabu had been arranged chronologically, the progress of Nnedi Okorafor's art would be quite visible; even without such an arrangement, the progress is apparent, because what is collected here is not a "best of Nnedi Okorafor," but a portfolio of pieces from throughout her career. She remains at heart, it seems, a novelist, and it is in her novels that you will find her best work—but novels rarely show their own making as starkly as a collection that highlights the creation of the parts in the whole. Collections can welcome us into the imagination's workshop, particularly when, as here, they include the writer's reflections on the making of the stories.

Readers will better appreciate Kabu Kabu by thinking of it less as a showcase than a sketchbook. Some of the stories are salvaged from an unpublished novel, some are cast-off pieces from published novels, some are a bit unformed or a bit vague, some are among the writer's earliest writings, and of one she says, "I must admit, looking back, I don't like this story very much." Why include such items, then? Why not compose a first collection of stories from only the very best? Certainly, Okorafor could have cut the book by a third and made it more consistently impressive. It would have been a stronger collection, but in many ways less interesting, because what we get with Kabu Kabu is a portrait of a writer working through her material, and the book as a whole is much more interesting than any of its parts.

The title story is a previously unpublished collaboration with Alan Dean Foster that contains some of the elements common to Okorafor's other stories, but is, on its own, among the least successful stories in the book. It tells the tale of a young Nigerian-American woman, Ngozi, who needs to get to Nigeria from Chicago to attend her sister's wedding, and ends up on a crazy cab ride. It's a fun concept, but there's not enough to it to sustain the story for twenty-three pages, and the occasional lively moments get weighed down by the various over-machinations of plot. "Kabu Kabu" is followed by another story starring a young woman named Ngozi, "The House of Deformities," which Okorafor says is the first story she ever wrote. It's full of awkward first steps, but it proves that Okorafor's interest in how young women negotiate the terrain between different worlds has been there from the beginning. Later stories show her ability to balance character, plot, setting, and theme much more skillfully. For instance, the horror story "On the Road" (first published in 2009) feels like the ultimate achievement for which "The House of Deformities" and "Kabu Kabu" were trial runs. "On the Road" is also the story of a Nigerian-American woman who travels to Nigeria from Chicago and ends up discovering magic she was not entirely prepared for, but now there is a sharpness to the prose, a tightness to the plotting, and an efficiency to the characterizations that the earlier stories lack. Similarly, the recent story "The Carpet" tells of Chicago-based sisters who visit family in Nigeria and encounter mystery and magic, and here, too, we see an experienced writer balancing many elements to good, entertaining effect. "On the Road" is the more substantial and memorable story (indeed, one of the highlights of the book), but "The Carpet" stands as strong evidence of how far Okorafor has come from her earliest stories.

Kabu Kabu seems to have been arranged to put some distance between stories of similar plot, character, and setting. Reading the stories in order is like listening to a fugue. Various stories Okorafor culled from her unpublished novel The Legend of Arro-yo are scattered throughout the book, and their presence looms large, demonstrating what she asserts in the author's notes: "Just about every book I went on to write blossomed from writing and exploring this unpublished novel." Dispersed through the book like melodic motifs, the Arro-yo stories give us not only the familiar protagonist of a young woman, but other elements common to many of Okorafor's works: myth and legend, intersecting worlds, windseekers in flight, violent men, war.

Nigeria, too, looms large throughout the book, and the imagined lands of some of the stories are lands that contain many resonances with West Africa's landscapes, cultures, and histories. Some of the most effective stories in Kabu Kabu are ones that look specifically at the consequences of Nigeria's vast oil resources. "Spider the Artist" is a touching science fiction story about robots that protect pipelines; "The Popular Mechanic" similarly explores questions of family, violence, technology, and oil; "Icon" presents a harrowing encounter with Niger Delta rebels seeking to undermine American oil companies' powers; and "Moom!" (a prologue to Okorafor's upcoming novel Lagoon) tells the story of a swordfish that attacks a pipe, with surreal results.

The worlds of these stories are usually violent, and the violence is often that of men against women. Husbands are especially deadly. Young men who start out with good intentions, or who otherwise seem harmless, end up warped into beasts, as with Asuquo's husband Okon in "The Winds of Harmattan," who responds to his wife's growing distance with blows and rape. The violence may be gendered, but there is not a sense that these men are violent because they are men so much as that they are violent because they are men in specific places, specific cultures, specific circumstances. Their destructive acts at least partly result from their narrow imaginations, for they cannot see themselves beyond the roles they think they ought to fill in the stories they accept as real.

The presence of so many stories written in a folktale idiom highlights another of Okorafor's interests: what stories do in the world. Folktales are not just stories, but stories that have been told—the telling is essential to their being, and evokes not only the idea of a teller, but of a history of tellings and retellings. "The Black Stain," for instance, tells an origin story for the Ewu mythology from Who Fears Death (2010), letting us know the story of the first Ewu (mixed-race) people. The story is told, though, from the Nuru perspective, which sees all people who are not Nuru as evil, and so an Ewu child is particularly horrible. "To create one," the narrator says, "is to curse one's bloodline—Nuru or Okeke. It is to usher in the demon. It is not to happen. And if it does, stamp it out immediately. It is a useless otherworldly creature deserving of no respect, dignity, or life" (p. 60). The reader, of course, even if they haven't read Who Fears Death, should come to a different conclusion. But the story helps us understand how the hatreds in Who Fears Death manifest in the stories told about enemies and outsiders. Our sense of identity requires us to tell stories of difference (to be this we must be not-that) and those stories can have vast consequences as they metamorphose, through telling, from stories with speakers into authorless common sense. "The Black Stain" is a terrifying story, a story that shocks us if we have let down our guard and grown complicit in the sense it tries to make common, but it is a beginning and not an end, a caution and not a command. Hope rises from the stories that show us how to reconceive inherited narratives, to join in the line of tellers ourselves.

A sly, magnificent hope resonates from the ending of "The Palm Tree Bandit"—not only a hope for stories with more room for women to join in men's work and men's play, but a hope for all of us. Liberation for some becomes a liberation for all, because such liberation opens up the possibility of more types of stories. Ultimately, Okorafor calls for the liberation of imagination itself, a liberation that cannot be achieved by any particular writer alone. Stories must talk to each other, they must be told and retold as they disperse within and across cultures, they must scatter perspective and resituate knowledge. Any one writer can put out the call and stand as a model. With its various imaginative acts gathered between two covers, Kabu Kabu offers a glimpse of this one writer's passions and proclivities; it shows her experimenting with different approaches to similar material; its imaginings succeed and fail, stumble and fly. It is a brave and generous book.

The last words of the last tale let us go, freeing us, like the best folktales, into our own imaginings: "Of this story, there's no more. Run along now" (p. 256).

And as you run, speak your own story. Perhaps, like a windseeker, you will find a way to fly.

Publication of this review was made possible by a donation from Cynthia Hutcheson. (Thanks, Cynthia!) To find out more about our funding model, or donate to the magazine, see the Support Us page.

Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Weird Fiction Review, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He was the series editor for three volumes of Best American Fantasy, and is the co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His weblog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award. You can also find his work in our archives.