Nnedi Okorafor – Broken Places & Outer Spaces

I have read many of Nnedi Okorafor’s books and loved most of them, so there was no question that I’d read her non-fiction book about how she came to be who she is today. Prior to this, I had no idea she had suffered paralysis at a young age and that it was at least partially responsible for her becoming a science fiction writer.

BROKEN PLACES & OUTER SPACES
Finding Creativity in the Unexpected

by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Simon and Schuster/TED, 2019
Ebook: 112 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First line: The beach was just the way I loved it: empty, its waters comfortable and clear, a few sand crabs dashing around.

A powerful journey from star athlete to sudden paralysis to creative awakening, award-winning science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor shows that what we think are our limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths.
Nnedi Okorafor was never supposed to be paralyzed. A college track star and budding entomologist, Nnedi’s lifelong battle with scoliosis was just a bump in her plan—something a simple operation would easily correct. But when Nnedi wakes from the surgery to find she can’t move her legs, her entire sense of self begins to waver. Confined to a hospital bed for months, unusual things begin to happen. Psychedelic bugs crawl her hospital walls; strange dreams visit her nightly. Nnedi begins to put these experiences into writing, conjuring up strange, fantastical stories. What Nnedi discovers during her confinement would prove to be the key to her life as a successful science fiction author: In science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks.
In Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Nnedi takes the reader on a journey from her hospital bed deep into her memories, from her painful first experiences with racism as a child in Chicago to her powerful visits to her parents’ hometown in Nigeria. From Frida Kahlo to Mary Shelly, she examines great artists and writers who have pushed through their limitations, using hardship to fuel their work. Through these compelling stories and her own, Nnedi reveals a universal truth: What we perceive as limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths—far greater than when we were unbroken.
A guidebook for anyone eager to understand how their limitations might actually be used as a creative springboard, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is an inspiring look at how to open up new windows in your mind.

When I started reading this book, I felt almost embarrassed at how little I knew about an author whose work I love so much. All I’d  known about Nnedi Okorafor was that she’s from Nigeria and writes fantastic books. This memoir gives a great insight into how she became the writer of such briliant books as Who Fears Death, the Binti  Trilogy or Akata Witch.

Nnedi tells of her childhood as a star athlete with a multitude of sporty career options. She also had a curved spine which – doctors told her – could be fixed easily in an operation with only 1% chance of paralysis. So teenaged Nnedi undergoes that operation because it will spare her many years of physical problems in the future. As you may have guessed, Nnedi’s operation is that one percent and she wakes up from anesthesia and can’t move her legs. What follows is one of the most impressive tales I have ever read. Naturally, while reading, I put myself in Nnedi’s position and although I don’t know how I would react in her situation, all I could think of was utter despair. And I’m not even an athlete the way she was. I don’t think any able-bodied person can imagine what it’s like to have your world, your goals, your future plans shattered like that. But instead of falling into despair, Nnedi did something amazing. She started writing!

But this book is about much more than Nnedi’s paralysis. It tells of a childhood and adolescence in a loving family but in racist surroundings. It also shows Nnedi’s unbreakable spirit in the little stories of other people whose “brokenness” has helped them grow beyond what they could have imagined. Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s possible miscarriage and her creation of the first ever science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or Beatrix Kiddo’s tragic story in Kill Bill – these were interesting bits of information that teach you that life doesn’t have to end when bad things happen. These things can even be opportuinities.

There are also many tidbits in here that readers of Okorafor’s fiction will recognize. Whether it’s medication-induced hallucinations of giant bugs, the concept of “treeing”, or the masquerades – all of these things made it into the science fiction books I’ve read and loved. It felt like an Easter Egg hunt that let me say “Oh, so that’s when she thought of that.” every few pages. It also gives her novels some context and makes them even more meaningful than they already were. For example, it made me see Sunny’s albinism and her inability to play football  during the day (because of the sun) in a different light. Not being able to pursue your hobby because your body won’t let you is something that Nnedi experienced first-hand. So although she doesn’t outright say so in this book, I believe this may have played a part in her creation of Sunny and Sunny’s own disability that actually turns out to be a strength in Akata Witch.

Nnedi does eventually regain the use of her legs, but not like before. I learned about proprioception, which is the ability of our brains to know where our legs are, even when we can’t see them. If that sense is out of whack, walking becomes something you have to concentrate on, rather than just doing it instinctively, without looking. I hadn’t even thought about the implications of that – think about driving a car when you can’t feel the brake pedal under your foot! Or walking in darkness. So this book opened my eyes in more than one way. It taught me about conditions I had never heard of before and although I don’t know anyone who is or used to be paralysed, I hope this new information helps me understand them better.

The thing about this book that stuck with me the most was definitely the hopeful tone. Again, I believe every single person deals with these things differently, and I can only go by how I think I’d react. And although I’d like to think of myself as brave, I don’t think I would have Nnedi’s strength. It made me appreciate her as more than an author. I may not know her personally, but if I ever get the chance to meet her, I would love to shake her hand and tell her how damn impressive I think she is. Not just because she didn’t let her paralysis take her down but because she took this incident and turned it around, she made something amazing of it, she used it to fuel her creativity and wrote stories that touch people all over the world.

If there is anything about this book that wasn’t perfect, it’s probably its lack of length. It gives you the basic story of how Nnedi turns “brokenness” into something powerful, but I’m sure a lot of details were left out. The book is no less powerful for that  but I honestly would have liked to read more of it. More stories of Nnedi standing up to teenage bullies, more about her siblings and parents, more information about how she started writing and what inspired her. But that’s just my subjective wishes. This book, the way it is, is amazing and I recommend it to everyone, whether you already know and love Nnedi’s fiction or whether she’s an author you’ve never read.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

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Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent

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