Nnedi Okorafor

On January 26, science fiction and fantasy novelist Nnedi Okorafor sat in conversation with Tow Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies Abosede George to discuss “Africanfuturism” — a term she coined in 2019.

They were joined by alumnae, faculty, and students for the sixth installment of the Lewis-Ezekoye Distinguished Lectureship Series, sponsored by the Department of Africana Studies. After two years as a virtual event, the series returned in person to the Diana Center Event Oval.

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Okorafor, who identifies as Nigerian American, is an Africanfuturist writer whose works are rooted in African cultures, history, and mythology. The Hugo and Nebula award-winner authored the 2017 three-issue arc of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther: Long Live the King and the 2010 novel Who Fears Death, which is in development at HBO and executive produced by novelist George R.R. Martin

Her 2022 novel, Akata Woman — a sequel to the New York Times bestseller Akata Warrior — weaves together worlds of magic and Nigerian folklore to explore issues of gender and racial inequity.

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L-R: President Sian Beilock, Nnedi Okorafor, Provost Linda A. Bell

President Sian Leah Beilock and Provost Linda A. Bell welcomed Okorafor with opening remarks. 

“We are proud to [host] Okorafor, whose [writing] spans literary genres and profoundly demonstrates the generative nature of the human imagination,” said President Beilock. “Her work speaks to a moment of renewed urgency to model for so many of us what the written word makes possible.” 

“This lecture series is a testament to the warmth and generosity of our alumnae and to the leading intellectual force of the Department of Africana Studies,” said Provost Bell. “[This] generosity is a lasting example of the power of the bonds that are forged here in the very special community of Barnard.”

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Sydnie Mosley '07 and Ntozake Shange '70, with the lectureship donors.

Funded by Denise Jackson-Lewis ’66 (far left) and Adaeze Otue Ezekoye ’66 (far right), the lectureship series was inaugurated in 2018 by fellow alumna and poet-playwright Ntozake Shange ’70 as the lecturer. Since then, poet Jaki Shelton Green, sociologist Ruha Benjamin, and theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein have each presented talks — in 2019, 2021, and 2022, respectively — on subjects at the heart of African diaspora, scholarship, and artistic creation.

“[The series] is important because our country is so divided today. There’s so much misinformation,” said Akosua Barthwell Evans ’68, a virtual attendee of this year’s event and an activist of the historic 1968 Columbia protests. “Change comes about through relationships — it results from people interfacing with each other. This [lecture] is an opportunity to broaden th[ose relationships] and the educational experience of Barnard alumnae, as well as of students and faculty.”

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Alumnae, faculty, and students gather before the event

“It has been gratifying that we have persevered and continued to grow, even when we pivoted to virtual lectures during the pandemic,” said Jackson-Lewis, whose long-standing friendship with Ezekoye led to the endowment that established the lectureship series. “As we return in person, Dr. Okorafor’s lecture takes us in a new direction as she brings her African heritage into the realm of science fiction.”

Read on for excerpts from Nnedi Okorafor’s lecture.

On Africanfuturist writing: 

“The idea behind traditional science fiction has always been very European and Western. It needs to be understood that, in writing, that’s not all there is — it is not the default. Africanfuturism, a type of science fiction that includes spiritual aspects, does not take away from traditional science fiction and is instead considering an issue of worldviews. Africanfuturism is coming from an African worldview, which incorporates mystical elements with the mundane world. In Africanfuturism, this is normal — it is not fantasy, it is realism.”

On the importance of bridging gaps among Black ethnicities:

“I grew up dialoguing with the American experience and the Nigerian American experience. I knew I wanted to tell the stories that were bridging gaps because I’ve always felt like a cultural bridge. My upbringing of being a bridge gets walked on, even stepped on. When I’m writing these stories, I want to bring up those conversations while knowing that they would be painful or might get some pushback. As I grappled with culture and diaspora, I knew I wanted to tell Nigerian American narratives. A lot of this cultural conversation can be told in the lens of speculative fiction and existing along cultural fault lines is what has led me to write it.”

On writing about disability and the origins of how she became a writer:

Noor is a novel about disabilities. It’s also the story of how I became a writer. It was based on a lot of my personal disabilities and my personal experiences. When I was 13, I was diagnosed with aggressive scoliosis. In college, my scoliosis had progressed, and I was told that if my spine was not straightened out, the scoliosis would shorten my life span. When I woke up from surgery paralyzed from the waist down, I did not know if I would ever walk again. As an athlete in a hospital bed, I found that moment to start writing the story of Noor, in which the main character is born with disabilities and then she has cybernetic limbs. That’s where I pulled from my own experiences, dreams, and ideas about disability.”

On her advice to aspiring writers: 

“I think about the way that I started writing, which was in a hospital bed where I couldn’t feel half of my body. And it was like this: Instead of trying to escape, I was trying to look inwardly, I was trying to find a way to look directly at what was going on. Ever since I discovered storytelling, the stories have been tumbling out of me. It’s a good feeling — it’s like breathing. It’s what I do. I don’t outline my stories, I just start writing. Sometimes I’ll hear my character’s voices in my head and I don’t worry about where my story will end up. I don’t worry about whether it is a short story or if it’s science fiction. I don’t worry about it at all, and I always finish it because writing does not give me a feeling of oppression or anxiety. I don’t worry about the form because I can always go back to fix it. You can always fix it, so don’t worry when writing — just begin.”

*Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.