When I first read the manuscript that would become What Sunny Saw in the Flames, I was immediately captivated. It had everything: a great story, engrossing characters, and a rich and imaginative world. I knew readers would love it. But I didn’t choose the book for its great storytelling alone. There was a deeper, more important drive behind my choice.
The book centres around 13-year-old Sunny Nwanze, a Nigerian-American albino girl who struggles to fit in, living in Nigeria. Then, when Sunny meets Orlu, a classmate, she becomes aware of a hidden world around her – a world where one’s worst defect is actually one’s greatest asset, and knowing things is more important than money.
Much of the lore of the book has its roots in Igbo and Efik mythology, and it was fascinating to learn that there was such a rich vein of fantasy to tap into right in Nigeria’s own backyard. As a fan of the speculative fiction genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror), I have long enjoyed stories that push the boundaries of the imagination. However, I have grown tired of reading the same old stories of dragons, elves, trolls and goblins – adventures set in what fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones called “fantasyland,” a place permanently situated in medieval Europe and often devoid of people of colour.
I saw the importance of having a book that draws from the rich well of our traditional knowledge and beliefs. Not just because it is different from what we normally see in the genre, but because it will connect us to our own roots.
I think that colonialism – and the neo-colonialism that we ourselves have embraced – robbed us of something intangible yet incredibly important. We lost our own stories. Gone are the tales about our pantheon of Gods and Goddesses and the heroes and heroines who made our world, and with those stories, the cultural landscape they described. We have been reduced to telling ourselves recycled folktales about tortoises and lions and spiders when our true history was actually so much richer. This is a tragedy because stories do more than entertain us. They tell us what is important in our culture – what we value as a community and what each individual ought to aspire to.
In place of this rich heritage, we have clasped to ourselves borrowed stories that vilify our cultural history. Nollywood is rife with movies whose central plot hinges on the evil power of black magic trafficked by mysterious babalawos and dibias. Our religious and cultural background has been reduced to a caricature – a shadow reflecting its most basic self.
In the meantime, the need for definition – for self-knowledge and the comfort that our traditional institutions provided – has been filled by an increasingly rabid fundamentalism. This virulent religiosity cuts across all faiths and works in tandem with the increasing corruption that is eating away at the core of our society to exploit the vulnerable and weak.
What Sunny Saw in the Flames is a refreshing antidote to the fear and superstition that often surrounds the discussion of our traditional heritage. It presents a world based on our mythology in an engaging and dynamic way. Who needs to be scared of dragons when a masquerade is far more frightening? In this book, the supernatural coexists with the quotidian.
Readers will have no trouble relating to such a world. Everyone has a tale of strange happenings and inexplicable events in their lives. Here demonic possession, magical spells, charms, hexes and wards are not the stuff of fairy tales; they are real. What will seem surprising is the way this world is delivered. Nnedi Okorafor deliberately sets out to divest these superstitions of their diabolical connotations. In this world, juju can be used for both light and darkness.
And this is what is so desperately needed in our culture.
I believe that the role of literature is to hold up a mirror to the world, showing not just what it is, but what it could be. We need to hear stories about ourselves again. Stories full of depth, character, adventure and fun. We need to shake ourselves out of the corner we have pushed ourselves into – where we are afraid of the shadows of our past.
Only by doing this can we hope to begin to understand ourselves and reclaim our future. We often complain that we are a schizophrenic society – divided on the one hand between pure emulation of an elusive Western ideal and on the other hand a desperate need to keep any vestige of what makes us uniquely “African.”
The problem is that we don’t have a full understanding of the past to which we cling or the future to which we aspire. And so attitudes of homophobia and misogyny adopted from our colonial masters now masquerade as culture, while ideals of tolerance and equality are vilified as Western imports.
By reading this book, I want people to see what is left of our traditional knowledge mirrored to them in a uniquely positive way. Sure there are bad guys using juju to try to take over the world, but at the same time, there are good guys using juju to try and save it.
What Sunny Saw in the Flames is a wonderfully well-written book that finally makes us the stars of our own story. We get to confront our own history free of the prejudice of colonial influence that sought to portray every aspect of the cultures it found on the African continent as backwards and dangerous. This distortion of our cultural heritage is what has led to atrocities such as the abuse of children branded as witches, the killings and mutilations of young women, and targeting of albinos and dwarves for the sake of misguided rituals. To continue to promote those views, or worse to pass them on to our children, is an utter disservice.
When there is no light, the things done in the darkness can thrive. I hope this book is a welcome source of light.
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