a commentary by Nalini Haynes
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor begins with Sunny, an albino Nigerian born in the US but living in Nigeria, who discovers that she is magical, a ‘leopard’ person. Sunny’s looks set her apart from her peers. She has one school-friend, Orlu, who introduces her to Chichi. As the three start learning more about magic, they meet Sasha, becoming a powerful group of four who work together. A man called Black Hat is murdering children; reports in the news alongside characters’ conversations instil the knowledge that these young teens will take on Black Hat where adults have died confronting him.
Akata Witch has been very well received within literary circles: nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, Amazon.com 2011 Best Book of the Year and a YALSA 2011 Best Book of the Year.
My motive in writing this essay is not to lambaste the author but instead to provide perspective from one albino’s point of view; as my culture has been appropriated, I am speaking out.
In order to discuss several of my concerns I need to delve into detail late in the book. That being the case, I’m calling this review a COMMENTARY and giving a SPOILER WARNING. Do NOT read ahead if you’re not prepared to accept massive spoilers. This essay is more appropriate for someone who has read the novel.
Akata Witch is set in a city in Nigeria except when the protagonists go to the magical world that includes Leopard Knocks (the equivalent to Hogsmeade in Harry Potter) and a convention with parallels to the world Quiddich cup.
One thing that interests me in cross-cultural novels is learning about other cultures. Akata Witch seems to be saying that there isn’t much difference between Nigeria and any Western city: the kids have mobile phones, usually wear Western clothes and have the same struggles in the school-yard. The speech patterns are slightly different, particularly when adults are angry or have lived their entire lives in Africa. The narrative usually remarks more upon clothing when it is traditional garb than when it is Western.
Gender roles and related expectations are strictly divided in Akata Witch. Women are expected to cook to win a man’s love, after which women remain subordinate and can become targets of abuse. Women’s power is partially or wholly retained by not marrying, but unmarried mothers and their children suffer discrimination. Akata Witch seems to assume gender issues are cultural, yet these issues are not that far removed from Western expectations: perhaps a few decades out of date but similar attitudes linger like a bad smell.
The major plot appears to be Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha learning magic. Lessons and casting spells are described in incredible detail, taking up a significant portion of the novel. By far the majority of conflict in the novel is conflict between the protagonists and those involved in their daily lives. As the four protagonists form and ‘norm’ their group, natural conflicts arise that need to be resolved. Sunny, due to her albino appearance, is the target of vilification in her home and at school; Sunny needs to deal with this abuse responsibly and maturely, without resorting to magic. When Sunny resorts to magic against ‘Lambs’ (non-magical people), those in authority in the magical world discipline her harshly.
Authorities in the magical community treat the four protagonists like children when it comes to teaching discipline and respect. In contrast, the authorities also treat them like adults with regards to allowing the four to take potentially fatal risks and expecting the four to take a considerable amount of responsibility for their own magical training.
News reports – both magical and non-magical – informed the protagonists about the murderous activities of the villain of the story, dubbed ‘Black Hat’. Early on, the four realised that they were going to have to deal with Black Hat, although why they were chosen, why adults expected them to be successful after other, more experienced practitioners had failed, was obscure. I felt frustrated: chapters on learning magic and casting spells, and then a brief discussion of a newspaper report was clearly supposed to heighten tension leading to the climax. In the context of the plot focusing on MAGIC and NOT interpersonal conflict, this worked because the teens learnt about magic, developed their skills and then had a magical show-down.
I feel I should point out that I’m not a fan of magic per se: I prefer stories about characters, plot, the human condition, ethics, philosophy, etcetera, where magic can be a tool but not the focus. If magic is primary to the story, more important than the characters, then I’m not a fan, thus my utter lack of enthusiasm about the ultimate showdown where Sunny suddenly knew the right word to say to win the day. Justification was not adequately foreshadowed, instead it was added after the climax. Even so, it felt like the climax was an anti-climax.
Nnedi Okorafor is American born to two Nigerian parents, so she’s lived in a kind of cross-cultural situation her entire life. I assume she’s also visited Nigeria as part of her heritage. Thus Okorafor has considerable knowledge of Nigerians, living cross-culturally and the discrimination African-Americans suffer from Nigerians who’ve lived their entire lives in Nigeria. Based on Okorafor’s dedication in Akata Witch, it seems she knew an Igbo (Nigerian people group) albino but probably not very well as she does not understand what it is to be an albino.
Last year Jay Kristoff’s novel Stormdancer was published, with both acclaim and horror: many critics accused Kristoff of cultural appropriation, particularly lambasting him for cultural errors. Personally I think this is a no-win situation because if white guys only write about white guys then they’re criticised, and if they write about non-white guys then they’re demonised. Likewise here: I award Okorafor HUMONGOUS kudos for writing about an albino who is neither insane nor evil, but I have criticisms.
This is MY essay, I CAN DO BOTH.
Albinos in literature and media are usually portrayed as insane or evil or, at best, ‘looney’ like Luna Lovegood. Think about the albinos you’ve seen in movies and read about in books; this stereotype is so prevalent it has its own Wikipedia page. Okorafor gets huge kudos for including an albino in Akata Witch who is neither evil nor mentally ill; this character is also a central character, not even ‘just’ a minor character. MORE KUDOS.
Okorafor falls down in two key areas. Firstly, albinism is a result of insufficient pigmentation, resulting in albinos looking unusually fair-skinned with indeterminate or blue/violet eye colouring. Okorafor got that right as she personally knew an Igbo albino. However, this lack of pigmentation is more than skin deep.
The retina (back of the eyeball that receives the light signals that go to the brain to be interpreted into images) needs pigment to work properly. Years ago, after my first retina photograph by a good optometrist in Adelaide, this optometrist showed me several photos of other people’s retinas for contrast and explanation. Normal white people’s retinas showed up pink-ish in these images. Inadequate pigmentation showed up yellow, so my son’s retina and the optometrist’s retina photos were slightly tinged with yellow (they have a small degree of occular albinism but they’re not ‘real’ albinos, they look like ‘normal white guys’ – for a given value of normal :P). My eyes showed up with a lot more yellow because I have less pigment. A more severe albino’s retinas were mostly yellow. A dark-skinned woman’s retinas were much darker in colour than normal white people. Got that?
There are racial and colouring differences to the inside of the eyeball.
Pigmentation in the eyeball helps the eye to see; insufficient pigmentation reduces visual acuity (the ability to see or to see fine detail).
Pin-hole camera analogy: Have you ever used a pin-hole camera? They have a small hole (hence the name ‘pin-hole’) through which the light passes. If the hole is too large, the picture will be fuzzy at best because there is too much light preventing the image from focusing. Because of a lack of pigmentation, light can pass through the iris and even through the white of an albino’s eyes, messing up the image on the retina just like with a pin-hole camera where the hole is too large. (This lack of pigmentation causing transparency is also the reason albinos’ eyes can look like they’re glowing beyond normal ‘red-eye’ with flash photography: the light bounces in and then bounces back through the iris as well as the pupil.)
Also the inside of the camera is painted black so that light doesn’t reflect and bounce around the camera, confusing the image you’re trying to capture. Likewise, light can bounce around the inside of the eye where there isn’t enough pigment.
In real terms this means that albinos have very poor eyesight. Compared to other albinos, my vision is good because I have more pigment than some, just like some white people are darker than others. What albinism means for me:
- I can’t drive. The legal limit is 6/12 and I can kinda manage to scrape that (with errors) on a really good day in ideal conditions. Usually my vision is 6/15 or 6/18: my vision varies depending on how tired, stressed or ill I am. 6/6 vision is ‘normal’ good vision, and what most people can achieve either with or without glasses. 6/12 vision means that with my glasses, I can read at 6 metres what a person with normal vision can read at 12 metres except I can’t read a full line of text on an eye chart at that level without mistakes.
- When I did parent help for my son’s primary school class, I couldn’t pick my own son out of a classroom full of children in uniform unless he was wearing his hat or was only a couple of metres away, facing me.
- When I’m facing a bright light I can’t see ANYTHING. If I squint really hard I can make out light and shadows while walking into the afternoon sun, but I’m effectively blind. Ever seen me groping around in broad daylight or my husband leading me like a blind person? This is why.
- When someone uses flash photography, I’m blinded, usually for MINUTES until the after-images fade away.
I have additional eye conditions; I’m not sure which of these are directly related to albinism and which are side-effects or added features because of ‘upgrades’, so I’ll leave my explanation here.
Back to Akata Witch:
Sunny doesn’t have any issues with her vision. At. All. This pissed me off. She could have been a normal white person living in Africa if she’s only got to be careful of sunburn. Sure she had the bullying at school and at home, but she could cop it at school for being different and at home for being different, for being a step-child or for taking after a disliked family member.
Magic is linked to difference in this story, with many higher-level practitioners suffering some kind of disability. Disability is supposed to relate to the sufferer’s magic, therefore magic does not heal nor remove the disability or the suffering AND YET Okorafor removes the only mentioned source of Sunny’s discomfort due to albinism by making her immune to sunburn. Thus Sunny’s only feature of albinism is her different colour, no caution needs to be taken with sunburn. After realising she is now immune to sunburn, Sunny is delighted because she can play soccer during the day – obviously bright sunlight doesn’t blind her, plus her excellent ball skills imply excellent eyesight.
Sunny is no longer an albino, she’s just a white person.
A novel with a central character who is an albino living in Africa studying witchcraft should acknowledge the culture in which it is set, especially as Akata Witch does not shirk away from magical danger nor stranger danger. In the real world, “People with albinism have been persecuted, killed and dismembered, and graves of albinos dug up and desecrated” in Africa, especially Tanzania. Gravely concerned, Nigerian albinos are developing a survival strategy. No mention is made of the risks to an albino’s safety in Sunny’s home town nor in the magical world where Sunny’s body should be seen as a vital ingredient to cast magic spells.
‘Normal’ children have been murdered in Nigeria after accusations of witchcraft. While the rules set out in Akata Witch include a ban on ‘Leopards’ (magical people) revealing their magic to ‘Lambs’ (non-magical people), the potentially brutal ramifications for ‘Lamb’ retaliation aren’t really discussed. This seems to be at cross-purposes with the rest of the novel as this revelation could have increased the tension, especially with regards to conflict when Sunny revealed her magical face to a school bully and with the conflict in her home.
Akata Witch has received numerous accolades in the literary world as a cross-cultural children’s/YA novel featuring a disabled central character. This novel stands out as it goes against the normal representation of albinos in popular culture as evil or insane but Okorafor does not fully understand what it is to be an albino, omitting all mention of poor eyesight that is a fundamental feature of albinism. Early in the novel the protagonist was cured of sunburn, the only negative symptom of albinism mentioned in the narrative, rendering her a person of different colour with a superpower (no-sunburn-girl) instead of being an albino, which contradicts Akata Witch‘s claim that magic allies itself with difference rather than curing difference. Akata Witch is well-written, potentially helping to build bridges between people groups, but it is not a book about an albino central character. This novel is not to my personal taste as I prefer novels focusing more on characters and the human condition and less on magic as a primary ingredient, but I understand why Akata Witch is receiving accolades.