Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor is a writer of color joining the blockbuster fantasy franchises as HBO is developing a series adaptation of her post-apocalyptic Africa novel “Who Fears Death”. This rich, diverse literary fantasy is coming to premium TV with George R.R. Martin, the author whose saga “A Song of Ice and Fire” inspired HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones,” attached to the project as an executive producer.
In a Facebook post, the author added, “Note: This did not happen overnight. It’s been nearly 4 years coming.”
The 68-year-old George R.R. Martin has however been quick to downplay his contribution in a Monday statement. “I will be an executive producer on Who Fears Death but I will not be the executive producer, i.e. the showrunner. That’s an important distinction,” said Martin. “I will not be writing the pilot script or adapting Nnedi’s novel, and it’s doubtful that I will write any episodes should we go to series. Look, I probably won’t be writing episodes of ANY television shows until Winds of Winter is done and delivered, and that goes for the five Game of Thrones successor shows as well,” he added.
“Who Fears Death” takes place in a post-apocalyptic future version of Sudan, where the light-skinned Nuru oppress the dark-skinned Okeke. The protagonist, Onyesonwu (Igbo for “who fears death”), is an Ewu, i.e. the child of an Okeke woman raped by a Nuru man. On reaching maturity, she goes on a quest to defeat her sorcerous father Daib using her magical powers.
A first-generation Nigerian American, Okorafor drew from her own experiences visiting Nigeria and learning about her family’s Igbo culture, as well as contemporary accounts of genocidal violence in Sudan, to build a fantasy futuristic world for her saga, which was published in 2010.
The novel was also inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax, “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”
Cinematically the novels adaptation may include graphic scenes that complement George R.R. Martin’s blood ’n’ guts bonafides like one in which Onyesonwu is subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), which significantly impairs her ability to use her magical powers. This part in the book attracted outraged reviews such as that from Steven Barnes of the American Book Review who criticized Okorafor for depicting traditional African culture in a negative light.
To which Okorafor commented that she is proud of her Igbo identity, but that “culture is alive and it is fluid. It is not made of stone nor is it absolute. Some traditions/practices will be discarded and some will be added, but the culture still remains what it is. It is like a shape-shifting octopus that can lose a tentacle but still remain a shape-shifting octopus (yes, that image is meant to be complicated). Just because I believe that aspects of my culture are problematic does not mean I am “betraying” my people by pointing out those problems.” She added: “What it [i.e., female genital cutting] all boils down to (and I believe the creators of this practice KNEW this even a thousand years ago) is the removal of a woman’s ability to properly enjoy the act of sex. Again, this is about the control and suppression of women.”
The novel was awarded the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, as well as the 2010 Carl Brandon Kindred Award “for an outstanding work of speculative fiction dealing with race and ethnicity.” It was also nominated for the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Okorafor has also written a prequel novel “The Book of Phoenix”, published by DAW in 2015. She is the author of more than a dozen books and her work focuses on “African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults” according to her website. The 43-year-old writer is also a professor at the University of Buffalo in New York.
We look forward to the addition of an African voice and perspective to the blockbuster fantasy franchises.