The Big Idea: Nnedi Okorafor
What do spiders have to do with stories? For most of us, not much of anything, unless the spider gets into the book you’re reading, in which case it might get very physically involved in the story when you squish it with the book. But for Nnedi Okorafor, whose latest novel Who Fears Death is receiving breathtakingly good reviews (“A fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling,” said Publishers Weekly in a starred review), spiders came to mean something very important during the writing of the novel — something integral to storytelling. Here’s how Okorafor stopped worrying and learned to love the spiders… or, well, if not love them, at least learned to appreciate them metaphorically.
I’m terrified of spiders.
Something about them makes me jumpy. Of course, because they are sneaky and tricksy, this is reason for them to always be present in my life. Wherever I go, I bring spiders. They get in my car. Land on my computer. Scramble across my desk when I’m teaching a class (my students enjoyed my reaction that day). There was the large pink spider (with an ample hairy backside) that lived in the vent of my car. One day, it had the audacity to come out and stand on my dashboard while I was speeding down the highway. While in Nigeria, there was the legendary spider that was the size of a dinner plate. This cousin of Shelob was hanging out in a hallway corner in the house.
When I was deep in the writing of Who Fears Death, a spider kept appearing in the same spot in my bedroom. Spiders prefer shadowy places, but this black wolf spider came out in the open. It would stand in front of my bed. I smashed it with a book twice (I don’t normally kill creatures…but this spider was huge and in my bedroom), I sprayed it with Raid, I sprayed the spot with Spider Killer (this is supposed to keep spiders away for 6 months!), I had my brother capture it and put it outside once. Each time, it returned to stand on that same spot (or some other spider took its place).
The spider returned six times over several weeks. By the sixth visit, I left it alone. I had a feeling that I was being visited and that it had something to do with what I was writing. In West African culture, spiders tend to represent creativity and storytelling. That recurring (or shall I say reincarnating) spider in my bedroom might have been sent by the famous storytelling Ghanaian spider named Anansi.
Or maybe it wasn’t Anansi at all. Maybe it was the lesser-known but equally formidable Nigerian story-spinning spider named Udide Okwanka. He is the supreme spider artist who toils beneath the ground, in the ekwuru (the spirit world). He possesses the power to gather fragments of any object and shape them into a new object. Maybe Udide Okwanka had gifts to impart to me, writing tools, perhaps. Sounds like magical realist mumbo jumbo, doesn’t it? Imagine that! But see, this is my Big Idea—The Story.
Who Fears Death is a novel that delves into several charged issues, but first and foremost, it seeks to be a grand display of storytelling. I should love spiders, for I love stories. For me, stories snap the world into focus, add new dimensions, hybridize old ones, and present me with a new vocabulary of smells and sounds. More than once in my life, stories have kept me sane. Who Fears Death is my homage to the oral tradition of my Igbo heritage and the writing tradition of my Western upbringing. It is no coincidence that I have written an oral story in book form.
We begin with a woman named Onyesonwu (which means “Who Fears Death” in Igbo) sitting in jail because of something terrible that she has done. She will be executed in two days. She doesn’t have much time but she must speak her story. If she does not, who will? The individual documenting her words will type them onto a laptop computer. From oral telling to written document.
Onyesonwu’s story is an intense weave. It deals with dark issues including genocide, rape, female circumcision, child soldiers and the rough tight constraints of fate. Nevertheless, the story bathes in light, too. There is the truest love, deep friendship, hope, valor, plenty of consensual sex (*blush*), and there is great adventure. And yes, there are strange spiders in this tale, too.
Who Fears Death is NOT a “look how bad Africa is and doesn’t that make you feel better about what you have?” kind of novel. Nor is it a romanticized view of Africa. It is “real” fiction. I wove this tale from the fragments of stories I gathered from family, friends, from within, from the atmosphere, from underground. This is a vision of a part of “Africa” from the inside that could not simply be explained or documented in a textbook, biography, or traditional African novel. I could only present this vision by using the spider’s tools, a.k.a. The Story.
In Birds of Heaven, Nigerian author Ben Okri wrote:
“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibility. They work with the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read and tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” (34)
How close his description of stories is to that of spiders. And no matter how bothered I am by spiders, I have to admit I’m fascinated and rather obsessed with them, too. And they seem to feel the same way about me. Go figure.