What’s It About?
Set in Lagos, the novel is a vibrant mix of alien first contact, superheroes and Nigerian myths and legends.
Two children meet an alien for the first time…
“Don’t you want to speak to a real live alien?” Kola asked. “Like the ones in the movies?”
Fred vigorously shook his head. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“Well, I do,” Kola said. She stood up straight and nervously grabbed a handful of her long braids. “Hello.”
Ayodele smiled, though her eyes didn’t leave her book. “Greetings, children.”
“I’m . . . Kola and that’s my little brother, Fred.” Still cowering behind the fish tank, Fred waved a feeble hello. “Are you really an alien?” Kola asked.
Ayodele closed her book and looked at Kola. “By your definition, yes.”
“Well, how come you look human?”
“Would you rather I didn’t?”
“Why not appear as yourself?”
“Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It’s your greatest flaw.”
Kola liked this answer very much because it made sense. In cartoons, even the animals who could talk also had to look human. That had always annoyed her brother. She stepped closer. “How come you speak English?” Kola asked.
“So you will understand me.”
“Can you speak Hausa?”
“Ii,” she said, with a nod.
“E-eh,” Ayodele said, nodding again.
Should I Read It?
Lagoon is right up there with Europe in Autumn as one of the best books I’ve read this year. The novel provides a refreshing non Western, non Hollywood take on the first contact narrative. (Okorafor notes that the novel was partly inspired by how poorly Nigerians were treated in District 9). Lagoon is a novel that passionately embraces its subject matter showing that first contact stories can be enormous amounts of fun, have massive, cinematic set-pieces and say interesting, crunchy stuff about a people and a culture – in this case Lagos and Nigeria – without being racist and demeaning.
On Facebook I described Lagoon as an anarchic piece of writing, unfettered by all those writerly rules that are apparently taught by MFA courses and workshops.* The narrative jumps from third and first person, character perspective shifts abruptly in the middle of a scene, and entire chapters are told through the eyes of animals. In addition, Lagoon blends together a range of genres including alien first contact, the superhero origin story and Nigerian myths and gods. It’s a novel that never sits still, never takes a breath, never stops throwing ideas and wild imagery at the reader.
It should be a complete mess.
It works because Okorafor understands and has a deep appreciation of the genre(s) she’s messing with. From the outset Okorafor critiques the speciest notion that if aliens did come to visit our planet, humans would be at the top of their greeting list. The opening chapter is told from the perspective of a swordfish, one of the first creatures to be greeted by the aliens:
When a golden blob ascends to meet her, she doesn’t move to meet it. But she doesn’t flee either. The sweetness she smells and its gentle movements are soothing and non-threatening. When it communicates with her, asking question after question, she hesitates. It doesn’t take long for her apprehension to shift to delight. What good questions it asks. She tells it exactly what she wants.
And what would a swordfish want? Well, when your home is constantly plundered by an invading force (that would be us) the answer is self evident:
They made her eyes like the blackest stone and she can see deep into the ocean and high into the sky. And when she wants to, she can make spikes of cartilage jut out along her spine as if she is some ancestral creature from the deepest ocean caves of old. The last thing she requests is to be three times her size and twice her weight. They make it so. Now she is no longer a great swordfish. She is a monster.
The aliens do finally turn their attention to humanity, while equally sending greetings to the other species – ranging from bats to spiders – that walk the Earth. The message here is clear, humanity might think it’s the dominant lifeform, but in the eyes of these aliens, everything that lives and breathes and procreates is equal. Discrimination is not a word in their vocabulary.
Of course, it’s when humans do become exposed to the aliens that the shit really hits the fan. Given that Lagoon is a response to District 9 and Hollywood movies that place America and Western culture above the experience of everyone else on the planet, Okorafor could have portrayed Lagos and Nigeria in a positive light. And yet the Lagos she describes is one where the Government runs on the fuel of corruption and nepotism, where husbands abuse their wives, where internet cafes have been taken over by scammers and where children suffer in poverty.
What’s important, though, is that Okorafor’s honest and raw portrayal of Nigeria and it’s people is clearly one written from a place of love. At no point does she generalise or sound bite. At no point does she critique or moralise. Rather, Okorafor acknowledges the contradiction – a deep love for a place inspite of its many problems. As Adora, one of three people who is literally swept off her feet by the aliens, reflects:
Everybody wants to leave Lagos, she thought. But nobody goes. Lagos is in the blood. We run back to Lagos the moment we step out, even though we may have vowed never to come back. Lagos is Lagos. There’s no city like it. Lagos is sweet. Even her husband Chris knew this. He’d returned from Germany as soon as he had his MBA in his hand, even though a German company had offered him a job. It was the reason why, despite the fact that she was a highly sought-after marine biologist who’d taught for some years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she’d opted to return home. Lagos was riddled with corruption but she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Okorafor also tempers the corruption, the abuse and the poverty with moments of sheer, unalloyed joy. When the people of Lagos discover that there’s an alien and a famous rapper residing in a house in their city, rather than scream, hide or arm themselves, a number of them decide to set up food stalls nearby and party. Moreover, the local LGBTQ group sees this as an opportunity to finally come out in the open.
The Black Nexus had to be crazy to come out in a place so public. Yet they were so brave to do so. They’d been hiding for such a long time. Not so much out of shame, but out of a need to stay safe. Now an alien had come to Lagos. It wasn’t just the Black Nexus who were unsafe or at least vulnerable now. It was everyone. In his heart, he knew that if that alien was in the house, it was time. It was time for a change.
If there is an overarching theme of the novel it’s summarised by that last line – It was time for a change. While this is a very violent novel and while many people die, Lagoon ultimately takes a positive stance to the first contact narrative. Not only does this new presence turn at least three people into superheroes and see the emergence of the old gods – there’s this jaw dropping cinematic moment where a congested road comes to life and eats people – this significant change in affairs also gives the Government an opportunity to reframe itself in the eyes of its people. In a brilliant scene, the President broadcasts a message of renewal and hope throughout Lagos and beyond:
The President had never been a great orator. But today, this early evening, he was feeling his words. He was tasting them. They were humming to the rhythm of his soul. He smiled as he spoke. “For the first time since we cast off the shackles of colonialism, over a half-century ago, since we rolled through decades of corruption and internal struggle, we have reached the tipping point. And here in Lagos, we have passed it. Many of you have seen the footage on the internet or heard the news from loved ones. Last night, Lagos burned. But like a phoenix, it will rise from the ashes – a greater creature than ever before. “The occasion that has put me here before you tonight is momentous. It marks another kind of transitional shift. Now listen closely to me. This shift is cause for celebration, not panic. I will say it again: celebration, not panic. There are others amongst us here in Lagos. They intend to stay. And I am happy about it. They have new technology, they have fresh ideas that we can combine with our own. Hold tight. We will be powerful again, o! People of Lagos, especially, look at your neighbor. See his race, tribe, or his alien blood. And call him brother. We have much work to do as a family. “Now let me tell you about my own adventure. Then we will get down to business . . .
Bill Pullman’s ra-ra-ra speech in Independence Day pales in comparison.
While change is a key theme of Lagoon, Okorafor also tackles issues of race, sexual orientation and the environment. And she does so in a style that’s vivid and exciting and alive. I loved this book and science fiction is all the more richer and intelligent because of writers like Nnedi Okorafor.
[The book is being published for the first time in the US in the next two weeks by Saga Press. So if you haven’t already – GO BUY A COPY!].
* I actually have no idea what’s taught at MFA courses and workshops. For all I know, the only thing they teach is how to self publish your book through Kindle. Still if you read enough “how to write” manuals certain rules become evident, such as not changing character perspective in the middle of a scene.