Nnedi Okorafor continues to inspire with her award-winning literature

By Jessie Wang, Assistant News Editor

Nnedi Okorafor’s first love was insects. She entered the University as a pre-med major and wanted to study entomology. She was also a standout athlete in both track and field and tennis, the latter of which she played for the University. 

After her freshman year of college, Okorafor received news that her scoliosis was worsening. Facing disability by the age of 25 and a shortened lifespan, she received surgery that summer to stabilize the curvature of her spine. 

Despite favorable odds for the surgery, nine hours later, she woke up paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors did not know if she would ever be able to walk again. While grappling with her circumstances and the loss of her athletic career, Okorafor turned to writing. 

“I had a copy of Isaac Asimov’s ‘I, Robot,’” Okorafor said. “I was in too much pain to read it and so I just started writing these stories to myself on the edges.”

One of the first stories Okorafor wrote was about a woman who could fly. 

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“When you look back, it psychologically makes sense,” she reflects. “When you can fly, you don’t have to walk.” 

Okorafor spent the rest of the summer completing grueling physical therapy as sensation gradually returned to her legs. She returned to the University that fall with a cane and a newfound interest in storytelling. 

She took a creative writing class and by the end of that semester, she changed her major to rhetoric. In her junior year, Okorafor began writing for The Daily Illini as a columnist. 

“I discovered in that hospital that I loved storytelling,” Okorafor said. “That first creative writing class, I was writing a novel I didn’t know was a novel. I just knew it was a story that didn’t end.”

Okorafor is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who could not return to Nigeria because of the Nigerian Civil War. Much of her writing draws from her cross-cultural identity. 

“I wanted to tell the stories (because) I was interested in understanding the cultures that I’m from, understanding where the differences were,” Okorafor said.

She cites her background as the basis for her chosen genres of storytelling — science fiction and fantasy. 

“There’s a mystical aspect to (people’s connections and history) for me … and then it just started manifesting itself in the stories that I was telling,” Okorafor said.

Today, Okorafor, who holds a doctorate in literature and two master’s degrees in journalism and literature, is a world-renowned author. Her works include short stories, novels, novellas, plays, three issues for Marvel’s Black Panther and film adaptations. 

Her debut novel, “Zarah the Windseeker, received the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. In 2010, her first adult novel, “Who Fears Death,” was nominated for the Nebula Award. She is also the recipient of Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus and Lodestar Awards.  

In 2017, “Who Fears Death” was picked up by HBO to become a television series. Currently, Okorafor co-writes screenplays for adaptations of her series “Binti: The Complete Trilogy” and Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed.”

Despite her many accomplishments, Okorafor remains grounded by her passion for writing.

“The way that things have progressed has been crazy,” Okorafor said. “I wrote for eight years without even thinking about getting published. I was just writing, I was just enjoying the storytelling, and I think I’m still like that.”

“I’m always seeking to learn new things and try new things, and grow and evolve,” she said. “I have so many stories to tell.”


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