Thursday, September 19, 2013

A blend of the modern and the traditional

The lines between the modern, the traditional and the magical blur in Nnedi Okorafor's short story collection Kabu Kabu.

In the titular story, all Ngozi wants is to get to the airport. Her sister, while born in America like her, is getting married in Nigeria, and she needs to support her through the unfamiliar ceremonies. But after a late start, she only has half an hour to make it to O'Hare. Maybe that's why she takes the kabu-kabu that stops for her. A Chicago cop, she knows better than to get into an unregistered cab., but the ride that she takes goes much farther than a simple pickpocketing.

'The Ghastly Bird' is a homage to one of humanity's atrocities against the natural world. A renowned ornithologist, Zev chooses to make Mauritius his base of operations. Once home to the flightless, trusting dodo, Zev is convinced that the bird was too smart to go extinct so easily. Rather, the dodo must be hiding somewhere on the island, biding its time until ti is safe to reappear. He creates a wonderful sanctuary around his home, including fruit trees that are favorites of the island's indigenous birds. And one morning, he hears that distinctive call.

'The Carpet' is the nearest that this collection comes to a haunted house story. Sisters Zuma and Mukoso have traveled to their father's home village in Nigeria to visit their family, as well as to check out the house that their parents had built their for themselves. After a strange run-in at the market, the sisters arrive at the house to find it completely empty. Not only have all the furnishings for the house disappeared, there is no plumbing or wiring either. It has all been taken by the people of the village, their own family members. Rather than stay in the home of these people, the sisters choose to stay in the empty house by themselves. But the nights are awfully dark out in the village, and the sounds outside their bedroom door aren't what they're used to.

Okorafor is a master of the short form. In just a few pages, she can transport the reader a thousand miles away, seamlessly blending reality and fantasy in a way that leaves the reader almost questioning where the line between real and unreal lies.

The only flaw with the collection, and it's a big one, is in the first story. 'The Magical Negro' is a response to the stereotypical "exotic shaman survives just long enough to give the hero that vital piece of information before he's killed off" trope that appears all too often in poorly written fiction. While it's well-written, not only is it not representative of the rest of the collection, out-of-context it's quite hostile to the reader. If I had flipped through the book at a store and stopped to read the first story, I'd have put it back on the shelf and missed out on the rest of this wonderful book. Instead, I might have put this as a closing story for the collection.

Beyond that, though, Kabu Kabu is magical realism at its finest, showing the world a mythology sorely overlooked by most authors.

Highs: The imagery of teaching a security and repair android to appreciate music is absolutely beautiful

Lows: It was hard at times to tell if the stories had interconnected storylines, or if they were each different takes on the same folk story

Verdict: A hauntingly beautiful collection of stories

Further Reading: Moscow but Dreaming, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Midnight Palace

No comments:

Post a Comment