Book Review: Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu – An Appealing Feminist Fantasy

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Book Title: Kabu Kabu
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Prime Books, 2013
Reviewer: Joseph Omotayo

Kabu Kabu is a collection of 21 short stories. Most of the short stories in this collection had been published in different places online, some of them go as far back as 2003. Only a few short stories appear in this collection for the first time. Kabu Kabu could thus be seen as the trajectory of a writer’s laudable effort at short story writing. Kabu Kabu is replete with the magical, the surreal, and everything that can go against the natural order of things.  Isn’t that just what the fantasy genre does? This collection is a blend of fantasy with sci-fi, layered with the African ethos and culture, for easy access. Fantasy and sci-fi could easily throw a reader off with their over-imaginative projections, this collection is different – Nnedi Okorafor’s stories can be related with. Kabu Kabu is also a book of protest somewhat; it is very concerned with the female-male gender imbalance.  In this book, women are ascribed powers, magic, and confidence in ways that make their world undeserving of them.

Kabu Kabu deftly interrogates issues in ways that do not stab at the fun of reading. The stories are enjoyable for their depth as well as they are for entertainment. I think those are about the best qualities of good short stories, the school of art for art’s sake could be damned, please. Story telling should be as explorative as it is fun to read. It is always interesting to read Nnedi Okorafor.

It is difficult to miss the feminist inclination of this book. Kabu Kabu is very much a feminist text. There are three things a feminist text primarily does: it rethinks the normative representation of women in the society to challenge it, it re-values the place of women in the society with the hope of ascribing them power of place; and it deeply examines the place of women as the other, even as it labours to give them agency. Kabu Kabu does all of this – almost all the short stories in this collection write back to the patriarchal centre. The female gender occupies the centre discourse and not the periphery.  Feminism is a strong marker of post-colonialism. In fact, there is a thin line where both meet. This is so as everything that comes after the colonial challenges stereotypes, and feminism is all about challenging the stock portrayal of women.

In The Black Stains, we see how the pride and haughtiness of a male centralised world comes crashing on the hips of women. The Nuru brothers, Uche and Ifeanyi, both belong to a superior caste that lords them over the inferior Okekes. The Okekes come in different forms; in the unconscious woman who is raped on the cornfield, in the many slaves that serve the Nurus, in the irresistible but forbidden fruit that would later spell doom for the Nurus. On one hand, this story deals with the many evils of inter-tribal segregation, and on the other hand it seems to recalibrate the power of a woman.

How Inyang Got Her Wings is the story of a girl who does not fit into her natural world; a girl whose power redefines the manner suppression is challenged. Inyang is an odd one out but she is free. Free to own her men. Free to own her sexuality. Free to fly away when the world rejects her. She picks her men as she quickly discards them. However, the day society wants to possess her, subjugate and break her, she flies away. Spider the Artist is reminiscent of the gross neglect and degradation of the Niger-Delta. This is a Niger-Delta in the era where robots police against pipeline bunkering. In the final catastrophe that later strikes, only a woman survives – a woman who had devised ways of bearing her pains. The eponymous short story, Kabu Kabu is about my favourite piece in this collection. There are so many ways it could be read. I read it as a story of identity appropriation. In America, Ngozi takes a Kabu kabu to the airport with the hope of attending her sister’s wedding in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Many things happen; Ngozi never gets on a plane, she remains in the Kabu kabu all through and still makes it in time for the wedding.

Some of the stories that do not cut it in this collection are those that were written a long time ago. Putting them in there with newer stories somewhat reduces the strength of the collection. I think publishers and writers should reconsider how a collection of short stories is compiled before publishing. This weakness is not peculiar to Kabu Kabu, but applies to most short story collections by contemporary African writers.

Kabu Kabu is more than your average book, it is a good read.


Joseph Omotayo

Joseph Omotayo is a book critic, event planner and webmaster.

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