Named for the unregistered taxis of Nigeria, Kabu Kabu is the first collection of short fiction from Nnedi Okorafor—author of the World Fantasy and Carl Brandon Kindred Award-winning novel Who Fears Death as well as several books for young adults. The collection includes seven previously unpublished stories—one, the titular “Kabu Kabu,” co-written with Alan Dean Foster—while the rest have been previously published in various venues from 2001 onward.
These stories are often set in or around Nigeria, or revolve around characters with origins in the region—whether that’s in the past or in the future. The sense of place in Okorafor’s work is strong, supported by vivid yet concise descriptions as well as the various voices and viewpoints of her narrators/protagonists. There is no danger, in Okorafor’s short fiction, of a bland tale; though she renders the particular details of daily life with the same precise attention she gives the fantastical happenings, she also imbues both with an energy and personal intimacy that keeps the reader engaged.
As a whole, Kabu Kabu is a collection that’s perhaps better considered as a taster for Okorafor’s wider work: many of the stories take place in existing universes based on her novels, standing as prologues, backstory, or outtakes from different bigger tales. The end effect on the reader, after flipping the book shut, is that they’ve been given a sampling—a set of small previews—in order to go seek out the “whole” story elsewhere. This makes for perhaps not the strongest collection considered as a stand-alone book, but it does a fine job of the other thing collections often aim for: showing the strengths, weaknesses, and general concerns of Okorafor’s writing.
Many of these stories are handsomely “told” tales—narrated to a specified audience (for example, the young girl having her hair combed and braided in “The Palm Tree Bandit”) or to a more general listening audience (such as “The Winds of Harmattan”)—a form that writers often attempt but rarely execute well. Okorafor has no problem with this narrative style, and using it allows her to connect the reader explicitly to the history and context of the stories being told. That cultural context—a specific and unique engagement with issues like politics, gender, sexuality, family, and the supernatural—comes across in the “told” tale, through both the words of the narrator and the presumed participation of the audience, and is one of my favorite parts of this collection as a whole.
Whether it’s the complex family politics that lead the girls in “The Carpet” to staying in a creepy unfurnished house for three nights, or the painful gendered struggles that the protagonist of “The Spider Artist” finds herself in the midst of, Okorafor’s stories have their core in the things that people do for and because of their contexts. The further contexts of these relationships are also significant to the stories in Kabu Kabu, particularly in terms of their politics. The conflicts in the Niger Delta over oil, exploitation, and survival come to the fore in several pieces; others are, at the very least, concerned with the complex relations between being “from” one country—often, for these characters, Nigeria—but growing up in another, such as America, and how “home” is problematized by that fraught relation. Like speculative fiction more generally, as has probably become quite clear, the stories in Kabu Kabu are fantastical—but they are also deeply personal and grounded in contemporary concerns.
And, speaking of genre, the first story in this collection is a hilariously tongue-in-cheek tone setter that I had to mention: “The Magical Negro,” in which a magical negro figure in a typical western fantasy epic breaks role to confront the narrative’s racist and ignorant assumptions about his worth, his life, and his story. It’s probably the best piece I could imagine to start this volume with, as all of the following stories are very much not normatively white and western: they are the stories of the characters who don’t appear in the “usual” science fiction and fantasy—and this opening piece puts them explicitly in dialogue with the genre, with its norms, and with how many more amazing things there are to read in a diverse field.
Now, as for particulars, the strongest stories here are unsurprisingly the ones that stand well alone. They tend to have the most coherent narratives and solid arcs, the sharpest impact on the reader. Of course, that’s not mutually exclusive to the pieces written as part of existing narratives. “The Winds of Harmattan,” for example, is a windseeker story that nonetheless stands solidly as its own tale. “The Popular Mechanic” is another piece that lingered with me: from the daughter who taps palm wine as a hobby to her father whose cybernetic arm causes his family and himself much grief, to the politics connecting them to America and its oil and medical exploitation in Africa, each piece of the puzzle that forms this narrative is finely crafted and deeply “real.” I was also touched by two of the more emotional pieces: “The Ghastly Bird,” possibly because I love birds, too, and the protagonist’s joy is bittersweet for the reader, and “Asunder,” which explores issues of love, individuality, and growing as a person.
However, while I definitively enjoyed most of the stories that are part of existing narratives—particularly the windseeker pieces—I also found that they sometimes have a sense of being “unfinished,” of being less short stories than vignettes or snapshots of particular moments in a larger piece. Though I did not read the liner notes until having finished the volume, I was unsurprised to see that several of the stories that had felt the most like they needed “more” to them did have more, elsewhere. These stories are still pleasurable reads; they often have powerful descriptions, and leave the reader eager for more—but that same eagerness is the counterpoint of being not quite satisfied by the piece as it stands. “The Black Stain,” for example, is given as a folktale to explain the mythology surrounding the ewu children in Who Fears Death—but that context is missing unless one has read that novel, or reads the liner notes to the story.
Overall, I found the stories in Kabu Kabu occasionally provocative and always engaging. Their explorations of gender, culture, politics and community are sometimes fraught, but always stretch toward an understanding of personal and global contexts. It’s a collection that I’m glad to see published, and one that contributes to the field in a real and exciting way.
Kabu Kabu is available now from Prime Books
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.