Everybody wants to leave Lagos. But nobody goes, she said. 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. No city like it. Lagos is sweet.
When I think of a first-contact story, I think of a comfortable status quo shattered by the arrival of alien invaders. But when I began reading Okorafor’s Lagoon, there was no comfort zone to violate. The dialects, the backdrops, and the attitudes of the people of Lagos were not an invisible “default” for me, not the American template that Hollywood writers gleefully and predictably invite aliens to devastate. So why did this novel work as well for me, if not better, than a first-contact story set in my home country?
Presentation is everything. From the moment the story emerged from the disorienting depths of the sea onto Lagos’s Bar Beach, the author lent me a sense of familiarity, the way you might share an umbrella with someone walking beside you on a rainy day. Okorafor wastes no time on reader ignorance; she keeps moving and presents the city as she would to a native, highlighting its energy, brutality, and diversity in a way that seems meant to elicit knowing nods rather than to educate. Passages like this one demonstrate the fluid ease with which Okforafor blends common experiences with local specifics:
Adaora sullenly crossed her arms over her chest and looked out the window as they passed the tall buildings of downtown Lagos, weaving madly through the dusty traffic. Two orange-yellow danfo so overstuffed with people that both had passengers hanging on to the outside swerved in front of them. Adaora pushed her hands against the back of Benson’s seat as they came to an abrupt stop. As they maneuvered around and passed one of the danfo, the soldier driving the SUV leaned out the window, spat at it, and smacked its side, shouting, “Damn your mother! Mumu! Idiot! Go and die!”
Though this was my first exposure to the word danfo, and while I’ve never seen passengers clinging to the outside of a mass transit vehicle, my lack of experience didn’t distract me from the familiar energy of humans at maximum stress levels driving badly in heavy traffic. Okorafor uses this technique throughout the book, frequently focusing her lens on the universal landscape of human emotions, both petty and sublime. In this way she gives us foreigners a handle to cling to as our vehicle lurches through unfamiliar streets.
We need that handle, because the story is a wild, surreal ride. Ironically, by the time I reached the end and discovered the glossary there, I didn’t need it. The once-alien Lagos had already become my comfort zone; I had been using it to orient myself as truly alien presences, both science-fictional and folkloric, tore it apart.
Reading Lagoon made me rethink everything I thought I knew about what I can and cannot “relate to” and adjust to in fiction. My takeaway from reading this extraordinary novel was that in the right hands any setting, no matter how new, can feel as though we already know it well. Even when the rhythms of language and daily life are foreign to us, we can’t help but recognize the pulse of the human heart.
Lagoon is available from Saga Press (US) and Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Top image from the Hodder & Stoughton cover; art by Joey Hi-Fi.
This article was originally published in February 2016 as part of our Writers on Writing series.
Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She has a website at MishellBaker.com and frequently Tweets about writing, parenthood, mental health, and assorted geekery at @MishellBaker. When she’s not attending conventions or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. Borderline is her debut novel.