Akata Witch (2011 YA fantasy) by Hugo and Nebula award-winning Nnedi Okorafor was titled What Sunny Saw In the Flames for the Nigerian and U.K. editions because of the derogatory meaning of the term “akata” in Nigeria. (It means “bush animal” and is used to refer to black Americans or foreign-born blacks.)
It’s the story of 12-year old Sunny, who was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, and moved to Nigeria when she was nine. She has two brothers who she can play soccer with only at night, because she is albino and has to avoid the sun. She is a good student, and is bullied at school because she is so different–both because she is American and because she has skin the color of sour milk–as she is told. Things change for her when a neighbor boy, Orlu, defends her in a schoolyard fight. They start walking home together, and she meets another friend, a girl named Chichi, who lives in a shack between them with her mother and doesn’t seem to attend school.
One day strange things happen when she is with Orlu and Chichi, and they take her to meet their tutor, Anatov, where she also meets an American boy, Sasha, who was sent to Nigeria by his parents because he’s been in trouble. She finds out that she and her friends are all Leopard-people–those who can do magic. Because she did not inherit her powers directly from a parent, she is known as a “free-agent” and has a lot of catching up to do, since most kids who belong to Leopard families know from an early age. She can’t tell her family, because they are all Lambs, or non-magical.
The world is totally different now for Sunny–she can see and do things she never before thought possible. And they soon find out they are a part of an Oha coven and have been given the job of stopping a ritual killer.
I loved it! And many people that make an appearance in the book are described as fat, in a very neutral and matter-of-fact way. The proprietor of an outdoor restaurant was “a fat woman . . . like many Nigerian women who owned food stands.” One of the important scholars the friends visit was described as “plump” and the Junk Man, beloved seller of juju knives, was “short and fat” with “fat hands.” And Black Hat Otokoto, the ritual killer they must stop, has an unsmiling, chubby-cheeked face with eyes “set deep between folds of fat.”
Sunny finds out that Leopard folk are not like Lambs, in that Lambs constantly seek bodily perfection, with no blemishes or disease, perfect features and bodies that are thin or muscular. Leopard people embrace the things that make them unique or odd, because that’s how they can develop and embrace their power as Leopards. Sunny learns that her uniqueness as an albino is important, because she can easily become invisible and travel between the world of the living and the dead.
There is some fatphobia, though. In a book Sunny reads, there is a reference to someone being fat because they “eat too much and sit and play video games all day.” Another scholar they meet is described as not only tall but “quite . . . wide,” eating large meals four times a day. But, this scholar is also surrounded by several attractive men who treat her like a queen. So while Okorafor embraces the fatphobic idea that eating too much will make someone fat, she gives the scholar the ability to attract multiple men at once, subverting the fat=undesirable paradigm.
All in all, I applaud Nnedi Okorafor for creating this fantasy world in Africa and creating Sunny, a memorable character, while including descriptions of fat characters who are not all villains or tragic characters. I will put the sequel, Akata Warrior (2017) and some of her other books (especially Binti, which won the Hugo and Nebula) on my to-read list.