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Personal Canons: Nnedi Okorafor

A guest feature by Amy Tenbrink

In addition to my own reflections and essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I received in response to my open call, the Personal Canons series will also feature guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community. Last time, Héctor González wrote about Michael Ende’s Momo. Today, I’m thrilled to feature Amy Tenbrink.

By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as flagrant ambition, monster girls, and a well-planned revolution.

I have been accused of loving all the books.

It was 2015, and I was chairing the seventh year of the Sirens conference. Several years earlier, we had launched our own pop-up bookstore during the conference weekend — a chance to revel in a bookstore with thousands of speculative titles by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. Every year, I read voraciously in the service of stocking this bookstore — and every year I spend a lot of time at Sirens handing people towering stacks of amazing books.

I rarely ask authors to sign their work for me. Yoon Ha Lee, a guest of honor in 2015, wouldn’t have known this when I asked him for an autograph. Rather artlessly, I told him how much I loved Conservation of Shadows — one of only a handful of books that I hold close among thousands. He told me, with perhaps the tiniest bit of a verbal eyeroll, that he’d just spent two days listening to me tell everyone how much I love all the books.

What Yoon didn’t know at the time was that I don’t love all the books. But in that space that I and others carefully curate to be feminist, to be intersectional, to be a space where women, nonbinary and trans folks are fierce and revolutionary and ambitious and wise — it’s terribly easy to love what all those books represent. That, in turn, makes it terribly easy to love all the books, even when they aren’t books of my heart. In a world that demands that we — women, people of color, queer people, disabled people— be always less, the thousands of works in that once-a-year bookstore offer us the opportunity to be more. Every year, I fall in love with all of those books all over again.

This sounds like a happy ending — and it is — but let’s back up several decades: I did not grow up a regular reader of speculative literature. In fact, if not for Nnedi Okorafor and my own completionist tendencies, I would still not be a regular reader of speculative literature.

I came to speculative literature like many women of my generation: through A Wrinkle in Time and Alice in Wonderland. The former for Meg’s anger and defiance, the latter for Alice’s curiosity and adventurousness. Six-year-old me was reading for forbidden personalities, not for tessering or talking rabbits, and the third heroine in my wee trifecta was Trixie Belden.

It took me decades to fall hard for speculative literature — to fall hard for speculative literature itself, and not just the white warrior girls of speculative literature. Narnia left junior-high me perplexed about why we needed a Jesus fantasy book; high-school me drowned in the impenetrable slog of Middle Earth. Law-school me welcomed Harry Potter, if only as a diversion from case law.

That led me to more young-adult fantasy — most notably Tamora Pierce, queen of the angry, defiant, adventurous heroines. Those angry, defiant, adventurous heroines — a flagrant fuck-you to the white heteropatriarchy, while remaining entirely conversant with the white heteropatriarchy — were enough for me to found the Sirens conference in 2009. Memorably, Tammy opened the very first Sirens Conference by sharing her personal journey through feminist speculative literature. I was proud, but I was still not in love, not with speculative literature.

Two years later, the third Sirens conference hosted Nnedi Okorafor. And back in the day — how did I have so much time? — I read every published book by every Sirens guest. So I read Zahrah the Windseeker and Akata Witch and The Shadow Speaker. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you that they were fine, though if you ask me now, I’ll tell you that I didn’t know enough to recognize Nnedi’s truth as truth.

And then, two weeks before Sirens, with one book to go to complete my wholly unnecessary read-all-the-books challenge, I picked up Who Fears Death.

Who Fears Death changed me. It changed my life. If you’ve ever been to Sirens, I hope it’s changed yours.

Onyesonwu is one of those angry, defiant, adventurous heroines of my heart. But Who Fears Death isn’t just a story of a warrior girl; it’s the story of all warrior girls. Who Fears Death is, itself, angry, defiant, and adventurous. It rips apart the fabric of our quotidian world and shows us, more clearly for all its speculation, what is wrong with us but what could be right with us. This is speculative fiction at its best: incisive, unflinching, uncompromising. Untethered from what’s “real” in a way that can show us what is, in fact, actually real—and what could be real if only we reached for the stars.

In Who Fears Death, Nnedi put a heroine of my heart into a book of my heart. Who Fears Death showed me, in a moment, what speculative literature can be: not just a series of quest-wanderings, of dragon-slayings, of evil mage-vanquishings, but an inspirational, aspirational blueprint for me and my place in the world. Who Fears Death is itself a sword, a magic wand, a spell that can change everything.

And I was in love.

The year after Nnedi attended Sirens, I read 100 speculative works by women, nonbinary, and trans authors for the first time. The year after Nnedi attended Sirens, we started that that once-a-year pop-up bookstore. And we don’t stock it with Lewis and Tolkien and Adams, or even Martin and Jordan and Gaiman and Rothfuss. We stock it with N.K. Jemisin and Ausma Zehanat Khan and Anna-Marie McLemore, Roshani Chokshi and Rebecca Roanhorse and Mishell Baker and Violet Kupersmith. We stock it with works that give us blueprints: for fairness, for justice, for bravery. For love and hope and kindness. For ambition and defiance and inspiration and aspiration. We stock it with works that change us, and change our society, and change our world.

Thank you, Nnedi. Thank you for all the stars in the sky.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.

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