Brandon Sanderson v. Nnedi Okorafor: some notes

Except not actually “versus.”  I just saw Sanderson and Okorafor speak on a panel at ALA this weekend, and they were both articulate and charming and funny.  I don’t know Sanderson at all, but I’ve read Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and was interested to hear her talk a bit about the book.  Unfortunately, despite two smart authors and a charming moderator (Susan Chang from Tor) the overall event didn’t grab me. But anyway, a few notes.

Segment of the cover of "Who Fears Death" by Nnedi Okorafor.  Black woman facing away from viewer, with shadowy wings.  Desert landscape.

A note to ALA:  please, for the love of God, when you have a panel of two authors and a moderator in an auditorium that seats 500 or more, go for the Oprah-style seating.  Put everyone in comfortable chairs with a low coffee table for their water, and seat the moderator with them.  Poor Susan had to stand at a podium off to the side of the authors, asking them questions by craning her neck away from the audience.  And poor Brandon and Nnedi were sitting on bare-bones chairs at a bare-bones table, staring up at the theater-style seats, looking a little bemused and uncomfortable.

Another note to ALA:  thank you for projecting the video feed super-big onto the screen above the speakers’ heads.  That was super helpful; it let me see what people actually looked like, and catch their expressions as they told anecdotes or listened to questions.

Another note to ALA:  people who come to hear authors speak are often interested in learning more about how the authors do their work, what they think about it, and so on.  Please consider giving the authors five minutes at the start of the show to just talk about their work–where they’re coming from, what’s important to them, who their mentors and models are, what source material they’re drawing from, etc. Susan asked some great questions, but I admit, I’m less interested in dwelling on the differences between genres than I am on the work itself–and the authors seemed to feel this way too.

A note to Nnedi Okorafor:  I don’t agree with the reviewers who said you should have “explained” the background and context of Who Fears Death more.  These are the same people who think Cormac McCarthy should have explained his apocalypse, I guess–or maybe they’re not, since CM is a white dude and generally considered too awesome to question.  Anyway, I didn’t need that explanation.  I do agree with some of the reviewers who frowned over the structure of the book, and over some of the choices you made to emphasize:  for instance, the sexual-emotional tangles between the young travelers, rather than the hero’s quest.  I see people comparing the book to Dune and Star Wars, which sort of baffles me.  It reminded me more of Ben Okri’s work, and maybe some of Maxine Hong Kingston’s.  Its roots seem solidly in African myth and women’s stories, rather than dude-focused space opera.  But whatever, I guess we all read with lenses. I would have asked you a question about this, but you were already getting peppered with questions about other stuff, and I’m too shy for that public-speaking foolishness.

cover of brandon sanderson's novel "mistborn."  woman in cape stands in profile.

A note to the publishing industry:  I didn’t think Okorafor’s book was perfect, but I read it with interest because it was so unusual to see:  a.)  a black woman writing speculative fiction; b.)  a black woman’s speculative fiction crossing the mainstream and genre review radars;  c.) a speculative story constructed from the lumber of African myth and shared narrative expectation, rather than from (as Sanderson mentioned in a different context) a bunch of white dudes running around pseudo-medieval western Europe.  I’m very interested in seeing more of all three of these things, publishing industry.  I wish Octavia Butler were still alive and writing, so I could be blown away by more of her stuff.  I hope and expect to see more folks like Nnedi bringing new surfaces of our world story to light in their stories.  Which I hope and expect will be published, marketed, and reviewed widely so we can all get hold of them.

A note about Octavia Butler:  she came up.  So did Nalo Hopkinson, and Okorafor readily claimed association with both of them…as well as with the larger world of good stories and good storytellers.  I thought, in my little seat in the way back:  yay!  And reminded myself to maybe go track down some NK Jemisin sometime soon, too.

A note about Brandon Sanderson:  I’m sorry, Brandon–I know nothing about you.  Except that you’re Mormon, which sort of gets my back up, given I’d just seen your coreligionist Mr. Orson Scott Card at another panel, and that he is one benighted, homophobic, hateful, self-important individual (with good public speaking skills.)  I understand that you’re a very well-known and popular author of epic fantasy, and you seemed pleasant and serious, and my goodness, you’re prolific.  I think it’s unlikely that I will ever read your tomes, since you write long and my capacity to read epic fantasy is pretty feeble.  But I don’t think that will ever hurt you or your sales, and I wish you all the best, as long as you’re not out there opposing human rights or, you know, rending your clothes outside Planned Parenthood clinics or anything.  Live long and prosper!

In conclusion, I was too shy and/or dumb to get a signed copy from either author (and I had a shuttle to catch) and I thought that overall, the panel could have used a bit more spark.  Nnedi seemed serious and amused and bemused, and Brandon seemed serious and bemused and distracted.  I know there was a lot of love in the room for them both, and honestly, it was one of the largest gatherings I’ve seen lately for a couple of authors–so whatever else it does, ALA at least helps provide some opportunities for readers to meet new and known authors.  I recently read to about three people in a public library.  That room looked packed to me.



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