Recommended by the Book Smugglers, I put Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker on my to-read list as part of my growing effort to read diversely. I read a lot of women authors - sometimes mostly women authors - but I confess that I haven't put in an equivalent effort to read people of color. White European narratives are comfortable for me. They engage fantasy and sci-fi tropes I'm familiar with, or deal with moments in history that feel like a part of my own past. But I cannot ignore those tropes and moments that aren't as familiar to me, otherwise how will I ever learn? So much of my own and my husband's academic work focuses on listening to voices within communities, especially those voices that haven't often been heard. While I'm by no means good at reading diversely, I'm trying to make a start (and goodness, how I loved my introduction this year to Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin).
As a result, Zahrah the Windseeker posed me with a bit of a dilemma within the first few chapters. I couldn't really connect with it, but was that because of the unfamiliar customs, which I understood as probably giving me a taste of African (African-American?) culture, or because of the narrative voice, which was middle-grade in a way that started to annoy me (too many perky sentences ending in exclamation marks). I had a chat with my husband, in which I tried to parse out whether or not to abandon the novel, and finally decided that since the narration didn't bother me too much, it was worth reading this novel precisely because I couldn't really engage with it - introductions to unfamiliar customs are always bound to feel a little disorienting, but those introductions are necessary if you're ever going to really listen.
The book itself was vibrant with color and movement - much of it is a young girl's solo trek through a dangerous but vivid and spectacular jungle - but there were moments that were poorly written, mostly in regards to hitting certain plot points. I loved its theme of coming to accept your own self, but the climax (she literally learns to fly) felt far too obvious. Its secondary theme in celebration of knowledge (especially scientific) and in condemnation of avoiding the unfamiliar could have hit exactly the right note for me, except that I'm a scholar of early music publishing, and so, I couldn't get behind the idea that this one particular book was necessarily and automatically "the real truth" (all publications have an agenda). A final, open-ended section about the existence of the mythical "Earth" felt annoyingly like setup for a sequel. However, the sheer delight in color, the electrifying solo adventure story of a very capable young girl, made me willing to overlook these faults. I imagine a younger reader would like it quite a lot.