In my experience, there are two types of “albino” characters: the simpleton and the villain. The simpleton is generally a weak-willed lackey, either an obedient sidekick to a main character or a pawn in the grand scheme of a nefarious plot. The latter is a ruthless brute, a man bent on destroying society as we know it for the sake of extremely misguided ideals. Thus, it was refreshing for me to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, a novel that treats albinism—and disabilities in general—not like impurities that ruin the gem that is a human being, but rather as defining aspects of their character. Okorafor argues that we must embrace rather than hide our imperfections in order to truly understand who we are.
Akata Witch follows the story of Sunny, a twelve-year-old African-American albino whose family recently moved back to their native Nigeria. Because of her odd looks and African American heritage, Sunny is ostracized by her peers to an extent typical of any book featuring an albino character. Nonetheless, with the help of some friends, Sunny discovers that she is capable of much more than she realized. She is a “leopard person,” a secret race of peoples in Nigerian folklore who walk between the human and spirit worlds and are capable of practicing “juju.” Soon she is whisked into a world of magic, masquerade, and monsters as she slowly assumes her role as a leopard person. Here Okorafor uses her expertise with Nigerian folklore to paint a truly marvelous world outside anything any Western reader could imagine. Each scene brims with foreign words, ideas, and languages in a way that draws the reader into the page.
As I mentioned, albinism is a characteristic most commonly applied to either the weakest or most malevolent characters. Their shocking appearance either provides an air of sickly paleness accompanied by either a physical or emotional weakness, or a frighteningly brutal ghost-like appearance which elicits revulsion from the reader and character alike. Akata Witch is one of the few novels I’ve read that breaks this particular mold. While Sunny’s albinism draws the ridicule of her classmates, Okorafor ensures that Sunny’s character is not tarnished by her physical disabilities or the stigma of her peers. In fact, Sunny’s albinism affects her character in a positive way, as dealing with the physical and social aspects of her albinism help build her confidence. She refuses to allow taunts and abuse to compromise her integrity and is never afraid to defend herself from those who see her as inferior.
Unlike many authors, Okorafor pulled no punches in regards to society’s treatment of those with albinism. As a person of color growing up with albinism, Sunny’s character particularly resonated with me. Her interactions with her classmates and countrymen strongly resembled my own. The odd looks and comments that Sunny deals with from her Nigerian counterparts are familiar to any “albino of color” as we see the confusion in the faces around us—as if we’re pieces in a puzzle that don’t fit correctly. Between the devices we use to protect ourselves from the sun, the blond or white hair, and the pale skin, we’re seen as misfits even among our own societies. Nevertheless, Okorafor does not allow Sunny to succumb to this atmosphere. Unlike most characters with albinism who are meek, easily manipulated characters, Sunny is an athletic, adventurous, and confident preteen who is not held back by her albinism and is quick to challenge those who question her looks or sun-shield umbrella. In fact, in the Leopard society her condition is seen as an indication of her power and abilities rather than a reason to ostracize her.
However, Sunny’s ready acceptance into Leopard society also plays into the “magical albino” myth that permeates fantasy movies and novels. While Okorafor attempts to distance Sunny’s albinism from the novel’s mysticism, in Leopard society a Leopard person’s abilities are very much influenced by their most striking physical features and/or maladies; the more striking or severe the disability, the more powerful the associated magic. Thus, while in principle Sunny’s albinism is not meant to contribute to the “magical albino” myth, Okorafor’s use of Leopard society ideology and mythology invokes an element of the aforementioned trope which mars what otherwise is an unprecedentedly mundane depiction of albinism.
While Sunny’s character is strongly affected by her albinism, Okorafor ignores or marginalizes some aspects of the condition. Because of our lack of melanin, people with albinism tend to have varying degrees of low vision. But Sunny didn’t suffer from any type of visual impairment; she didn’t even suffer from photophobia, the most common visual impairment associated with albinism. Okorafor’s mysterious “cure” for Sunny’s susceptibility to sunburn was an even more blatant affront to the integrity of her albinism. Soon after Sunny’s magical awakening, she discovers that she is no longer affected by sunlight—that she no longer has to worry about using an umbrella or long clothes to protect herself in the sun. As photophobia (in my opinion) is the most cumbersome physical symptom associated with albinism, Okorafor’s cure does the novel a disservice as she frees Sunny from a burden that every other albino must consciously shoulder or risk the consequences.
From the perspective of its portrayal of albinism I must confess to being underwhelmed by Akata Witch. While I loved Sunny’s character, Okorafor seemed to pick and choose from the physical and social aspects of albinism to craft a character that suited her needs rather than creating a truly realistic character with albinism, and—perhaps unintentionally—strayed back into the “magical albino” trope that mars so many novels with characters with albinism. However, from a literary standpoint Akata Witch is a great novel that features the first strong, sympathetic lead with albinism I’ve seen in quite a few years. With a wonderful setting that provides a breath of fresh air to an otherwise tired premise, accurate, life-like characters, and a great message, Akata Witch is a book I would recommend to readers of all ages.