REVIEW: “Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbawa

Review of Suyi Davies Okungbawa, “Dune Song”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Nata intends to leave the safe community of Isiuwa, to go out into the dunes. She has tried once before, been captured and narrowly avoided death at the hands of the chief in punishment, but she is determined to make her escape from this village that she hates. The chief insists that for anyone to go would anger the gods and doom Isiuwa, but Nata does not believe this. Like her mother before her, she is determined to see what lies beyond the walls, and to find freedom.

There is a lot going on in this story. On a political level, this story takes a long, hard look at the type of governance that seeks to protect people by limiting their freedom. Because, of course, the people in charge of Isiuwa are permitted outside the bamboo fence. They say they do it to the protect the people, that it is a burden and not a privilege, but that does not change the fact that they are the only ones who could possibly know what is out there. Everyone else must take their word for it. Most of the citizens seem unbothered by this fact, even if they do not all believe in the religious explanation provided by their chief.

But of course, it is the personal level of the story that most interests me. Nata’s challenging relationship with a mother who left years ago, before Nata was ready to question the truths passed down to her, informs much of the story. Her absence is almost a presence for Nata. I also appreciated her friendship with a younger boy, one whose mother also left for the dunes. So often, when we read about someone defying authority, they have to do it completely alone. I liked seeing Nata with an ally.

This is an engaging first story in Apex’s Afrofurism special issue, which is also the last issue of the magazine.

REVIEW: “When You Find Such a Thing” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Review of Suyi Davies Okungbowa, “When You Find Such a Thing”, Podcastle: 496 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Once again, Podcastle demonstrates the value-added not only by presenting certain stories in audio format, but by carefully matching the narrator to the material. I don’t usually call out the narrators in my reviews, but Solomon Osadolo was magnificent in interpreting the rhythms and flavor of this story. (There was one unfortunate technical recording glitch that marred the production values, but that’s neither the author nor the narrator’s fault.)

The protagonist’s ordinarily terrifying experience of meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time is given a fantasy twist by his profession: the newly government-authorized and licensed field of traditional Nigerian wizard. In explaining his profession to his potentially future father-in-law, the listener also receives the essential grounding in what this means and how it works. What confuses him is why he needs to explain it in such detail to the man. Although only recently made respectably legal, surely the man would be familiar with the basic principles? That’s when he discovers the magical shroud clouding the man’s understanding and awareness of wizardry.

Why that shroud exists, and who created it, forms the tension of the rest of the story. It is, in essential ways, a story about consent and about the limits of what is acceptable to do to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from cultural prejudice and danger. As the title says, “When you find such a thing [i.e., love], you do anything to keep it.” But who decides what that “anything” includes? In the current climate of discussion on informed consent and allowing people agency in their own lives, a surface reading of the story puts the protagonist (and the second wizard in the story) in a somewhat horrific light. But life isn’t so simple, as that other wizard points out. Government sanction and legality isn’t the same thing as acceptance, and a history of persecution and prejudice can’t be wiped away by a law and a license.

I was able to step away from the specifics of the story and feel the complexities more when I “translated” the core ethical situation into one of sexuality rather than wizardry (although there’s absolutely no basis in the story for this specific connection–it’s just one that has particular resonance for me). Is it right to deceive your loved ones about some essential aspect of your identity if full disclosure would destroy that love and put your life at hazard? We don’t have the luxury of waiting for an ideal and accepting world in which ethics can be treated purely as a philosophical exercise. We live in the world as it is. And sometimes that world has things that are precious enough that you do anything to keep them. Even if what you do is wrong by certain lights.

A separate, purely technical note on the episode: I have a certain degree of auditory processing disorder, which means that when I’m listening to speech with unfamiliar rhythms and accents, I can have difficulty processing it adequately. I needed to listen to this episode twice: once to calibrate my hearing to the narrator and language structure, and once to actually listen to the story itself. This is a defect in my neural processing, not in the story itself. If you find yourself having a similar experience, I urge you to give the story the benefit of a second listen, or try the text version instead. It’s worth it.