There’s little point to reading this without first reading my review of Lagoon, and indeed, preferably the novel as well. When you’ve done that, come back and we’ll talk.
Ok, good. In case you ignored my advice, let’s get you up to speed. Lagoon is a novel by Nnedi Okorafor, set in the Nigerian city of Lagos, a chaotic, lively, growing, thriving, living city. The entire novel takes place in Lagos or its surrounds, with one exception – and even that is tied immediately and directly into Lagos. It’s also a first contact novel; the aliens come not to New York, not to London, not to DC or LA or Paris or any of the other standards, but to Lagos. That shift from the Western, colonialist world to the developing but still poor economy of Nigeria is a fascinating one, especially in the ways that the aliens reflect the pushback against the standard approach to charity and foreign aid; external forces creating the cirumstances for internal change.
There’s one thing which would have changed that singular focus on Nigeria; the deleted scene Okorafor chose to include at the end of Lagoon, showing African-American college kids reacting to the various reportage and social media footage of the events of the novel. Suddenly, reading that, the whole novel changes; a visible spaceship appears off the coast of Nigeria, and the (governmental/official/international) reaction appears to barely extend beyond the people of Lagos? That focus is, when highlighted, impossible and unbelievable; but, as in Western-set first contact novels, by ignoring the rest of the world, we forget that it even exists. It allows Lagos to become the world, whilst remaining Lagos; but as soon as you give us a secondary location, we have to wonder what’s happening there – and everywhere else. It breaks the hyperfocused world created by the author, and creates problems for the reader.
I commented on Twitter that the scene would have damaged the sense of the novel as “African”, if it had been included, and Nnedi Okorafor replied:
@Daniel_Libris ask yourself what the definition of "African" is, as well. And who should b included in that conversation.—
Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) April 17, 2014
So, what did I get wrong? Simply put, this is no more an African novel than a first contact novel set in New York is a ‘Western’ novel; the paradigm is narrower than that. Lagos, for the reader, comes to stand in for both the world and Africa. Okorafor narrows everything down for the reader by focusing in closer without ever looking at a broader world; Lagos is the only place in the world, it’s the place the aliens have chosen, and Okorafor deploys both that fact and the character of Lagos to perfection. My mistake was to call the novel an African novel; instead, it is Nigerian, the way NYC-set first-contact novels are American novels. Putting in characters from outside the closed world of Lagos makes it a global novel, the same way putting a character in Lagos into a novel set in NYC would make the novel global and raise questions about the America-only response.
So who is African? As a white British blogger, I don’t have a voice in that conversation – or rather, I shouldn’t have, and won’t try to engage in it. But who should appear in Lagoon? That question I will answer; and the answer is, characters in Nigeria. And that’s why I’m glad that deleted scene was indeed deleted.