Nnedi Okorafor: Worldbuilding With Food and Mud

Nothing is more sensory than food, it hits all the senses.

  • Sight: how it looks, the vibrancy of colours, how it is artfully presented on the dish.
  • Smell: the aromas, the stronger ones and the subtle ones, the memories that come flooding back upon sniffing a familiar dish from childhood.
  • Taste: the obvious one, but there's the initial primary taste followed by aftertastes and delicate hints that speak volumes about the effort and time that went into the cooking.
  • Touch: the textures, rough, smooth, liquid, solid, chewy, combinations of all of these, some unexpected, some unwelcome, all descriptive.
  • Sound: does it crunch or squelch, do you suck it up with a big slurp or do you delicately chew it and perhaps smack your lips in satisfaction?

Food is worldbuilding – it has history and culture wrapped up in a delightful package. Some recipes date back hundreds of years, some are relatively recent inventions. Ingredients that can only be sourced through international trade have a huge effect on food. Potatoes and tomatoes have shaped the world, while every culture uses them in such distinct manners. Every writer loves to get stuck into writing a meal, to evoke a strong feeling. Is the food bland, thereby signalling that little care was put into it, that your character maybe has other priorities, perhaps longs for something more tasty? Is it a completely new experience introduced to the character, courtesy of a friend's family, an old recipe handed throughout the generations?

The reader can learn so much from descriptions of food in writing, none more so than in Nnedi Okorafor's writing. If you haven't heard of her, I command you to go out and buy some of her books right now. I'll wait.

So, to my shame, I still have only read two of her books, but I will be devouring many more in the near future. I did at least get them signed at Eastercon, where she was one of the guests of honour, and Dr Okorafor's autographs are a sight to behold.

Throughout Akata Witch, we are treated to excerpts from a book that Sunny, the main character, reads in her magic studies. One of these glimpses into the text is a recipe for Tainted Pepper soup, a dish that appears to be very complicated and delicate as if there is the slightest mistake, it will literally explode. If the onions aren't round enough, they will explode; if the tomatoes are too small, they will explode; only use sea salt, never table salt unless you don't want to have children. In two pages we learn about the volatile nature of the magic that our character is learning with such a precarious balance of ingredients, while it also sums up the very real experience of being told a general recipe by someone only to see it mysteriously go wrong and be admonished for not doing it right. Dr Okorafor told me this was exactly her inspiration and as a passive-aggressive chef, I found this to be utterly brilliant.

Throughout the rest of the book, when Sunny is in her home between magical adventures, life is centred around the kitchen, where red stew and rice, pepper soup, and jollof rice are prepared. Through just brief mentions of the regularity of these dishes, a vivid picture is painted, and boy does it make you hungry. I had to run off and attempt to make jollof rice for the first time after reading it, something that had always been on my to-do-list. Another hearty recommendation.

Most worldbuilding comes through repetition of small details like this. It's not just food but other details that may be mundane and everyday to the character, but are new for the audience. In Binti, the eponymous protagonist is a member of the Himba people, who cover themselves with otjize, an ochre paste made with the soil from her homeland. She is on a journey to an intergalactic university, the first of her people to be offered a place, and is oh so very alone on the spaceship, visibly marked as different from everyone else. But it's a combination of some ancient technology brought with her and the otjize that allows her to defuse the situation when aliens attack and board the ship. The deep connection that Binti feels to the soil from her home, that she literally brought her home with her on this journey, is felt on every page, mainly through the descriptions of the application of the paste. It's truly excellent worldbuilding which draws in the reader.

Food also plays its part in Binti, bringing a sense of familiarity for her when placed in this unusual and lonely situation, the familiar highlighting how far she is from home and the rapid changes occurring in her life. The way Dr Okorafor writes about these simple pieces of the fantastically readable worlds she has created is absolutely wonderful, characterful, and incredibly economic with the words in the prose. Binti is a ninety page novella, but you go through one hell of a journey.

So if you hadn't got the message by now, go and read these books immediately, lose yourself in these well-built worlds. And while you're at the bookshop, buy me all of her other ones too!