[SOR] Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Palm Tree Bandit”
There is a tendency in genre culture to view Nnedi Okorafor as an African genre writer despite the fact that she was born in Ohio and works as an academic at an American university. While I would never dream of policing Okorafor’s identity, it does strike me that looking at her name, looking at the fact that she sets a lot of stories in Africa, and concluding that she is an African writer is a rather unhelpful and reductive means of understanding her fictional output. A better way of understanding the work of Nnedi Okorafor is to view her as a postmodern author who works primarily in the medium of cultural collision.
For example, rather than viewing Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel Who Fears Death as a work of African science fiction, we might want to view it as a work of African-American science fiction that attempts to reconcile and combine elements of American and Nigerian culture. To put it more bluntly, Who Fears Death reads to me like a rummage through Gene Wolfe’s toolbox that replaces Western tropes and Christian themes with ideas, images, and motifs inspired by Okorafor’s Nigerian heritage.
First published in 2000 by Strange Horizons, “The Palm Tree Bandit” is one of Okorafor’s first forays into adult genre writing. Though much simpler than Who Fears Death, this earlier story pre-empts many of the novels’ thematic gestures in so far as it is a pastiche of Afro-Caribbean folk tales that replaces traditional themes and values with Feminist ideals and images inspired by elements of Western culture and progressive thought.
The story opens with a framing device that speaks directly to my understanding of Okorafor’s work. “The Palm Tree Bandit” harkens back to the importance of oral storytelling in African cultures in so far as the body of the story is being told to an American-born child by an older relative who is trying to style her hair in preparation for a visit to their extended family in Nigeria:
Most women back then wore their hair plaited or in thread wraps. You know what those are, right? Wrap bunches of hair in thread and they all stick out like a pincushion. They still wear them like that today, in all these intricate styles. You’ll get to see when you visit Nigeria this Christmas. Hmm, I see you’ve stopped squirming. Good, now listen close.
The story concerns the child’s great-grandmother:
Well, there was a young woman named Yaya, your great-grandmother. Most people dismissed her as eccentric. She was married to a young conservative man whose job was to talk sense into families who were having internal disputes. He had a respectable reputation. Everyone loved him, since he had saved marriages, friendships, and family relationships. But his woman, well, she was a different story. She wrote for the town newspaper but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was her mouth.
This is where we begin to see the collision between two different cultural traditions. Despite “The Palm Tree Bandit” aping the short sentences, simple ideas, strong images, clear morals, and upbeat tone of many Afro-Caribbean folk tales, the values of the story are not those you would normally associate with a traditional folk tale. For starters, how many Anansi stories revolve around a female journalist? Also strange is the way that Yaya’s husband appears to occupy what might be viewed as a traditionally female role in so far as he has earned a reputation for wisdom, soft power and the performance of emotional labour on behalf of his community.
One way of viewing these incursive values is to point to Okorafor’s day job as an academic and conclude that she is deconstructing traditional folk tales. Another way of viewing the presence of non-traditional values in a traditional story form is to assume that the storyteller is consciously working to make the story more relatable to a little girl who has grown up in America surrounded by progressive ideas.
Yaya is someone who keeps asking questions and challenging the status quo and her refusal to accept conventional wisdom at face value eventually results in her taking an interest in the village’s production of palm tree wine. According to the village elders, women are not allowed to climb the palm trees let alone drink the palm wine when it is fresh and sweet. Annoyed as much by the sexism as by the tissue of lies surrounding the status quo, Yaya sneaks out of her home, climbs the tree and steals some palm wine. In order to make it clear that a woman has stolen the wine, she carves a moon into one of trees but the village elders – still intent upon believing their own hype – dismiss the mysterious woman’s actions on the grounds that the mystical protections surrounding the palm trees will eventually kick in and cause the bandit to disappear.
Not to be dismissed, Yaya returns to the palm trees and leaves another carving stressing not only the gender of the thief but also the fact that it’s the same woman who keeps returning to steal the village’s wine:
The next week, she struck again, this time tapping the palm wine from one of the trees and leaving the jug at the trunk of the tree. Next to the moon she carved a heart, the sign for Erzulie, the village’s mother symbol.
This strikes me as another eruption of Western tropes as the decision to sign the crime with a series of carvings evokes the Western tradition of gentlemen thieves who sign their crimes with a variety of different calling cards.
Yaya heads out again only to discover, on her return home, that someone has deposited a full jug of palm wine at the foot of her bed. In fact, these jugs keep turning up and Yaya realises that other women are stealing their own wine and paying their respects to the original Palm Tree Bandit. Just as the rules against women climbing trees once ossified into mythology, the Palm Tree Bandit soon becomes a mythical figure in her own right.
The Palm Tree Bandit encourages other women to steal wine and the more women steal wine, the more people become used to the idea of women climbing trees and tapping the palms:
Eventually, women were allowed to climb palm trees for whatever reason. But they had to offer sacrifices to the Palm Tree Bandit first. Shrines were built honouring her and women often left her bottles of sweet fresh palm wine and coconut meat. No matter where the shrine was, when morning came, these items were always gone away.
We usually think of oral storytelling as a means of preserving ideas and values in non-literate cultures. People learn the stories and tell the stories as a means of ensuring a degree of cultural continuity down through the generations. For example, much of what we know about the Mali Empire comes to us via a complex oral history handed down by generation after generation of griots, the name given to one of Malian culture’s traditional castes. While efforts have been made to transcribe stories like the Epic of Sundiata, the fact that griots are a social class means that the content of Mali’s oral histories can never be completely disentangled from the interests of said class. While this is not true of all oral histories, it does show how oral histories might be used to perpetuate certain values and ideas about the make-up of society.
The problem with viewing “The Palm Tree Bandit” as a straight-forward work of African genre fiction is that such a reading fails to account the story’s critical energies and the urge to deconstruct traditional forms of storytelling as a way of transforming them from a means of perpetuating culture to a means of changing it. Indeed, “The Palm Tree Bandit” is not just about a woman questioning society and changing the rules, it is also about encouraging the young to view oral histories and cultural mythologies as things that are inherently unstable and subject to manipulation not only by the status quo but also by those who would question said power structures. The story’s narrator is not merely sharing an element of her culture, she is telling her daughter or grand-daughter that every story, every culture, and every history is subject to change.