I remember being so excited when I first heard about Lagoon five years ago. I’d recently been reading about how skewed the Mercator world map is, so hearing about a book in which First Contact occurred in Lagos, Nigeria instead of London or New York was perfectly timed. And sure, it’s taken me five years to actually get around to it, but having read and loved Okorafor’s Binti novellas in the meantime, none of that excitement had dissipated when I finally started reading earlier this week.
“They were confused, afraid and eager to see what would happen next.
How would you have felt?”
And it is an incredible read. It’s energetic and chaotic; sometimes confusing, but always teeming with life and action, and it’s going to take me a while to really let what I’ve read sink in. But I’m left with reservations as well. I’m not sure I enjoyed reading this book.
Some of that is no doubt because it has forced me to confront my own ignorance. I know very little about Nigeria. I had to look it up on the map because I had no idea where in Africa it was, let alone that it actually has a lagoon. I did not know that electricity outages are a common occurrence there. I had to Google gated communities and Victoria Island. I did not and still do not know what a day in the life of a Nigerian citizen might look like. Not knowing these things bothers me a lot – I am aware that I live in a privileged bubble, but that awareness obviously doesn’t stretch very far and that’s not a good thing to know about yourself.
This is one of those books that has left me with lots of impressions, some quite sketchy and mostly disjointed. While it starts out fairly straightforward with three unconnected people being drawn to Lagos’ Bar Beach where they meet the ambassador for an alien race, it soon unravels as violence takes over the city and characters from folklore step into the real world. The story unfolds in the way that dreams often do, following its own internal logic, and the reader is just along for the ride.
There are a ton of characters, none of whom we spend a lot of time with, and yet Okorafor gives enough detail that we are able to care about most of them to a degree. The effect that this has is to breathe life into Lagos itself, so that you feel the city is the character and all the various points of view you are experiencing are aspects of that one larger personality. (That said, I hated Father Oke. By the final act I was happy to have forgotten all about him, happy to accept that he was just another small part of the beautiful-dreadful, multifaceted city of Lagos, but when I first encountered him I very nearly put the book down. If he was there to say anything meaningful about how the Christian faith has blended with local West African beliefs or how Christianity is altered by the personality of the country it finds itself in, I’m afraid I missed it all because I just hated him. And his ending wasn’t painful enough).
On the other hand, I loved that this story upends so many First Contact tropes. Not only do the aliens choose Africa – and Ayodele makes it clear that they really do choose, that they want to become citizens of Lagos, nowhere else – but their very first contact is with the people of the sea. I mean, we’re a planet two-thirds of which is covered in water, in which the most incredible diversity of species live out their lives, why wouldn’t aliens land there? Ayodele’s people land in the waters off the coast of Nigeria, communicate with the many varieties of marine life and give each what they most want, before coming ashore to chat with the humans. And what do the peoples of the sea want most? For humans to get out the water. So now the oceans are teeming with bigger and badder versions of everything we think we know, ready to kick human arse should we trouble them again.
And then there’s the wonderful bit where the President of Nigeria finally shows up and says to Ayodele: “Take me to your leader”.
The violence that follows Ayodele’s arrival was another aspect of the story I found difficult. It was accurate, sure. We are an angry, violent race. We do unspeakable things. And Okorafor doesn’t flinch away from that. She makes it very clear that aliens are not the problem, it is only our inability to handle change that stands in the way.
At the same time, she speaks of our interconnected nature. Even as we meet more and yet more characters we discover that they are all linked to one another, that the circles in which they all move are over-lapping constantly. The girl that Benson raped is a cousin of Troy’s, who is part of Moziz’s group of friends. Jacobs, another of this group, has a sister, Fisayo, who witnessed Ayodele coming ashore. Philomena, Moziz’s girlfriend, is Adaora’s house girl and it is her footage of Ayodele that inspires Moziz’s kidnapping scheme. There’s no more than six degrees of separation between any of the characters.
By the time the Bone Collector, Legba, Ijele, Mami Wata and Spider the Artist make their appearances it makes complete sense that these alien visitors, bringers of change, would awaken the gods and mythical creatures of Nigeria. We have already witnessed humans with superpowers, and have shared the points of view of swordfish, bats and a seven-legged spider. A country is defined by its beliefs, its history, its citizens (human and otherwise) and its folklore.
And ultimately it feels like this story is about how we are never of one mind. Any place is made up of the people that live there, of so many conflicting needs and desires that it can never speak with one voice. We are a fractious and divided people. And somehow Okorafor manages to leave the story (the ending isn’t really an ending, just another beginning. It’s all arbitrary at the end of the day), on a hopeful note. Nigeria will become something different. It won’t be all good. It won’t be all bad either. But it will be vibrant and strong and entirely itself.