A Feminist Perspective on Gender Representation in Nnedi Okorafor's 'Lagoon'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2015 20 Pages

Literature - Africa


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Nnedi Okorafor and Lagoon

3. Background on Gender Representation
3.1. In Nigerian Literature
3.2. In Speculative Fiction

4. Gender Representation in Lagoon
4.1. The characters

5. Conclusion: Is Lagoon a feminist novel?

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon is a work of speculative fiction which challenges science fiction stereotypes by placing an alien invasion narrative inside Lagos, Nigeria and mixing mythological creatures and aliens with themes of spirituality, ideology, and political, social and personal dilemmas. Among those, the novel explores terrains of gender inequality and gender identity and displays a feminist attitude towards those issues. The characters and their actions underline the conflicts which define issues researched in gender studies. That and the themes as well as reader and author-related motives are guidelines to outline the representation of gender in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and attempting to expose a feminist mentality.

Gender representation is a type of research done under the pretext of the philosophical discourse of feminist theory, which, among other practices, investigates the gender roles that define a societal norm. This is described on page 1 in Stevi Jackson and Jackie Jones’ book Contemporary Feminist Theories. It is important to define the term ‘gender’ before investigating the assigned roles hiding behind its definition. Lizbeth Goodman describes gender as referring “to ways of seeing and representing people and situations based on sex difference” but adds that “Gender is a social or cultural category influenced by stereotypes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ behaviour that exist in our attitudes and beliefs” (7) in her book Literature and Gender. The topics which are subject to investigation when trying to establish gender roles deal with issues under the precept of different feminist disciplines, such as the psychological background of the ‘mind / body dichotomy’ which is described on page 4 of Susan Bordo’s book Unbearable Weight. It asserts that throughout time the typical gender role of the woman has established itself to be represented by the body, while, for men, it is represented by the mind. This, of course, leads to several issues for women, which are also relevant topics in Lagoon. For example, oppression and sexual objectification are still mentioned frequently as problematic topics calling for feminist action. Okorafor presents several characters in her novel who struggle with those issues. Theories and ideas like the ‘mind / body dichotomy’ must be kept in mind when attempting to unfold the characters of this novel and to establish a hypothesis on how gender is being represented and how that representation differs from others.

It is also important to remember the cultural background based on location as well as keeping in mind the ways in which gender in usually represented in speculative fiction. Regarding gender representation in literature, in general, Lizbeth Goodman offers the following assertion:

“When we refer to the study of literature and gender, we don’t just mean literary analysis of texts with regard to the sex (female or male) or sexuality of authors, but the wider study of literary texts as they are written, read and interpreted within cultures, by women and men.” (7)

Nnedi Okorafor challenges traditional gender roles explicitly and implicitly by offering a wide range of personalities and by placing those personalities in a chaotic and dangerous environment, which places both male and female characters on the same level of imminent danger, with outsiders offering a new perspective on traditional human conceptions. She explores many different aspects of feminist literary theory and offers new ways of perceiving and understanding gender in general, therefore challenging its traditional representation in speculative fiction. So is Lagoon a feminist novel?

2. Nnedi Okorafor and Lagoon

Since Lagoon shows signs of a feminist attitude, it would prove plausible to examine the author and possibly exposing her ideological background. Nnedi Okorafor is Nigerian-American author who specializes in fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction. On her website it says that “Nnedi is known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters”, and that she has “earned her BA in Rhetoric from the University of Illinois, C-U [and] her MA and PhD in English at the University of Illinois, Chicago”. Describing her own work, she says that she “enjoy[s] nonsense and weirdness”. Regarding the recurring apocalyptic settings in her novels, she explains in an interview with Clarke’s World Magazine that she “love[s] the idea of the earth rebelling”, implying a type of dissatisfaction with its state of being. She explains further:

“I love the idea of human beings having no clue WTF is going on. I love the idea of the laws of physics going haywire. Human begins seek to control, they seek to be at the top of their self-created hierarchy, above all creatures. We're arrogant as hell even though we don't know what's going on half the time. Also, I have an obsession with chaos and destruction. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, sudden, unexpected horrible change. Writing it is my way of facing it.”

It can be speculated that Okorafor is showing an attitude of discontent toward the current political and social state of this planet. This, however, does not, by any means, indicate that Okorafor is a feminist herself, or would even consider herself interested in the principles. An article titled “A Nigerian Sorceress Makes Her Way” written by Mikki Kendall in April 2010, states that “Okorafor’s books feature the cultural and social touchstones of her youth” which include “strong girls and women”. It also states that some works by Okorafor outline the principles studied by feminists by creating worlds in which strong African women have to be strong in facing their fate, calling it “the push and pull in African culture that powerful women face when their culture has certain duties and beliefs that can stifle them”. This may not be proof of a feminist background but it is certainly helpful, when trying to investigate the gender roles Okorafor fills her novel with.

Okorafor’s website features the Amazon review of Lagoon which evaluates the deeper meaning behind the novel as such:

“At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together - and the things that make us human.”

Among those political and philosophical issues are sexual objectification, issues of gender identity, bigotry and hatred against homosexuals, transsexuals and people facing gender dysphoria, racism and the outdated gender roles which are upheld by society. The plot describes an alien invasion in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Three people, a marine biologist, a rapper and a soldier, share a common fate of leading an alien-ambassador to meet with the President, to discuss the reasons for their invasion as well as the plans for humanity’s future, with the antagonists not being the aliens but the citizens of Lagos. After discovering that Lagos has been approached by aliens, several plots unfold, some of them including kidnapping the alien for monetary gain, exploiting the alien for religious influence and others, usually showing humans in a rather grim light of seeking constant personal profit. By putting human beings, in this case Nigerians, in a setting of chaos and destruction, Okorafor is setting the stage for re-evaluations of humanity’s past, present and future. In brief, Lagoon can very well be used to exemplify humanity’s past and present failings and therefore offers a perfect breeding ground for theories of feminist agenda.

3. Background on Gender Representation

Two aspects are important to explore before analyzing the novel in regards to gender representation. First, the traditional gender roles in Nigerian literature throughout time, and second, the common themes of gender representation in speculative fiction.

3.1. In Nigerian Literature

Dr. Razinat Mohammed presented a paper titled Female Representation in Nigerian Literature at the ANA Lagos and WRITA Lagos special lover’s day reading which lays out the traditional gender roles in Nigerian literature throughout time. About the connection of early Nigerian literature and patriarchal structures in society, she says:

“The dismal representation of women in early Nigerian literature is not unconnected with the patriarchal nature of traditional societies, in addition to the colonially inspired value judgment of the time. […] Women in most traditional societies were hardly visible, they were restricted to domestic chores and subsistent farming while the struggle for independence spearheaded by men, focused attention on the colonial model of civilization. Western education became the yardstick for measuring civilization and schools then were dominated by men.”

Yet, after a while the canon of mostly male writers began presenting a different ‘woman’ in Nigerian literature. This is also summarized in the speech: The stereotypical image shifted from a woman who was destined to be a wife and to play the stabilizing role in domestic life to a woman who believes she cannot have a career herself and therefore chooses to exploit a relationship with a successful man to advance herself. Okorafor presents the reader with one character who could be categorized in this manner, as she is hoping to capitalize on a relationship with an educated young man and willing to do what she needs to achieve it.1 Dr. Mohammed says that this gender representation started establishing itself in post-independence Nigerian novels. Also introduced during this time was the character of the young woman who was ‘free’ in that she created her own fate by no longer perpetuating the “girlfriend or good-time girl image”. Dr. Mohammed adds that “[This new] woman has a dogged mind of her own albeit, not so developed through formal training as it is more from adaptations in the fast growing cities of the time.” This kind of woman is represented in the Lagoon in form of the protagonist, who is a strong, educated and free-willed woman. However, she feels she owes loyalty to her abusive husband who is unwilling to let go of what he perceives as his god given control.2 Another female character role which began to come out around that time was the prostitute with a mind of her own. “[T]he courtesan or prostitute prefers her ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ to glide as it were, from one man to another who is ready to pay her fee.” This character of a young prostitute plays an important role in Lagoon as well. However, she also wishes to be discovered as worthy of being a wife to a rich man, therefore not enjoying her freedom as much as described by Dr. Mohammed. Okorafor does not portray these characters as two dimensional, as would be common in literature written by men. She offers a unique perspective into the mind of the characters, which is a defining criteria of feminist literature. Ever since women have established themselves as writers in Nigeria, the female perspective has become more evident and Okorafor, most definitely, offers that perspective in her novel.

3.2. In Speculative Fiction

Another interesting aspect in investigating the representation of gender in Lagoon is evaluating the stereotypical gender representations in speculative fiction throughout time.


1 This will be exemplified later in the essay.

2 See 1


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Title: A Feminist Perspective on Gender Representation in Nnedi Okorafor's 'Lagoon'