Nuance and context are important for discussions which could trigger a sect, so could there be a controversial meaning behind Nnedi Okorafors Akata series?
Nigerian-American Sci-Fi novelist, Nnedi Okorafor released the first novel in the fantasy Young Adult series, The Akata Witch, with Viking and Penguin books (America) in 2011. The novel is based on a black albino girl, Sunny, who possesses magical powers:
"Twelve-year-old Sunny was born in America yet lives in Nigeria. She is Black and albino. She's a great athlete, yet she can't go out in the sun to play soccer. Sunny then discovers she is a so-called free agent with magical powers. Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students trying to capture a career criminal who also knows magic."
The book was highly applauded, due to its pioneer ingenuity of building on Nigeria's myths and creating such a strong female Nigerian character.
In 2013, Cassava Republic Press acquired the rights to publish the book in Nigeria and the book went on sale. However, it came with a new name 'What Sunny Saw in the Flames'. This was also the same for all the African editions and in the UK.
When the second book in the series was published earlier this year, 'Akata Warrior', it also took on a different name in Africa and the UK — 'Sunny and the mysteries of Osisi'.
So, what exactly is the problem with the title, 'Akata'?
According to Wikipedia, Akátá is a word believed to be derived from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. Its literal meaning is "wild cat" or "cat that doesn't live at home". The opposite of the word is Ologbo, which means as domesticated cat or just "cat".
While the first wave of Nigerian students/ immigrants, in the 60's and 70's, used it to refer to African Americans, there have been much speculations about the meaning of the word. Non-yoruba and other West Africans have come to start using the word as a derogatory term and the word was erroneously translated as "cotton picker" in the 1994 film Sugar Hill.
Akata has come to be very offensive to the Black man. Many would argue that it actually means "cotton picker" because other groups like Bajans, Jamaicans, Haitains or even Black Brits are not referred to as Akata. Others wonder why Africans who "live at home" are not referred to as Ologbo. Whatever the case, the word has become a cause for tension between Africans and African Americans.
In the case of the word "Nigga", African Americans are of the opinion that non people-of-colour cannot use the word to refer to Blacks (no matter the context) because of the pejorative that birthed the word. In this case, however, African-Americans insist that, no matter the context, Africans should not use the word to describe them.
Africans, most especially Nigerians, refuse this notion though, because they feel it is a word that wasn't born out of hate — a word from their own language that has been misconstrued.
These days, it is very easy for terms and phrases which were meant to mean one thing to become repossessed quickly to mean another. So, not withstanding how the word came about, it has come to mean something derogatory to African Americans who do not care to learn the origin of Akata, just like no-one cares to learn the origin of the N word.
Okorafor's use and what it means for the series
Though Akata is sort of a slur in America, the author continues to use it while changing the titles for African editions. Whether it is okay for her to use the word is actually in contest, as she is the child of first-generation immigrants and tags herself a Nigerian-American. However, Sunshine Jones, a goodreads reviewer, has a good idea on why the book is titled so in America:
"I think this is a clear case of why it's so important to read beyond a book's title page. Despite the racial slur in its title, I was required to read Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane in high school. I assume the book was selected because whoever designed the curriculum could recognize that the author's intent was not to offend, but rather to honestly depict his experience. In the case of Akata Witch, it is clear from my reading that the author's intent was not to offend Black Americans but rather to honestly portray the difficulty of fitting neatly into poorly demarcated racial/national hierarchies.
But I also think we have no business trying to determine what could or couldn't possibly be offensive to others - that should be up to the reader and if it offends them they are welcome to stop reading."
Taking this into consideration, it is easy to see that, while the intention behind the fantasy story can be acknowledged by everyone, Nigerians and Africans who live in their home countries cannot/do not need to relate to the difficulty in fitting into racial hierarchies portrayed by the title "Akata".