Chicago Tribune

How Nnedi Okorafor is building the future of sci-fi. (Being George R.R. Martin's protege doesn't hurt.)

FLOSSMOOR, Ill. - Not long after Nnedi Okorafor finished her freshman year at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1993, she came home to Flossmoor and played tennis. She played daily, she played for hours. That had always been the plan. She had been playing tennis since she was 9. She was nationally ranked; a few years earlier, she helped win the state championship for Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and now she was playing in college. All of which was expected. She and her sisters, Ngozi and Ifeoma, dominated HFHS tennis for years. Nnedi had been the scrappiest and most physical. She would be taunted with the N-word, she would hear "Go back to Africa," and she would think: It doesn't matter how racist people can get, she would find a way to win anyway.

But she came to hate high-school tennis ("When you play so many bad players, your own game goes down"); then in college, she didn't really like anyone on that team.

So by the end of freshman year, she was quietly harboring a plan to quit the game and gravitate toward track, with the Olympics in mind. Which didn't sound unattainable: Her father was a cardiovascular surgeon, her mother a health administrator, both came from Nigeria, both had doctorates, and both demanded their four children stand out.

The only hurdle was Okorafor and her sisters had been diagnosed years earlier with scoliosis, to varying degrees of severity. Nnedi wore a back brace and would remove it before matches; she had always played through the pain. But that summer, when Nnedi returned to Flossmoor and her parents brought her to the University of Chicago Medical Center for a regular round of X-rays, her spine appeared to be getting worse. The doctor recommended surgery. Because her spinal cord was involved, there was a small chance of paralysis, but

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