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Nnedi Okorafor a rapidly rising star in literary world

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FARMINGTON — At first blush, this year's selection for the annual One Book, One Community initiative at San Juan College may not appear to have much in common with the program's targeted readership.

After all, "Binti" by Nnedi Okorafor is a science-fiction novella set in the not-so-near future on a far-away world. But Danielle Sullivan, an associate professor of English who serves on the One Book, One Community committee, said the story features some elements that San Juan College students — and others who read the book — are likely to be able to relate to.

To begin with, she said, the protagonist, for whom the book is named, is a young African woman who has been accepted to an institution of higher learning on that aforementioned distant planet. The changes she encounters as she leaves her loved ones and culture behind for a new educational opportunity are an experience many San Juan College students with a Native background have gone through themselves, Sullivan said.

The story also revolves around mathematics to a certain extent, she said, and that is something that makes the book an appropriate choice for a college-based community reading program.

Those elements have led to the largest collaboration yet between the college and the community in the history of the One Book, One Community program, which was launched in 2010. A new book is chosen by the committee each year, and all local residents — especially San Juan College students, faculty and staff members — are encouraged to read it, then attend several events throughout the school year at which the book is discussed an analyzed. The idea is to promote literacy and build a sense of community while exploring relevant issues.

Sullivan said the book appeals not just to college students, but to high school students, many of whom will be making that same home-to-college transition soon. She said "Binti" is part of the curriculum this year at Farmington, Piedra Vista and Navajo Prep high schools.

"There's a high level of engagement with students," Sullivan said. "They feel they can really relate with Binti, and sci-fi is very popular."

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But perhaps the biggest appeal of the book, she acknowledged, is the star power of its author, who will making an appearance this week at the college. Okorafor will be on the college campus at 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington for several events on Oct. 22, beginning with a meet-and-greet session at 5 p.m. in the Henderson Fine Arts Center.

There also will be a children's table set up from 5 to 5:30 p.m. where families can bring copies of Okorafor's well-known and highly regarded children's book "Chicken in the Kitchen" to be signed. At 7 p.m. that day, Okorafor will deliver a lecture on her work in the theater at the center.

Sullivan is expecting those events to be well attended. Okorafor's public profile has risen considerably recently, as she has taken over authorship of the popular "Black Panther" graphic novel series from Ta Nehisi Coates, and her novel "Who Fears Death" is being developed for an HBO series with George R.R. Martin of "Game of Thrones" fame serving as the executive producer.

"She's pretty famous right now," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the committee chose Okorafor's book last year and arranged for her to visit the campus before her literary star began its precipitous climb.

"It was a stroke of luck and timing, and we're thrilled we have this caliber of author," she said.

Sullivan noted the futuristic orientation of "Binti" is allowing her committee to take a different approach to the One Book, One Community series of events this year. Already, the committee has held a math-related event dealing with fractals, while a workshop on sci-fi writing by creative writing director Travis Wade will take place at 4 p.m. Nov. 4 in Room 7226 of the Information Technology Center. At 2:30 p.m. Nov. 19, anthropologist Andrea Cooper will deliver a lecture on the Himba, the indigenous African tribe upon whom Binti's people are modeled. Other events are planned for the spring semester.

All One Book, One Community events are free and open to the public. For more information, call Sullivan at 505-566-3476 or visit sanjuancollege.edu/community/departments/one-book-one-community/.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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