The OF Blog: Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

For the past couple of years, Nnedi Okorafor has been one of those young novelists whom I have followed closely.  Ever since I read her second novel, The Shadow Speaker, in 2008, what I have admired most about her writings, in both novel and novella length, is just how well she creates characters that have a strong "voice" and whose perceptions on what is transpiring around them make both the situations (sometimes set in a post-apocalyptic Africa) and characters (either West African or in the current case, Sudanese) all the more intense and gripping.

Therefore, it was with great curiosity that I recently began reading Okorafor's third novel, Who Fears Death, not just because it is her first novel specifically marketed to adults, but more because of some of the leaked hints about the subject matter and how that might affect the enjoyment of the novel.  For the most part, Who Fears Death manages to live up to the high expectations raised by my prior reading of Okorafor's prior work.

The story begins with a touching, personal scene.  A young woman, Onyesonwu, whose name means "Who fears death?", witnesses the death of her beloved stepfather:

My life fell apart when I was sixteen.  Papa died.  He had such a strong heart, yet he died.  Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop?  It's true that nothing could take him from his work, his art.  He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him.  But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop.  So what was it that...killed him?  To this day I can't be sure.  I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.

Immediately after he died, my mother came running out of their bedroom sobbing and throwing herself against the wall.  I knew then that I would be different.  I knew in that moment that I would never again be able to fully control the fire inside me.  I became a different creature that day, not so human.  Everything that happened later, I now understand, started then. (p. 3)
This is a pivotal point in Onyesonwu's life and before we are introduced to her life and backstory, we are privy to her grief.  I found myself wanting to read more about her and her situation after reading these first two paragraphs, which hinted at something strange and mysterious about Onyesonwu even as she grieved for her Papa's death.  In Okorafor's previous novels, she too used first-person female narrators, usually in the tween or teen years, to tell stories of magic and loss, of dreams and of suffering in the wake of a vague, world-wide apocalyptic event.  Here in Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu's life is traced from her life as a biracial Ewu - a child of rape at the hands of a Nuru sorceror named Daib - with her struggles to fit in with that society, so bound in ancient customs as to make it difficult for Western readers such as myself to fully relate to what Onyesonwu is experiencing, to her eventual rebellion and discovery of the magic within her.

Okorafor does an outstanding job of mixing in extrapolations of current sociological problems occurring in Eastern Africa, particularly parts of the present-day country of Sudan, with a story that is simultaneously a coming of age story and a revenge/quest novel.  Onyesonwu is a very sympathetic character.  We get to experience up close her fears, her frustrations, her struggles to fit in with the villagers of Jwahir, who despise her for being not just a child of rape, but for carrying the blood of the Nuru, who are much lighter-skinned than the surrounding Okeke people.  We gather, through passing conversations that she and others have, that the Nuru, inflamed by those preaching a violent interpretation of their Great Book, have begun exterminating entire Okeke villages to the west of Jwahir.  It is a strong analogue to the current situation occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan, as well as in remote regions in several parts of sub-Saharan Africa.  Okorafor's story is all the more powerful for just how grounded it is in recent and ongoing atrocities in the region.

Some readers of this book have criticized Okorafor for putting these horrible events in a fictional book.  I believe those critics have misrepresented Okorafor's goals and achievements.  By having such things as a female circumcision ritual occurring and being experienced by Onyesonwu, this highlights not just the brutalities that are occurring to women in several parts of Africa, but it also illustrates just how insidious the desire to control women can be in patriarchal societies.  Despite growing up in a culture far removed from that found in the Sudan and other parts of Africa, Okorafor manages to make even me able to understand the viciousness that underlies such ancient rituals that have managed to survive like cockroaches whenever they can scurry out of public eye.

Okorafor also mixes in African folk magic, called juju, into this.  Although I wonder if juju is a pan-African term for this sort of folk sorcery or if it is the application of a region-specific title to a broader area, this wondering ends up being a minor quibble because of how well Okorafor utilizes it as a concept and as a part of Okeke life.  From Onyesonwu's mysterious powers that begin to emerge after her eleventh birthday, through her initial struggles with the local sorcerer Aro, to the realization that her real enemy is her own biological father, Daib, the learning of juju plays a major role in Onyesonwu's story.  It rarely feels forced within the narrative, as Okorafor skillfully manages to weave it into all aspects of her story, creating a narrative that is just "exotic" enough to feel different from the majority of reads that I've had recently, while still retaining connections to a deep, personal narrative that allow me to understand the character even through the more culturally unfamiliar parts of this story.

Since this is a coming of age story for a biracial female teen, there are certainly some sexual situations that are quite direct in their appearance.  Onyesonwu's relationship with the failed sorcerer Mwita is told frankly, with no apologies for the mutual love and lust shared between the two.  It is, in many respects, the counterpart to the earlier female circumcision scene and their first intimate moments serve simultaneously as a real and as a metaphorical challenge to the restrictions on female sexuality placed by such customs as the removal of the clitoris.  Although there were a few times where their relationship seemed a bit underdeveloped, perhaps due to the need to forward the plot quickly to reach its summit with Onyesonwu's conflict with Daib, on the whole, her romantic relationship with Mwita and her friendship with their traveling companions Binta and Luyu are presented well.

The conclusion to Who Fears Death was in turn surprising and fitting to the character of Onyesonwu and her life-long struggles.  Some enemies are greater than a mere mortal or groups of mortals and Okorafor does a good job in hiding this hidden enemy in plain sight until the final, somewhat ambiguous ending.  Although some readers may be disappointed in how the story concludes, I found it to be an apt summation of Onyesonwu's life and the values she came to cherish dearly.  It ties together in a nice thematic unity so many scenes that seem to be small in light of the quest narrative that dominates much of the book, making the story more moving than the sum of its parts.  Who Fears Death is certainly one of the better 2010 releases that I have read this year.  Highly recommended.


Chad Hull said...

I wish I had a bit more of a literary 'backbone.' I'm very familiar with the events happening in Sudan and Darfur. That being said, I don't think I can voluntarily subject myself to such a horrible setting in my pleasure reading.

However, it is nice to see someone writing stories in that setting. Perhaps it will shed more light on the matter. I wish her well.

Harry Markov said...

Perhaps the single thing that I most wish to have is your access to books not so much your reading speed.

This is a definite YES on my radar.

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