Who Fears Death
By Nnedi Okorafor
DAW, 387 pp., hardcover, $24.95, June 2010
Reviewed by Jason Erik Lundberg
[Disclaimer: I consider Nnedi Okorafor a friend. Though we have never met in person, our online friendship is one I value most. Our daughters both have the same given name, albeit for different reasons, because Nnedi convinced me how awesome a name it is. I have two cardinal rules as a reviewer: 1) I don’t review books that I don’t like; why waste the time and energy? and 2) I no longer review books by friends; in the past, this practice has presented a conflict of interest and could taint an otherwise sound book review. However, in the case of Who Fears Death, I am more than happy to break Rule #2, as the novel in question is perhaps one of the best and most important books of the year; naturally, your mileage may vary.]
Nnedi Okorafor has made a name for herself writing award-winning young adult novels that vividly explore African characters in magical locales. Who Fears Death is Okorafor’s first foray into adult fiction, and while it continues her exploration of the personal effects that powerful magic can have on the lives of her protagonists, it also adds heightened social commentary and life-and-death stakes which infuse the narrative with compelling suspense. Once picked up, Who Fears Death is very difficult to put down.
Onyesonwu, whose name literally means “Who Fears Death?” is our protagonist; she lives in an unnamed post-apocalyptic African country where magic (or juju) is possible, albeit feared by most people. She is an Ewu, a child of rape, and the victim of a policy of humiliation and familial destruction by the ruling Nuru upon the minority Okeke. As such, she is an outcast to both ethnicities, marked by the very color of her skin. But as Onyesonwu grows up, she discovers a natural affinity for magical forces that she is keen to control. Able to call owls to her with a song, or to transform into a vulture and take flight, Onyesonwu is unnerved by her magical abilities while at the same time reveling in them.
After living as nomads in the desert during Onyesonwu’s childhood, she and her mother settle down in a small town called Jwahir that is populated by Okeke people. It is not an easy life, as Onyesonwu’s presence is an everyday reminder of the oppression and cruelty of the Nuru rulers, who have not yet paid a visit to Jwahir, but could at any time. She lives an isolating life, befriending a local blacksmith who later becomes her stepfather, a man who seems to be the only one in the town willing to look past her skin color. However, it is not until she meets Mwita, another Ewu, that she feels a true connection with another human being; it is also through Mwita that Onyesonwu begins to understand and control the juju that flows in her veins.
All of this is told to us the readers in the form of a confessional. Onyesonwu narrates her story to an unknown recipient for an unknown reason; we do not know why (at least, not until about halfway through the novel), but we are told that it is vital for her to relay this tale before it is too late. This urgency, and a sense of impending threat, help to propel the story forward, even during the slower sections.
Much has been made of the harsh subject matter that Onyesonwu and her loved ones face throughout the novel. Okorafor does not shy away from weaponized rape, female genital cutting, ethnic genocide, institutionalized racism, and the never-ending cruelty that human beings inflict upon one another. Her keen observations and clean prose render these topics horrific and fascinating at once; the reader is compelled to continue, even through atrocious events. It is as if Okorafor is telling us that though we may be squeamish, we cannot look away, and her telling, through Onyesonwu’s narration, reminds us that these monstrous practices are taking place right now, at this very moment, and have been for years.
But Okorafor introduces ambiguity as well. Onyesonwu’s Okeke mother is raped by Daib, a powerful Nuru sorcerer wishing for a son to rule by his side. The product of this act is Onyesonwu herself, a complex and fully-realized character who grows into a confident and strong young woman, drawing on the wisdom of her mother. Ritual clitoridectomy makes it difficult to impossible for women to experience sexual pleasure through orgasm, yet Onyesonwu willingly goes through the process (here euphemistically referred to as the Eleventh Year Rite) in order to conform to Jwahir’s values, to prevent further dishonor to her mother and stepfather, and to bond with the other three girls going through the ceremony. No clear distinctions between “good” and “bad” here.
But these subjects never overwhelm Okorafor’s true focus: Onyesonwu herself. Though heavy themes prevail, they do not predominate; Who Fears Death is not A Book About Weaponized Rape or A Book About Clitoridectomy or A Book About Ethnic Cleansing. Instead, the reader is always keenly aware of Onyesonwu’s narrative. Her growth through adolescence and young adulthood mirror the increasing power of her abilities and burgeoning relationship with Mwita. The study of Onyesonwu’s character always takes center stage.
And what a character it is. Forced to socially fend for herself, Onyesonwu learns at a young age techniques to defend against prejudice and bullying. It helps that she grows up tall, but she is at heart a survivor, and her inner strength is one of the many things that makes her so compelling. It is also what allows her to begin fine-tuning and controlling her magical gifts, with Mwita’s help; although at one point, Onyesonwu has gone beyond what Mwita can teach her, and he introduces her to his master, Aro, one of Jwahir’s elders and its resident sorcerer. Her apprenticeship to Aro opens her eyes fully to the realm of magic, but at a price (juju always comes with a cost in this novel): to become fully initiated, she must see her own death and experience it along with her future self. Suddenly, the urgency of Onyesonwu’s telling becomes clear.
Onyesonwu also learns that she is a key figure in a prophecy to rewrite the sacred book that governs the lives of many Nuru and Okeke, and to put an end to the genocide. To do this, it becomes evident that she will need to face her biological father, Daib, who is leading the Nuru charge against the Okeke all across the Seven Rivers Kingdom, and who has been a malevolent presence in Onyesonwu’s dreams since her Eleventh Year Rite. She must travel across a hostile landscape in order to reach him, and success is far from certain. Though she is accompanied by Mwita and her rite-sisters (Luyu, Diti, and Binta), the path is treacherous and death a likelihood.
At the beginning of this review, I stated that Who Fears Death is one of the most important books of the year, and much of this has to do with the social issues that Okorafor explores in frank detail. But this also includes the fact that Okorafor does so within an African setting and with African characters, both of which have been greatly under-represented within the field of speculative fiction. More important yet is that these stories come from a talented author with obvious ties to Nigeria; Okorafor’s heritage does not automatically entitle her to mention (her clear and beautiful writing does that all on its own), but it does provide an authentic voice and removes any whiff of exoticism from the narrative. (It should also be stated that the Seven Rivers Kingdom is modeled on Sudan rather than Nigeria.)
I could go on, but further analysis could be detrimental to the process of discovering the book for oneself. (One scene in particular came incredibly close to bringing me to tears of joy, but I prefer to keep that secret.) I hope that this novel will become the catalyst that opens the floodgates of speculative fiction by African writers, and to ensure that these particular voices will be heard in a variety of futures. In Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor has created a challenging and unforgettable tale of discovery, redemption, and inevitability, and a protagonist memorable for both her suffering and her strength. Onyesonwu’s story deserves to be heard and passed on to all those who will listen.