Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Okorafor, Nnedi
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Publisher / Year: Daw / 2010
Source: Amazon Kindle Store
Why I Read It: Okorafor has been on my authors to read pile for quite a while. I picked this up at the same time as I picked up Akata Witch.
Date Read: 02/05/11
Onyesonwu, the narrator of this story, is telling us her story of growing up and what has come to pass. The story begins with her telling of her Papa’s death and then she goes back to explain the weird power that she has and what has happened to her through her life that has led to the present. In a few places the story is interrupted with a current one-sided conversation she is having someone and from this we understand that she is telling her story to some unnamed person for them to record. Onyesonwu was named such by her mother specifically as the name means ‘who fears death’, and that is where this book gets its title.
I feel like I would need a full semester or more in a class with a lot of other smart people to discuss everything in this book, and that I could write innumerable essays on the various topics explored through the novel. Instead I have to be content with a (hopefully not too long) review and hope that I can convince others to read this to discuss it with me!
The story of Onyesonwu’s conception and what happened to her mother Najeeba was quite disturbing. Basically the book tells the story of two tribes who were forever at war – one (Okeke) was always to be slave to the other (Nuru). The Nuru often raped and killed entire villages, and Najeeba (the main characters mother) was impregnated during such an attack. Because she was raped she was shunned by her husband and had to live alone in the desert. Her daughter, as all children of such rapes, was born looking different and is called ewu. They face harsh discrimination and violence because of this.
Also a large part of the book refers to traditional ceremonies such as female circumcision – more commonly referred to as female genital cutting or mutilation. Onyesonwu’s mother came from a village where it wasn’t performed anymore. In Jwahir, the town where they live with her stepfather, all eleven year-old girls go through it, but voluntarily. She decides to go through with it so as not to bring shame upon her family and so that she can fit in. It was interesting that it was pointed out that no one remembered why it was done but that it was still so respected, just as currently. What was angering to me was the additional fact that comes about later in the book that apparently a woman will feel extreme pain when aroused until married after the rite, through witchcraft that is involved, because clearly the woman has to control the man’s sexual urges.
These things and others highlight the sexism of many customs (such as the husbands honor for some reason being more important than the wife who was brutally attacked). Shame seemed to be a huge trend through the book both with the racism and the rituals, and the shame was always something that hurt women. The shame could come from the attacks and being raped, from being the child of a Nuru – Okeke union (whether a rape or a union of love) and thus being ewu, from not being cut, and so on. In each case the shame was used as a way to control the women and keep them in line. This was highlighted in the extreme when it comes about that Aro won’t apprentice Onyesonwu because he is scared of her, and when she and her partner have to continually struggle because he can’t handle that she is more powerful than he is. The gender roles and stereotypes are constantly being brought up and examined and flipped on their heads.
One other really interesting aspect in the novel was the town of Ssolu and the Red People. This was almost, in a way, portrayed as a utopia of sorts. Their society was protected inside a huge sandstorm which was kept up by juju, and within this they had quite free rein to live as they wanted to. They had very different ideas on sexuality and the raising of children.
Through both the Okeke / Nuru relations as well as how Onyesonwu is treated as ewu we see racism affect the characters in a variety of ways. Nothing is ever shown as black or white and the gray areas are constantly being explored. Though the Nuru are in effect performing a genocide against the Okeke, Mwiti is also able to point out that some of the Okeke are also brutalizing the Nuru people in other cases and that in war both sides can commit atrocities. It is always pointed out that each person makes their own decisions to act or not act, to respond or not respond, and to hide from what is going on or to become a part of the solution.
Definitely a book that I would highly recommend to all. Even if you don’t read fantasy / science-fiction, the book explores so many important and interesting issues in such a great way. Through her writing Okorafor makes her readers think about things like culture, religion, authenticity, race, gender, sexuality, justice, retribution, anger, and more.