Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spoiler-Free Book Review: "Who Fears Death?" by Nnedi Okorafor

See my sidebar to the right for the other spoiler-free reviews I've posted on the books I'm reading for my 2014 project: Speculative Fiction by Women of Color. Follow my reading project on Twitter with the hashtag #SpecFicByWomenOfColor

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Trigger warnings for discussions of the book's themes of rape and other brutalities of war.

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"Who Fears Death?" has won so many awards, and been reviewed so many times, I now find myself almost paralyzed with writer's block at trying to do justice to this amazing novel. There are so many different ways to talk about it, so many different themes that tie together, so many different ways of approaching such a complex, complicated work. Since I am a spec fic writer, I'm going to stick to that aspect of the book, and let other elements flit in and out as they need to do.

At some unspecified point in the future, after events only ever alluded to in general terms, an unnamed (until the very end) part of Africa has become a vast dystopian desert. Oceans are things of myth, rivers are unheard of. Water for consumption and bathing is collected with mechanized appliances that pull it out of the air.

And the Okeke people are in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth by the Nuru people.

The people of this place and time, Okeke and Nuru alike, worship a creator goddess called Ani. In The Great Book, it is written that Ani created the dark-skinned Okeke as slaves and turned her back on them; she created the golden-skinned Nurus, people of the sun, as the superior of the Okeke in every way. The Nurus no longer feel it is enough to oppress and humiliate the Okekes; they are now out to obliterate the entire race of Okekes. Part of the Nuru method involves the systematic use of rape of Okeke women in order to create mixed-race Ewu babies. Ewus are feared as strange and violent creatures, inheriting in their natures the very evil that conceived them. They are shunned by Nuru and Okeke alike.

After a particularly brutal rape that literally takes her voice from her, the young woman Najeeba stays out of towns and villages, birthing and raising her daughter alone. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, an Igbo Nigerian word meaning "Who Fears Death?" At six years old, Najeeba moves them to the eastern town of Jwahir and marries a blacksmith. For a while life seems almost normal for little Onye; the people of Jwahir slowly learn to tolerate Onyesonwu, even if they never fully accept the Ewu child.

As with all great heroes, as soon as Onye gets comfortable in her life, things start to get weird. She falls asleep and wakes up in a tree. She goes invisible during a rite of passage ritual. She touches her dead step-father and he moves.

Jwahir's resident sorcerer, Aro, will not take Onye under his wing because she is a woman. Only after Onye nearly kills Aro with her psychic powers does he relent. As she studies and learns to harness and control her vast power, Onye becomes aware -- as heroes do -- that the Nuru massacres and brutality against the Okeke in the west is tied to her own fate, and even to her very conception. Aro, Najeeba, the Jwahir high priestess, even Onye's love interest, are all linked together. Because of this, Onye must endure a terrible initiation into mystic teachings and embark on a quest of destiny.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of the "Child of Destiny" trope -- my own first novel, BLOODSISTERS, is a variation on that -- and with "Who Fears Death?", Nnedi Okorafor delivers a story worthy of the great canon of other CoD stories like "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter." There is even a Jesus-istic element to "WFD?" with Onye knowing she must go forward to her fate in order to save both the Okeke and Nuru peoples, and in accepting her role in this thing that is much bigger than herself.

The entire novel is wonderful and well-written, but where Okorafor really shines is in character development and world building. She manages to paint a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland that is both terrifying in its vastness and harshness, yet also full of life and color and hope. Onyesonwu is a child of the desert, both literally and figuratively, and her love for that land comes through from beginning to end in the book, even when she's shown a vision of lush green landscapes.

"WFD?" contains some of the best relationships I've ever read in fiction. There are so many good connections in the book - between Onye and her mother, between Onye and Aro (who I think should be played by Laurence Fishburne, because The Matrix, and I Tweeted as much) - but the two relationships I enjoyed most were between Onye and Mwita, and between Onye and her initiation "sisters" Binta, Luyu, and Diti.

So rarely do we get to see, even by women writers, real female friendships with their ups and downs, and their changes and growth over many years. When Onye meets Luyu, Binta and Diti, they are eleven years old. It would have been so easy to lump the three of them together, but they are written far from interchangeable. Onye's relationship with each woman is distinct and follows a unique path through the next nine years of their lives. How refreshing to read about a group of female friends that actually reflects real life friendships!

Speaking of realism in fictional relationships, my favorite in the book by far is Onye's with Mwita. As the two Ewus of Jwahir, they are bound by their common status as outcasts and weirdos. Mwita is Aro's original apprentice, yet Onye has naturally superior powers, adding a jealous rivalry between the two. They are passionate with one another and love one another with a Romeo & Juliet kind of fatality. They would die for each other, and do irreparable and outrageous harm to any outsider unlucky enough to cause harm to each other; yet they squabble and bicker and act like sulky, petulant, petty children with each other. They are very real, and I love that about them.

"WFD?" is the kind of book that stays with you when you're not reading it; I hesitate to use the ubiquitous word "haunting," but that's exactly how it feels. Okorafor doesn't shy away from frank and graphic descriptions of the terrible things that happen to the Okeke at the hands of the Nuru, from dismemberment to rape -- and of things the Okeke do to fight back. The book brings up things most of us living comfy lives in the First World don't like to think about: how far removed we are from the awful things happening elsewhere in the world, whether or not our passive witness implicates us in perpetuating these problems, and how much we can reasonably be expected to do about what we know is going on. Should we make a sad face and feel bad? Give money? Send our children off to fight for us? Sacrifice our own lives? What's the "right" thing to do when other human beings are being tortured in the world and we know about it? Can we look the other way? What if there's *nothing* we can do?

These are tough questions, ones I have not stopped thinking about since picking up "WFD?" a few weeks ago. And that right there is the sign of a well-crafted, well-written, well-told novel: when days, weeks, months, years pass, and I'll *still* be thinking about Onyesonwu and her destiny.

There is so much more I could have said about this book, but this review is already quite long. Perhaps at some point I'll do a Part 2, and discuss the Red People (my favorite part of the book) and other themes the book tackles. For right now, I'll end here and ask: Has anyone else read "Who Fears Death?" What did you think? What's a book that has struck you so deeply that you carry it with you for life?

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a really good book, though I have to admit, it's really hard for me to read things with certain kinds of graphic violence. I could deal with it better through my twenties, now it keeps me up at night, looking anxiously at the ceiling. Nevertheless, it sounds worth it. Books that have struck me. Hm. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blindness by Jose Saramago. I guess the first is magical realism, the second is... sort of speculative fiction?