Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most interesting writers working in SFF today, blending fantasy with science fiction and situating her narratives in Africas of the future. She recently won the World Fantasy Award for Who Fears Death – which is awarded in the form of a bust of Lovecraft, notorious racist, anti-Semite and various other flavours of bigot, to which Okorafor responded with beautiful incision.
I read her novels Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker before coming to Who Fears Death, and by now I’ve noticed a narrative trend in her work: a girl or young woman comes into her magical abilities while finding/forging friendships and travelling to a strange land to effect important changes. Her newest novel Akata Witch, not yet out in paperback, appears to have the same basic narrative; I do not know about Long Juju Man.
While I would love to see what Okorafor does with different narratives, I really can’t complain about this one. It’s female, it’s about strength and courage and friendship, it’s about making changes to the world – a black woman making changes to the world. How often do we see that narrative in SFF?
Of the three books I’ve read so far, Who Fears Death accomplishes this narrative most effectively.
Who Fears Death is also the darkest of the three, as Onyesonwu, the eponymous main character, is the child of rape, and she recounts for the reader her mother’s narrative of that rape. Because Okorafor is a) a good person and b) a good writer, it’s violent and gutting and not remotely sexualised. The recounting is done from her mother’s viewpoint, making it entirely her story – one, ultimately, about her survival.
“You don’t fool me, Najeeba. Get up,” Amaka said. The left side of Amaka’s face was blue-purple. Her left eye was swollen shut.
“Why?” Najeeba said in her new voiceless voice.
“Because that’s what we do.” Amaka held out a hand.
Onyesonwu’s mother, Najeeba, eventually gets up, although there is another woman, Teka, who chooses not to. Women respond differently to such violence, after all.
How Najeeba reacts is to walk home, where her husband rejects her, and then into the desert to die. But upon realising the rape has resulted in a pregnancy, she chooses to stay alive, although she spends much of that time away from herself, as Alusi: “the desert spirit who loved to wander off to distant places.” (Later, it is clear her life has opened up further, becoming fuller and happier – but in the immediate aftermath, she is raw with hurt.)
Then she gives birth.
Hours later, the child emerged. Najeeba could have sworn the child was shrieking even before it came out. So angry. From the moment the child was born, Najeeba understood that it would dislike surprises and have little patience. She cut the cord, tied the belly button, and pressed the child to her breast. A girl.
Female anger runs throughout this book, throughout Onyesonwu’s life, and it is that anger and determination and courage that will change the world. Wonderful, strong anger. Do you know how often women are told to calm down in discussions about sexism? Who Fears Death pisses on anyone who says that: anger is held up as a reality, a source of strength, a woman’s tool against the world.
Ultimately this is Onyesonwu’s narrative, not Najeeba’s, and there are many troubles for Onyesonwu to face. Firstly she is Ewu, a child of rape, physically different to her Okeke people because her mother was black – a full-blooded Okeke woman – and the rapist was white – a Nuru man, whose race have been oppressing the Okeke for a long time, according to the dictates of a Great Book which establishes the oppression of Okeke by Nuru as the right way of life. Some Okeke starting to fight back has caused war across the land, which is what led to the rape of Najeeba and the other women of her village. Ewu people are tolerated among the Okeke but they’re not made to feel welcome. It is believed that, as the product of violence, they too will be violent, a perception that Onyesonwu has to grapple with often. In many places, they are treated with more violence. This is a complicated world.
Onyesonwu is also female, and this world is also a sexist one.
In the village that she and Najeeba have settled in, girls undergo circumcision in their 11th year. As Ewu, Onyesonwu is outsider enough – she goes against her mother’s wishes and gets circumcised, and that way becomes friends with the three other girls undergoing the rite at the same time.
The lies they are told about circumcision are painful to read. As a result of the mutilation, arousal causes them pain – but that will stop when they are married, they are told, for it is only a curse to protect them before their marriage.
Training in magic, meanwhile, is for men, so Onyesonwu must fight to be taught.
This day, I’d been a vulture for over half an hour and that sense of power was still with me when I returned to Aro’s hut as myself. … I gnashed my teeth as I walked up to the cactus gate for the second time in my life. As I passed, again one of the cactuses scratched me. Show your worst, I thought. I kept walking.
Anger, wonderful anger.
She literally does fight, in a later encounter, and by physically overpowering Aro (a man) she wins his training, because being polite won’t get her any-fucking-where.
After seeing visions of her biological father and experiencing the full magical initiation, she sets off on a mission: to fight her father and change the situation between Nuru and Okeke. She is joined by Mwita, a young Ewu man who has become her boyfriend, her three friends from the circumcision rite, and the fiancé of one of those young women. They travel across a difficult landscape: the harsh desert, towns where Ewu are considered good for prostitution only and a group of men try to rape Onyesonwu (she, fortunately, is able to unleash a great deal of violent magic and stop them), towns where her friends are attacked for travelling with Ewu, and eventually the Nuru cities. They face death – and some of them find it.
While I enjoyed their journey greatly, I find that Okorafor’s narratives are littered with very meaningful random encounters, and Who Fears Death is no exception once they begin travelling to the Nuru lands. This both works and doesn’t work for me. On the one hand, life itself is very random. On the other hand, there are lot of meaningful random encounters. Of course they meet long-lost relatives of a woman they know. Of course they meet the desert tribe who live in sandstorms. Of course they find a cave of old computers from a time before (implied to be our time – Who Fears Death is set in a magical future Africa). It manages to feel a bit directionless and disjointed even though there is a very concrete direction, and I say that as someone who usually enjoys meandering plots.
It also suffers a little from being so focused on Onyesonwu. Najeeba, we find out, has received magical training in her absence and aids Onyesonwu by casting her spirit-form ahead of Onyesonwu’s journey to alert them to her arrival, acting as a kind of prophet and inciter. This is great – but because it comes out of nowhere to Onyesonwu, it comes out of nowhere to us, too. Again, this is realistic – there is more to the world than just Onyesonwu’s actions – but I would have liked to see a bit beyond Onyesonwu’s viewpoint. This might be veering into the territory of personal preference, though.
However, through it all, the relationships in Who Fears Death develop in very real, complicated ways and this I loved. Onyesonwu’s friends get angry at her and each other, they resent one another, they cause each other hurt. Her friends make unpleasant, unthinking remarks about her Ewu status and sometimes Onyesonwu doesn’t have the energy to call them on it. Mwita is sometimes disgusted at her for being so loud and forceful and tells her to be a quieter person; though he is Ewu too, he has male privilege. Yet at many other times they are wonderfully supportive of one another. It is understandable that Onyesonwu loves Mwita, because most of the time he treats her excellently.
Other things are similarly complex. The day after she is told about her mother’s rape, Onyesonwu goes to the library and finds a book about the Nuru language so she can learn it, although she hides this from her mother because she knows it will make her angry. That feels so like something a real person would do, bewildered by what she has just learnt and unsure how to process the information that by blood she is half-Nuru.
There is yet more I loved about this book, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. It is such a wonderful book, full of strength and struggle and raw truths.
We cried and sobbed and wept and bled tears. But when we were finished, all we could do was continue living.