By Katy Goodwin-Bates
The first chapter of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is about a death. The third focuses on a brutal rape. The fourth chapter features a graphic description of a group of girls undergoing ritualised female genital mutilation. For what is billed as a YA fantasy novel, Who Fears Death covers some incredibly tough, realistic topics and Okorafor makes no moves to spare her reader’s feelings in her honest, searing depiction of these events. It’s worth knowing this going into Who Fears Death; the blurb makes it quite clear that Divergent this is not, but the scale of the graphic violence is deliberately shocking at times.
Who Fears Death has a complex and multi-layered plot, but one which centers on a single character. Onyesonwu is an outcast, rejected by her society as Ewu–a child of rape. Her pale skin marks her out as different from both the dark-skinned Okeke people amongst whom she lives and the aggressive, lighter-skinned Nuru, who use rape as a means of creating not only fear, but also for producing children who will suffer Onyesonwu’s fate. The narrative tells us early on that, “These Nuru had planted a poison. An Okeke woman who gave birth to an Ewu child was bound to the Nuru through her child. The Nuru sought to destroy Okeke families at the very root.” Through this early use of rape as a weapon of war, Okorafor creates clear parallels between the dystopian world of Who Fears Death and the disturbing reality of conflict the world over.
Planting the seeds of feminist thought early on, Okorafor shapes an overtly politicized narrative which weaves its way through every aspect of the novel. FGM remains a hugely controversial issue, and is not one I’ve seen featured in fiction before. Onyesonwu voluntarily undergoes the Eleventh Year Rite in the hope that it will make her adopted father proud, perhaps even engendering greater acceptance of her in the community. In subjecting herself to this intimate and tortuous act, Onyesonwu seems to be submitting to the patriarchal authority in the most extreme way, but, just a few chapters later, as she begins to comprehend the unique powers her Ewu status has granted her, Onye is able to heal herself, reclaiming agency over her own sexuality, which is a key theme of the novel. The Eleventh Year Rite is conducted using an implement which has been bewitched with a “juju” that means a woman will experience intense pain if she engages in sexual intercourse outside of marriage: another clear indicator of Okorafor’s indictment of outmoded societal attitudes. As Onye embarks on a perilous and lengthy journey across the desert to confront her biological father and end his reign of violence, she is joined by the three friends with whom she endured the Rite, demonstrating the strength of bonds forged in adversity; these friendships are never sentimentalized, and each of the girls shows bravery and resolve that would inspire any reader, especially the young adult audience for whom this is intended.
I am thrilled to read something which so explicitly–in all senses of the word–opens up a dialogue about the treatment of women. both in the specific African settings of the novel, but also throughout the world; there are, however, aspects which concern me. Unfortunately, these plot ideas occur in the novel’s final chapters, and so to discuss them at length here would be to give far too much away, but I hope I can find a fellow reader with whom to debate the extent to which Who Fears Death‘s conclusion plays into the hands of those who deride feminism as a man-hating agenda. It is, however, truly refreshing to read a book that makes me have these arguments with myself.
According to my mother, all things are fixed. To her there was a reason for everything from the massacres in the West to the love she found in the East. But the mind behind all things, I call it Fate, is harsh and cold. It’s so logical that no one could call him or herself a better person if he or she bowed down to it. Fate is fixed like brittle crystal in the dark.
Coming almost solely from the perspective of angry, ostracized Onyesonwu, the language of Who Fears Death is abrupt and defensive; the above passage, in fact, is probably one of the most linguistically elaborate in the whole novel. This apparent simplicity of style is effective in creating a sense of realism, mirroring that seen in novels like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The lack of embellishment reflects the absence of sentiment, drawing more objective attention to the struggles of the characters. Onye is not always an easy narrator to follow; as she learns more of her origins and the powers she possesses, drifting in and out of reality, it becomes more difficult to discern the “truth” in what she says, but she is never a less than compelling narrator. Taking the trope of the Strong Female Protagonist to new levels, Okorafor gives her readers a morally equivocal character to admire or abhor as we please; Onye would be unconcerned either way.
Genre-wise, Who Fears Death is an interesting proposition. It certainly shows characteristics of dystopia (downtrodden society dominated by violent sociopaths; teens left to fight the system to save humanity), but its seemingly realistic setting is complicated by the emergence of the aspects of magical realism, from Onye’s shape-shifting abilities to the spirits, incantations, and prophecies which abound. Had I not read the blurb, I think I would have been unaware of the novel’s post-apocalyptic setting until very near the end, which, while not necessarily a problem, does seem a little odd.
Interestingly, Okorafor seems to resist giving Who Fears Death a specific, real-life, geographical location until the very end of the novel, suggesting that the issues addressed are not to be limited to one section of the continent (I looked up the locations as I read, so I hope this assumption is not based on ignorance on my part). It’s undoubtedly an incredible powerful novel in its reflection of real-world political flashpoints and, while the fantasy elements did not always convince me, I found it an invigorating, fascinating, and challenging read.
Who Fears Death? will be available soon at GPL.