Even though it doesn’t feel like it for me, I can see quantitatively that I’ve read a lot in 2016. There have been years of more intense reading, I’ve felt. But despite all the books I’ve read, there have only been a few that really energized me, made me think “Yes, this is what I’ve been looking for!” Perhaps The Summer of Chasing Mermaids did that for me because you know how I love remixed fairytales and mystic things in general. But Who Fears Death, oh man! Reading it was like ingesting an extra-strong dose of a drug after you’ve been desensitized to the dose you usually take. You finally get that kick again!
Since I read my first Nnedi Okorafor book five or so years ago, I have been awestruck, thinking she is (nearly literally) working magic within the publishing industry. I did not know that African sci-fi was a thing until I read her. The first thing of hers I read was probably Akata Witch, and when I was done, I thought, “I have never read anything like this before.” This is how I feel about Who Fears Death. I have never read anything like it before. It’s also the first novel of hers I’ve read that isn’t explicitly a children’s book. But categorization is a weird thing (and so perhaps we should avoid it when we can, but I don’t know) and so I can’t exactly say which age group it was written for or whether it matters at all.
The title of this book, by the way, is the meaning of the name “Onyesonwu”, which is now one of my favorite names in the world.
There is a whole lot about this book that revolves around carnal and biological things, but this wasn’t a deterrent for me; it added to the appeal. What I’m used to is seeing issues like sexism, genital mutilation, cultural and religious norms of gender, intercourse et cetera woven into a narrative; I’m not used to it actually being the narrative. There are stories that include these themes, which could still be told without the themes included. This isn’t one of those stories. If you take a part of it out, you’ve destroyed the story.
Admittedly, most people might not be as smitten as I am by the book just because of the differences in our background and preferences as readers. Perhaps the effective blurring of setting such that the era seems archaic, modern and undecipherable all at once will not impress people. Perhaps the merging of known culture and gap-filler imagination will not impress people. Perhaps others have not been as starved as I have been to read a story as hybrid as this one because they don’t come from a similar world.
I suppose one of the reasons I relate so strongly to the book’s hybridity is because that is what I am and also what I aspire to create. If you have the identity complex of an African raised in Africa in a Western setting or something as confusing as that, you might understand. If nearly every story is either too traditionally monotonous or too Westernized for you to relate to, then you may understand why this book ignited me.
Onyesonwu is such a brilliant, brilliant character. So is Mwita. I don’t understand why people complain about them in their reviews. Of course, they’re annoying. Which human being is not annoying? If you were looking for fairytale perfection, you picked up the wrong book. Their relationship was complex, sometimes impossible to understand, and both of them made ridiculously stupid moves almost incessantly. But you can’t lie and tell me that real life relationships aren’t complex beyond belief.
I like how Nnedi can show elements of real life through fiction but never tell you that it’s a representative for something you’re familiar with, even if it’s obvious. I like how sassy and independent a lot of her characters are. I like how she doesn’t exempt anyone from the flaws of the human condition. I like how she manages to be spiritual without necessarily being religious. I like how her narrative is a mirror to reflect upon ourselves and over our society. And perhaps best of all, I like how she assets here authoritative god power in making and ending a story how she wants to.
Maybe I should explain the last point. Although I may be entirely wrong, I saw lots of evidence to make me assume that I was seeing the Jesus story being retold. If this was her intention, then everything deliberately bent about it was intentional too.
- A man prophesied to save the world? Bent to woman.
- Born out of divine orchestration? Bent to born out of rape.
- Sexually holy until death? Bent to sexually active until death.
- John the Baptist going before the hero to tell of the hero’s coming? Bent to hero’s abandoned mother going forth anonymously to spread the story of forthcoming liberation through her daughter.
- Destined to die as a sacrifice for the cause? Bent to destined to die, but exerts power to re-write the story. (I like this because it’s very lexivist! 😀 )
I think while I was reading it, I found a lot of theological conflict in the story – but this was based on knowledge of the real world and not entirely in the story’s world. Even so, there were parts of the fictional world’s theology that I found logically lacking. The problem is that, I didn’t write them down where I found them and now I can’t remember what or where they are. One day, I’ll read this book again and place particular emphasis on finding those and starting a discussion on them. But until then, READ THIS BOOK, OMG IT’S LIT!