Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
The most powerful thing about this book was that it left me depleted. I was emotionally and mentally depleted after reading this book. Two days I spent enthralled in the story and by the end of it I was completely drained. That is a good thing. Powerful stories demand something of you. You don’t just get to walk into that world and come out the same. A good story should leave its mark on you, make you pay a price for reading it. That’s what this book did to me. It took me in and didn’t let me leave until it was done with me.
There were so many issues that this novel tackled. It deal with colorism, ethnic identity, rape, sexism, religion. And there are some readers out there who’re not able to handle this many issues getting thrown at them at once. They want something simpler to devour. I think that’s the case because often the people saying this don’t understand intersectional identities or even want to grasp the concept of it. Every character in this book is a crossroads of problems and issues. To me, their depth comes from the fact that they’re not just defined by one problem. They have many problems, many societal obstacles to deal. That is part of the richness of this book.
Rape is largely at the center of this story and make no mistake, it is no glorification or justification of it. This tackles it head on, brutally and unapologetically as such a subject should be. The descriptions and violence honestly made me cringe and I’ve never been a victim of such a brutal act. The images contained within this novel are so powerful that I wonder if it would actually trigger something in a rape survivor. I don’t know. I just know that what I read was violent, bloody and held back on no details. And the consequences of rape (side note: how despicable is it that we have consequences for a victim?) are laid out in this book with a harsh, revealing light.
The rape that sort of propels the story forward is the tragic sexual attack on Najeeba. She is a beautiful Okeke (an ethnic group I’ll talk more about later) woman and is seemingly living a simple life. One day her village is attacked by a group of Nuru (the other main ethnic group) and Najeeba is viciously raped. It’s a tough scene to read and I can only imagine it being a tough scene to write. It’s one of those scenes where you have to take a break and get a glass of water after you’re done. I can’t speak for the author, but man this must have been an emotionally draining scene to write just because of how brutal it is. Najeeba’s bastard attacker has the nerve to sing, to damn SING as he’s brutalizing a woman. I don’t know why but that particular detail just raises such anger in me. Najeeba manages to survive her rape, but she is rejected by her cowardly husband so she leaves home.
Now about these ethnic groups. Okeke and Nuru in the simplest of terms are dark-skinned and light-skinned, slave and slave master. The relationship is definitely one based on colorism, but it also has its roots in some of the justification used to enslave Africans in America. In this post-apocalyptic world there is The Great Book, the religious text that everyone draws their social mores from. In this book, it is basically outlined that Okeke are shameful and deserve to be slaves of the Nuru. Sound familiar? The same kind of justification was used by whites to enslave blacks when they referred to us as descendants of Cain, the first murderer. Religion was used to enslave it and it is used in this story to enslave the Okeke. This book is used to justify the mistreatment, rape and murder of the Okeke people, driving many of them to the East where they live as exiles.
This brings me to the main character, Onyesonwu, the daughter of Najeeba. She is neither Okeke nor Nuru. Because of her mixed blood and the circumstances of her birth she is called an Ewu. It is believed that the child of a violent rape is doomed to live a life of violence themselves. I think this is a statement on the danger of eugenics because how many articles are we starting to see pop up now that are trying to link personality traits and behavior to genetics? It’s a slippery slope and if we’re not careful we could be making our own Ewus in society.
So you can’t help but to feel bad for Onyesonwu. She’s getting it from all angles. Of course she deals with ridicule as being the child of a rape and all the stereotypes that come with that. Internally, she’s dealing with issues of wondering if she’s anything like her Father. She has to deal with being thought of as romantically unattractive and as just lest aesthetically pleasing to the Okeke people she lives amongst. To top it all off, she’s a strong-willed woman living in a society where women are regarded as less than. I think the deeper part of all of it, is that her very existence serves as a reminder of the violence and torture that the Eastern Okeke have tried to put out their minds. She’s a constant reminder of the brethren they have abandoned. It’s so true that the things we hate are often because they remind us of something ugly in ourselves.
I don’t want to give too much away, but Onyesonwu’s journey reminds me very much of the character of Aaang in some ways. The group of friends she gathers and the journey she embarks really does ultimately change the world she’s operating in. If a love of Airbender isn’t enough to get you to pick up this book it’s a post-apocalyptic African fantasy. Those three words alone should spike your interest. Ultimately, this is a book that tackles powerful topics that are so relevant to today’s world. Like I said, I walked away from this story depleted and I think that’s because even as I was whisked away to another world I was forced to still think about my own.