Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH: A Review

March 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Please note: The article contains discussion of the author’s treatment of rape and female circumcision in the context of a book review. 

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Oneyesonwu was born of rape. A Nuru man, who wanted to impregnate her with a light-skinned baby, raped her mother. Instead of reviling her child as a lifelong reminder of her brutal assault, Onye’s mother speaks her truest wish – for her child to become a sorceress.
Forever labelled as Ewu, the product of rape, Onyesonwu becomes resilient to the prejudice she faces every day. As she grows up, she discovers that her strength also manifests in supernatural abilities. Her mother’s wish has come true – Onye is Eshu, a sorceress.
As a child, Onyesonwu meets another Ewu – a boy named Mwita, who is also a gifted healer. It soon becomes apparent that Onye and Mwita are destined to belong to one another.
Even though she knows her mother and her beloved stepfather love her, Onye feels responsible for the shame they have faced throughout her life, as the parents of a Nuru-Okeke Ewu. When she turns eleven, Onye makes the irreversible decision to go through with the Eleventh Rite, which she knows will bring her family honour and respect. In undertaking this enormous procedure, she is bonded to the three girls of her Eleventh Rite group – Diti, Luyu and Binta, her friends for life.
Despite the abuse she suffers on a daily basis, Onye lives a happy life. She longs to develop her magical abilities, and seeks an apprenticeship under a teacher who might be able to facilitate her learning. Although Aro, the teacher of magic, rejects her at first, Onye’s need for tutelage becomes great when it becomes apparent that her biological father intends to find and kill her.

Nnedi Okorafor was inspired to write Who Fears Death by a Washington Post article entitled “We Want to Make a Light Baby”. This distressing article brings to light the horrifying experiences of dark-skinned Sudanese women who are raped by Arabic men who hope to impregnate them. The victims believe that the rapes are a “systemic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.”
This unimaginable concept forms the basis for Onyesonwu’s story. Fuelled by her rage against the man who raped her mother, Onye is motivated to overcome the societal expectation that she is fated to become nothing more than a violent criminal.

Artist's interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

Artist’s interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

But Who Fears Death is more than a revenge story. In a place where outrage could have dominated, love is ever-present. Okorafor tenderly explores the nature of love in all its forms – romantic, cultural, platonic, familial and sexual. In fact, sexuality is a major focus of the book. It is linked throughout to Onye’s decision to undergo the Eleventh Rite when she comes of age. The Eleventh Rite is, as you might have guessed, is Onye’s circumcision.
I know that other reviewers have been disturbed by the circumcision scene, but have liked the rest of the book – I don’t really understand how they can separate the one scene from the remainder of the book. Onye’s decision to undergo the Rite is integral to the narrative of Who Fears Death. She, Binta, Diti and Luyu spend the rest of their lives together trying to cope with the decision that they made as children. Their circumcision not only affects their relationships with one another, but deeply shapes the way in which they relate to the opposite sex. Each of the four girls comes to bitterly regret the decision they made at age eleven, but they also respect the ritual and its cultural significance. Their struggle to overcome the expectations of the Okeke culture in order to do the right thing for themselves as individuals makes for an emotionally difficult read, but Okorafor handles this with poise and sensitivity.

Who Fears Death will not disappoint fans of traditional fantasy. There is a prophecy, a Chosen One, a wise old elder who begrudgingly passes his magical skills on to the younger generation, a young magic user whose powers are not wholly within her control, and a quest for revenge that has the potential to destroy our hero. There’s a Scooby Gang of sorts, hellbent on following our hero to the very end, and a love to transcend the ages.

The post-apocalyptic African setting brings us to a new world, where traditional culture has merged with the harsh necessities of life in the post-nuclear desert. And our hero is, in fact, a heroine – Onye is the indisputable centre of this novel. Her life force and her magic are the centre of the storm that she wends throughout the Okeke and Nuru societies. Onye is brave, irrational, frustrating, loving and beloved. She’s unforgettably powerful, in every sense, and she’s stronger than I can summarise in any text less than the length of the novel itself. Onyesonwu – Who Fears Death? Not she.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

I can’t recommend Who Fears Death to everyone. It comes with a trigger warning for rape and FGM, even if it is exceptionally well handled. It’s a very emotional read, and although there’s a lot of love to the story, there isn’t as much happiness as traditional fantasy readers may expect. But it is as moving as it is original, and I’m pretty certain that it’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

As ever, I implore my Brisbane-based readers to make the trip to Central Station to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to grab a copy of Who Fears Death. Add Pulp on Facebook here, and check out their Twitter here. Also, I have Twitter too! Check out The Novelettes on Twitter here.

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