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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The protagonist of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu, is an Ewu – a child of rape whose sand-coloured skin and eyes unmistakably mark her as an outsider. The Ewu are the sons and daughters of mixed Okeke and Nuru couples; because the two tribes are involved in a brutal civil war, sexual contact between different tribe members is mostly (though not always, as we later find out) the result of rape. Additionally, these rapes are politically motivated – the Nuru soldiers deliberately impregnate Okeke women in an effort to wipe out the tribe and sow discontent.

Legend has it that the Ewu are an embodiment of anger – they’re supposedly violent individuals whose mere existence is a threat. Onye is indeed angry, and I loved that this was validated; however, we come to realise that the main threat she poses to the Okeke town where she grows up is that she’s a constant reminder of the Nuru’s planned genocide, of their use of rape as a weapon, and of the horrific things happening in the West. Set in a post-apocalyptic version of modern Sudan, Who Fears Death follows Onyesonwu as she finds out the truth about her conception, as she develops her magical powers, and as she eventually goes on a quest to confront her biological father, who is not only a violent Nuru general but also a powerful wizard determined to kill her.

First of all, I wanted to say I completely agree with what Jodie said in her review here at Lady Business regarding the novel’s female focus and the way it highlights the ties between Onye and the three girls who undergo the Eleventh Rite (a coming of age ritual involving FGM) with her. It might be tempting to dismiss this kind of emphasis on women’s relationships as unimpressive surface level feminism, but although I do want my feminist novels to do much more (which, in case you’re wondering, this one certainly does), I also don’t think we have enough speculative fiction focused on women of colour doing this one very basic thing to be able to take it for granted. Placing complex and intense emotional ties between a group of girls at the centre of the story shouldn’t be groundbreaking in our day and age, but the fact remains that it actually is. I really appreciate that Okorafor made Onye’s relationship with her three best friends every bit as interesting, complex and meaningful as her romance with Mwita.

I also appreciate the fact that this framing of the Eleventh Rite as a moment where an intense bond between the four girls is forged doesn’t come at the expense of a serious critique of female genital mutilation itself. Equally interesting was the novel’s exploration of why Onye chooses to take part in the Rite against her family’s advice. She’s motivated by a deep awareness of her own otherness, by her fear that being Ewu has already brought her family all the shame they could possibly handle, and by a belief that going through FGM like every other Okeke girl will help her finally belong to the Okeke community. What is striking is that even at the young age of eleven Onye is already considerably assertive and not really one to quietly accept being treated like a second-class citizen due to her gender or race. And yet she gives in and embraces a misogynistic ritual for emotional reasons – because she wants to belong, because she wants to spare her family pain.

None of this weakens Onye in my eyes – on the contrary, it only makes her more complex and ultimately more human. Furthermore, it draws attention to the fact that change needs to be social and systematic rather than exclusively fuelled by individual acts of resistance and rebellion. Despite the strength of her convictions, Onye still goes ahead with something she comes to regret because she doesn’t want to be alone or hurt those she loves. Every day in the world, millions of human beings do the exact same thing, and this is part of why social change is often so difficult. Not all of us can bear to stand alone and challenge our communities in every aspect at all times. We need someone to hold our hand as we battle the social forces in our heads forcing us into moulds where we know we don’t really fit – and this need doesn’t make us weak. Onye eventually finds a support network of this kind, and it’s significant that when she goes off on her quest, she doesn’t go alone.

This brings me to why the first section of Who Fears Death was my favourite – I loved the description of Onye’s gradual self-acceptance; of what it was like to be an Ewu girl growing up in a Okeke town; of her efforts to be taken seriously as a sorceress despite the sexism that caused the most powerful wizard in town to refuse to train her. This section of the novel is very overtly political, and it highlights the fact that there are deeply embedded cultural and social forces at work behind Onye’s marginalisation.

Unfortunately, I felt that the quest structure of the second half didn’t always leave room for this sociopolitical focus to continue to take the centre stage. The emphasis of the story begins to shift from the moment when Onye identifies her biological father as a villain devoid of shades of grey; as the one enemy to be defeated. I’ve been thinking about this since I finished the novel and I remain unsure of whether or not the narrative as a whole frames this new focus on a single enemy as an oversimplication of the real causes of war and genocide. I’ll need to talk about the ending in explicit detail to continue to explore these ideas, so be warned that there will be spoilers from this point onwards.

As I said, I’m of two minds about the ending, especially when it comes to what it implies about the inevitability of violence for the greater good. To be honest, I kept expecting more from the novel when it comes to exploring Oyne’s own relationship with violence (and I will add a caveat here to explain that I don’t see violence as synonymous with anger). And as I was trying to clarify my thoughts on the matter, I came across a very in-depth review at Strange Horizons in which Farah Mendlesohn says the following:
The collateral damage that Onyesonwu inflicts in killing her father is, I suppose, justified by the prevention of the harm he wished to whip up, but all this relies first on the belief, pushed rather hard towards the end, that the genocide to be is the result solely of his actions—and not, as is hinted at elsewhere in the novel, a consequence of social and economic factors embedded in generations of persecution—and second, on a moral formula that holds that it is justifiable to kill in order to prevent a predicted attack, that it is the only way, that if the moment is allowed to pass then the predicted is inevitable. This is the logic of the attack on Nagasaki, and the current American, British et al. “involvement” in Iraq. There is no other way. Onyesonwu leaves every woman in the town pregnant. Technically this is not rape, but it is a violation, and in a culture where mixed race children are loathed and where one purpose of weaponised rape is precisely to destroy a culture through the creation of mixed race children, it is a very precise piece of cultural vengeance.

I share Mendlesohn’s disappointment in the way the social and economic factors highlighted earlier in the novel are brushed aside, and also her distaste for an ideological position that frames violence and collateral damage as always necessary; as unfortunate inevitabilities. However, I’m not sure if this is the only possible reading. Are we supposed to see Oyne’s violent actions as righteous? Over at The Zone, Jonathan McCalmont suggests this:
Having built the civil war up as a Lord Of The Rings-style battle between good and evil, Okorafor uses the third part of the book to pull the rug out from beneath her characters. Far from being a dark lord-style villain, Onyesonwu’s father Daib reveals himself to be little more than trumped up military dictator who clings to power through rash promises and rhetorical visions of racial vengeance and redemption. Furthermore, when Onyesonwu finally defeats the dark lord and liberates the Okeke, there is little sense that the world has been in any way saved.

Indeed, Onyesonwu’s destruction of the Nuru capital not only results in the death of thousands of soldiers and civilians but also the non-consensual impregnation of most of the female Nuru population - in other words, Onyesonwu brings death and rape to the world just like her father did... it is just that she brings it to the other side. The absolute moral relativism of this ending reveals much of the book’s talk of prophecy to be little more than political rhetoric. Things do not change because they are destined to do so by some great mystical plan, they change because that is what things do. There is no magical truth in the world; there is only the relentless dehumanising churn of politics and power.

Who Fears Death does not just deconstruct the traditional fantasy-quest narrative, it is also a satire of our tendency to self-mythologise to the point of engaging in magical thinking. Like Beauvois’ monks, Onyesonwu and her friends cloak themselves in mysticism and superstition in order to protect themselves from the chill of the absurd. Looking into the world and finding no meaning, no place and no sense, they leap into the jaws of vast and ungainly semiotic systems; systems that interweave prophecy with psychology, subjectivity with objectivity, and fact with myth; systems that give life meaning.

This is a very interesting reading, but McCalmont goes on to add that the novel’s epilogue ultimately undermines it. At this point I’d recommend that those of you still with me click over to The Zone and read the questions the review poses about the implications of the ending. Although I disagree with McCalmont’s conclusion that Who Fears Death is a hollow piece of writing, I think these questions are all worth considering. I don’t have answers for most of them, but personally I keep coming back to the final two paragraphs of Who Fears Death:
If Onyesonwu had taken one last look below, to the south, with her keen Kponyungo eyes she’d have seen Nuru, Okeke, and two Ewu children in school uniforms playing in a schoolyard. To the east, stretching into the distance, she’d have seen black paved roads populated by men and women, Okeke and Nuru, riding scooters and carts pulled by camels. In downtown Durfa, she’d have spotted a flying woman discreetly meeting up with a flying man on the roof of the tallest building.
But the wave of change was yet to sweep directly below. There, thousands of Nuru still waited for Onyesonwu, all of them screaming, yelling, shouting, laughing, glaring… waiting to wet their tongues with Onyesonwu’s blood. Let them wait. They will be waiting for a long long time.

I think it’s possible to read this passage as an acknowledgement that change will come slowly and will have to be the result of a sustained effort – but does it still suggest that a sweeping violent act has to be the starting point for change? In any case, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Who Fears Death leaves us grasping with political and ideological questions that are so relevant to our world. I didn’t always get along with Okorafor’s novel, but I’m glad to have read it and will be thinking about it for a long time to come.

They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, Amy Reads, Page 247, Fizzy Thoughts, Rat's Reading


ME/THIS POST FOREVER. Ana stares in horror.

Date: 2012-06-27 06:59 pm (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay

two guys making out on top of another horrified guy

Also, sorry.

Date: 2012-06-27 07:45 pm (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
That this is the first comment (sort of sorry). I will ACTUALLY READ THE POST, I promise.

Date: 2012-06-28 07:55 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
I deliberately skipped the spoilers, because I am excited to read this! I read a lot about this book some months ago in the the context of people flailing about the FGM and how dare this book use it, but I didn't know the details. According to your paragraph about it, the book uses it in the exact opposite way I expected (I assumed it was refused or fled from). I don't know why I assumed that! Definitely a different story under those circumstances.

Will no doubt return after I have read to consume your spoilers! :D

Date: 2012-07-01 05:19 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
I just had tons of emotions about seeing a post from you here! IT WAS GLORIOUS.

I will wait patiently for said book. Probably by the it gets here I will have finished the book by a dude (I'm coming up on it; please see this list if you ever feel terrible about the amount you read) and have a slot open. :D


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