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Nnedi Okorafor’s first novel marketed for adults ‘Who Fears Death’ is a post-apocalyptic novel, but it’s concerned more with magic than with technology. The names of characters like Mwita and places like Jwahir signal that the setting is influenced by African influences (it’s later revealed that the action takes place in a dystopian version of Sudan). The book’s narrator Onyesonwu expresses pro-female views and the novel is concerned with political subjects that directly relate to the real world. Even taking into account the growing diversity of the fantasy genre, ‘Who Fears Death’ is unusual for a fantasy novel. As an avid fantasy reader, I feel it is as an incredibly original, inventive novel.

Onyesonwu was born in the desert and brought to live in Jwahir by her mother when she was very young. Her mother is black skinned and looks like the majority of the other Okeke people who live in Jwahir, but Onyesonwu is lighter skinned with eyes and other features that mark her out as different. Her mother married the master blacksmith in Jwahir soon after arriving in the city and he embraces Onyesonwu as his own. They live together, as a contented family for years.

Her mother would never tell Onyesonwu anything about her biological father and she comes to convince herself that she is Noah (the child of two Okeke parents, which just happens to be born naturally lighter skinned) like others in Jwahir. She maintains this view of herself, even though other Noah children will not play with her and she is shunned by many of the Okeke. Although she wishes she could make friends with other children in her community, at least she thinks she knows how to think about her own identity. She has a loving family and Onyesonwu forges a life she can make do with. Unfortunately the balance of Onyesonwu’s life is upset when the identity of her biological father is revealed to her, after she begins to manifest odd magical abilities which scare her.

When these powers begin to disrupt her life, Onyesonwu demands an explanation from her mother. She reveals that Onyesonwu is Ewu, the child of a violent rape perpetrated by a light-skinned Nuru man from the ruling class of their world. Okeke people often live in cities like Jwahir, far away from Nuru cities, but whenever Okeke and Nuru people come into contact the Nuru oppress the Okeke. They use the Okeke who live near the Nuru settlements, as slaves and often wage war on the Okeke who live in separate villages. Onyesonwu’s mother was raped in the desert while on a spiritual trip, in the hope that she would conceive a child of mixed race, made to be a Nuru weapon; a person so full of the anger and hatred present at their conception that they can’t control the impulse towards violence and hurt those around them. Despite this Onyesonwu’s mother chose to keep her baby and raise her.

Onyesonwu’s mother’s story of encountering and surviving such brutality is engrossing. This story is presented as a flashback and because the reader is placed into the past through the use of this device they are there, immersed in the details of the scene as Onyesonwu’s mother and other women are attacked in the desert. Then they go with her as she strives to keep herself and her child alive. This allows the reader to connect strongly with Onyesonwu’s mother and Onyesonwu’s, as they are active present at her horrific conception, birth and during her early years.

Kyle Stoor’s review at Bookslut says that ‘Calling this novel complicated is an understatement, and it’s difficult to summarize the plot in a clean, neat way that will pique a reader’s interest and still make sense, but that’s part of its beauty.’ I’m going to take that as a pass to cut out all this ‘describing the plot in a linear manner’ shit and go straight to bullet points about the five things I enjoyed the most about ‘Who Fears Death’:

1.) Onyesonwu is bonded to a group of girls when she decides to take part in a female circumcision ceremony. The ceremony is a brutal act, which the girls aren’t forced to attend, but all come to for different negative cultural reasons. They all come to regret being circumcised later, for all the reasons that real life women find circumcision negative. The one good thing that comes out of this episode is that the girls form a connection which ties them together in a supportive gang for a long time. The relationships between the girls develop (both positively and negatively) over the course of the years and are so interesting to follow. It’s fantastic to see the personal relationships between any young girls given so much emphasis in a text, but the relationships in this novel are also individually intriguing because of the particular personalities of each character and the way they react to each other.

2.) Even though I found the insta-love between Onyesonwu and her soul mate Mwita unbelievable and rather off putting, I thought the way their relationship grew over the course of the book and their strength of feeling for each other was lovely. Mwita, despite his male envy of her magical powers (which I will talk more about later) he is largely supportive and a good guy, a character I felt Onyesonwu was safe, loving.

3.) The system of magic in this novel is unlike any I’ve seen before. It’s quite mystical and I’m not usually a big fan of mystical magic. It often seems a bit hand-wavy and drippy, but I found that Onyesonwu’s magic was full of power and the origins of it, as well as the way it worked were often well explained.

4.) My favourite part of the whole book is when Onyesonwu and her friends take off into the desert, because they’ve heard about the growing amount of atrocities committed by the Nuru and want to do something, but aren’t sure what. They meet a tribe called The Red People who live in a city that is surrounded by a field of wind and travels through the desert. That’s pretty cool and I just thought it was an especially interesting period of the book, where the characters developed and their relationships changed.

5.) Its a political and feminist novel! Onyesonwu’s life is influenced by her status as a woman and her society’s views on womanhood. The man who can teach her to control her magical powers refuses to teach her at first because she is a woman. Mwita becomes angry because he failed to be accepted by this master, but Onyesonwu is eventually accepted and that threatens his masculinity. Onyesonwu address his sexism directly through set piece conversations. I’ve mentioned above about the inclusion of the circumcision ceremony, which allows Okorafor to comment on this real life tragedy, through the medium of her fantasy novel. And Onyesonwu’s, mother’s rape is another example of Okorafor’s attempts to reflect the negative effects of racial oppression on women. Novels that engage with feminism, for the win.

Although all this invention, originality, female focus and character creation is great, I have to say it’s undermined to a certain extent by the writing style of ‘Who Fears Death’, which contains some serious snarls. While I disagree with Mayowe at ‘Pens With Cajones’ that ‘most of the prose is awful,’ I agree with his idea that, ‘Very little is shown, everything is told and even when something is shown, it is still told.’. As he says the pacing is off technically in some places, although I have to say part of that messed up pacing is the length of the section where the group wanders in the desert and I wouldn’t have that section any shorter, even though cutting it back and extending other sections could have allowed the novel to feel more evenly paced. He also mentions having a problems with the constant use of the word ‘intercourse’ to mean sex, which may seem like a small detail, but it becomes hugely annoying as the book goes on. The use of ‘intercourse’ feels too formal and stiff, especially coming from teenage characters like Onyesonwu and her friends. And, it’s just used so often, that the reader is tweaked out of the story by the unnatural and purposeless repeated word use.

To me, Okorafor seems to be trying to mix an older, formal style of dialogue with more modern, casual forms of speech in ‘Who Fears Death’ to create a way of special form of speech, distinct to her fantasy world. If that’s what she intends to do, then mixing formal and casual phrases kind of makes sense for this novel. The characters are living in a post-apocalyptic society and the reader assumes a previous society that might seem more modern compared with our world, has been destroyed. Racial opinion is now controlled by an ancient religious text. Old, battered, hand held computers continue to co-exist with magic, but no new technology appears to be generated. The mixture of old and modern language feels logical in the context of a world that is still aware of technology and modern society, but is ruled by mysticism and Old Testament sounding religious ideas.

As logical as it seems to use a speech style which mixes the formal ‘intercourse’ with more relaxed forms of speech in this context, I don’t think Okorafor has developed the aesthetic of this linguistic style far enough to make it sound real, or natural. It’s hard to judge; this style of speech would sound odd to me, because I’m not used to it, because it’s from a different world. However, I think (kind of arrogantly I guess) I can tell the difference between odd, unusual and at times hard to parse language that is meant to deliberately separate the real world from a new, distinct fictional one (like the language used in Clockwork Orange) and a failed attempt at creating such a system of fictional diction, even though I can’t properly explain how I distinguish between them. I’d love it if linguist specialists would pile on and enlighten me if possible.

‘Who Fears Death’ is not perfect, but it is inventive and exciting. I want to try more Okorafor to see if this stilted element of her writing style is just a one off thing, limited to ‘Who Fears Death’, so I’ll try maybe one of her young adult titles next. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Other Reviews

Bookslut
Pens With Cojones
Amy Reads

Date: 2012-05-23 05:17 pm (UTC)
kingrat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kingrat
I prefer her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, over The Shadow Speaker. I haven't yet read Akata Witch.

Date: 2012-05-24 04:51 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I've had similar experiences with feeling that the way an author was using language to evoke a sense of strangeness was not quite working, and yet not being able to articulate why. When I think of some of my favourite examples of novels that embed wordbuilding into an unusual use of language (Chime of Tender Morsels), I also can't quite pinpoint why I feel they're so successful. I guess the way language is used in these novels feels completely natural even though it's outside the boundaries of standard English and occasionally jolting - it has rhythm and musicality, and even in its strangeness it just generally sounds right. Sadly I can't articulate it any better than that.

Anyway, this sounds like a fantastic novel ideas-wise - thank you so much for sending me your copy. I'm hoping to finally read it next month, and then I'll send it to Renay and our book circle will be complete at last :D

Date: 2012-05-24 04:52 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Er, Chime *OR :P

Date: 2012-05-27 10:21 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I actually do have a bit of a background in linguistics - the equivalent to a minor (I took way more linguistics classes than I was required to as an English major, even ones that gave me no credits, because I am a gigantic geek and this is my idea of fun :P) plus a year of work experience as a research assistant. The focus of the research project I was involved in was phonetics (I'm co-author of the article "The acquisition of English vowels by Mandarin ESL learners" :P), but I was part of a research team that did a little bit of everything and I learned a lot about other areas of specialisation.

None of this makes me a real expert, of course, but from my experience I would guess that the way someone who was one would tackle the problem scientifically would be to ask a large group of people to read hundreds of samples, and then ask them which ones sounded right or wrong. Then they'd try to detect any patterns and come up with a theory to predict whether a given passage would be considered "right" or "wrong" by most readers. The thing is, doing this is a lot more complex than it might sound. For example, linguists still haven't come up with a perfect generative syntax of English (this is defined as "a set of rules capable of generating all utterances a native speaker would consider grammatical while excluding all utterances they'd would consider ungrammatical"). And grammar is relatively simple compared to some of the other things linguistics tackles - figuring out why a certain style is aesthetically pleasing or sounds natural is even more complicated. But yeah, even when linguists successful pinpoint a pattern and come up with a theory that explains it, the gut feeling of the majority of speakers is still their point of departure. Because language is convention, this is what we have to go by. It has a set of rules behind it, of course, but the rules are rules because they're implicitly agreed on.

This isn't to say there aren't linguists out there working on similar issues. For example, stylistics is a discipline that more or less bridges the grap between literary criticism and linguistics. As Wikipedia puts it, "stylistics (...) attempts to establish principles capable of explaining the particular choices made by individuals and social groups in their use of language". But we'd need an in-depth study for every specific problem to be able to find any concrete and reliable answers. Anyway, sorry for rambling :P All this to say that the issue here isn't necessarily our lack of knowledge. It's just that this stuff is haaaard and fuzzy, and even experts are not likely to be able to pinpoint the difference between what sounds right and wrong at a glance.

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