First Impressions: Who Fears Death

These are my first impressions after reading Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010) in March 2016. Many spoilers.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookOnyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother’s and father’s people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain–some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu’s mother’s people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race–perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?–and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu’s mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father’s attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Sidenote from Wikipedia: The novel was inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax: “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone–rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu’s story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero’s journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn’t show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu’s anger–women’s anger–often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world–except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding.

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