Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***

I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that the Ada, an empowered and respected woman, was also in charge of overseeing the ‘Eleventh Rite,’ the traditional clitoridectomy girls are expected to go through when they turn 11. From my modern, Western perspective, it makes me wonder if the misogyny and control of women is so ingrained that even women see nothing wrong with performing this procedure. I can see absolutely no purpose for a clitoridectomy other than to control women’s sexuality and prevent her from enjoying sex. To me, this is a purely male point of view and so it confounds me when I read about women, fictional or not, who support and encourage the practice. In this novel, the Ada goes beyond supporting and encouraging this, and has Aro the sorcerer place magic upon the instruments she uses for the procedure so that girls will suffer immense pain if they are sexually aroused before they are married. This whole scenario blurs feminism for me. The young women who undergo the procedure often form close bonds of friendship, so perhaps that is partly why it is performed. Alliances and strong friendship between women is powerful, but I still think they could go through a far less traumatic rite or ceremony to accomplish that. Since I read this for a book club, I am hoping someone will have a different take on it to help me see this from a different perspective. 

Friendship is also a big theme throughout the book. Initially, Onye has no friends, partly because she spent her early years wandering the desert with her mother, and later because she was an outcast because she is Ewu, a light skinned child born of rape. But after the Eleventh Rite, Onye becomes fast friends with Binta, Luyu, and Diti. These young women accompany Onye on her quest to go west and confront the sorcerer who wants her dead and who is at the heart of the genocide of the Okeke people at the hands of the Nuru. However, their friendship generally doesn’t last since half of them abandon her before the end. One, though, stays by her side and gives her life for Onye and another is killed along the way. So were they going to go their own ways eventually no matter what? Was their friendship based purely on their shared experience with FGM? If so, it seems that is not a good reason to carry on with FGM if the bonds forged during it are so easily broken. 

I did kind of feel her relationship with Mwita was more an instance of telling rather than showing that they were actually in love. He is jealous of her magical abilities and that she is the sorceress rather than the healer, which he thinks is backward from the proper order of things. He thinks men should be sorcerers and women should be healers. He often tells her to shut up or that she’s stupid. None of these things are examples of what I consider to be a loving relationship. So how exactly are they in love? Are they confusing lust for love? Onye seems to seek out people who dislike her. She pesters Aro to train her even though he hates her. Even when he relents and accepts her as his student and she manages to surprise him with her skills, I never got the sense that he cared about her or even respected her for those skills. I’m not sure why Onye would want to be taught by someone like that, unless she’s either just a glutton for punishment or stubborn. She IS stubborn but she seems to value herself as well, so I guess I don’t really understand the need she has to be trained by or be in a relationship with men who outwardly hardly seem to care about her. 

I liked the discussion on the importance of language, both written and spoken. Words have power, literally, in the case of the sorcerers in this book. Onye speaks a single word and kills all the men in a village; Mwita speaks a single word and permanently cripples Daib. Onye’s recitation of one of the tales in the Great Book takes on a meaning separate from what it was likely intended to be because of her emphasis on certain aspects, her anger and resentment at the treatment of the woman in the story. I like that a lot of the language used for magic here is something Onye and Mwita seem unable to read, or not with a lot of proficiency. It highlights the strong oral tradition and shows how that is important and culturally relevant. It also makes me think of the ways in which technology is used to transmit language. I know I, for one, have a much worse memory now than I did before I got a smart phone to keep notes for me and keep track of my appointments. If we went back to a more oral, less technological culture, I think the value of memory and spoken words would increase. 

I have no doubt that there is a big commentary on genocide, particularly the Darfur genocide which took place (and continues to take place) in Western Sudan. I feel utterly unequal to the task of really digging into this topic. I am always devastated and disgusted when I hear about such things, whether they are historical or contemporary. I just don’t know what to say about this other than why can’t people just leave each other alone and not be dicks?

Overall, I thought that some of this story was perhaps a little unoriginal in structure, such as the typical going-on-a-quest trope so common in fantasy, and a protagonist who has crazy big powers. However, it was an enjoyable story with a lot of hidden depth for those interested in finding it. A fairly quick read and well worth the time. I am looking forward to discussing this in my book club. 

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