An Origin Story Nnedi Okorafor is a writer of Nigerian descent known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. She is know for her young adult novels, including The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker. “My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died.”
Those are the opening lines of Who Fears Death
. I remember when I wrote them. I was thinking of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
. I was thinking of change, cultural shift, chaos. Okonkwo’s death. And my own father’s very recent death. Yeah, all that in those two lines.
In more ways than one, the opening scene of Who Fears Death
, titled “My Father’s Face”, was the beginning of it all. Originally, it was not the beginning of the novel. This scene takes place well into the story when my main character Onyesonwu is sixteen and has been through so much. The original beginning was when Onyesonwu was five years old and happy, living with her mother in the desert. Nevertheless, “My Father’s Face” was the first scene I wrote.
Though my stories tend to be mostly linear, I’m a non-linear writer. I’ll write the middle, then the ending, then the beginning and kind of jump around until I’m done. Then I’ll tie all the scenes together and neaten it up. Nevertheless, when Who Fears Death
was all said and done, I wasn’t surprised that “My Father’s Face” turned out to be the beginning of the actual book.
I started writing Who Fears Death
just after my father passed in 2004. I was very very close to my father and writing was my way of staying sane. I based “My Father’s Face” on a moment I experienced at my father’s wake when everyone had cleared out of the room and I found myself alone with his body.
I was kneeling there looking at his face, thinking how much it no longer looked like him and how terrible that was. My morbid thoughts were driving me into deeper despair. Then suddenly I felt an energy move though me. This energy felt highly destructive, as if it could bring down the entire building. Almost all the details in the scene I went on to write were true, I felt them…well, up to the part where Onyesonwu makes her father’s body breath.
As soon as I wrote that scene, everything else rushed at me. My father’s passing caused me to think about death, fear, the unknown, sacrifice, destiny and cosmic trickery. Only a week or so after my father’s passing, I read the Washington Post article, We Want to Make a Light Baby: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing
by Emily Wax. I was absolutely infuriated. The storytelling spider in my head started weaving faster. I realized that this article was showing me why the people in my story’s town disliked Onyesonwu and why she was so troubled.
My mother, my sister Ifeoma and my brother Emezie flew with my father’s body back to Nigeria for his burial. When they returned, I learned through my siblings about the way widows were treated within Igbo custom, even the ones with PhDs…like my mother. I was again infuriated. And I was reminded yet again of why I was a feminist.
A year later, I went to Nigeria for the one-year memorial where I met my cousin Chinyere’s fiancé Chidi. His last name was Onyesonwu. I was intrigued. I knew “onye” meant “who” and “onwu” meant death. I wondered if it was an ogbanje name (these named often have the word “death” in them). I’d always been interested in the concept of the ogbanje. Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.
I asked my cousin’s fiancé what his name meant (I thought it would be rude to ask if it was an ogbanje name. Plus it was his last name, not his first.). He said it meant, “Who fears death.” That night, I changed my character’s name and the title of the story. When I did that, it was as if the novel snapped into focus.
During that trip, I touched my father’s grave. I heard stories about the Biafran War and arguments about how what happened during this civil war was indeed the genocide of the Igbo people. I saw death on the highway and thanked the Powers That Be that my daughter (who was some months over one year old) was asleep. I got to watch the women in my father’s village sing all night in remembrance of my father. My maternal grandmother, mother, daughter and I were all in the same room at the same time- four generations. My sister Ngozi and I visited the lagoon that seemed so huge when we were kids but was really quite small. It was populated by hundreds and hundreds of colorful butterflies.
I wrote, conceived and incubated parts of Who Fears Death
while in my father’s village, sometimes scribbling notes while sitting in the shade on the steps outside or by flashlight when the lights went out. I wrote notes on the plane ride home, too. When I think back to those times, I was in such a strange state of mind. My default demeanor is happy. I think during those times I was as close to sad as I could get.
When I got back to the States, I kept right on writing. Who Fears Death was a tidal wave and hurricane combined. It consumed all of my creativity and sucked in all the issues I was dealing with and dwelling on. It mixed with my rage and grief and my natural furious optimism. Yet when it came to writing the story, I was more the recorder than the writer. I never knew what was going to happen until my character told me and my hands typed it. When I finished Who Fears Death
, it was seven hundred pages long. A Book 1 and a Book 2. Don Maass (my agent) felt this size was too great and suggested that I pare it down. This process took me another two years.
One of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria’s great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces.” This tiger of a story definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I’m glad I was ready for it. --Nnedi Okorafor