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Who Fears Death Paperback – June 7, 2011
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Well-known for young adult novels (The Shadow Speaks; Zahrah the Windseeker), Okorafor sets this emotionally fraught tale in postapocalyptic Saharan Africa. The young sorceress Onyesonwu—whose name means Who fears death?—was born Ewu, bearing a mixture of her mother's features and those of the man who raped her mother and left her for dead in the desert. As Onyesonwu grows into her powers, it becomes clear that her fate is mingled with the fate of her people, the oppressed Okeke, and that to achieve her destiny, she must die. Okorafor examines a host of evils in her chillingly realistic tale—gender and racial inequality share top billing, along with female genital mutilation and complacency in the face of destructive tradition—and winds these disparate concepts together into a fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
There were so many issues that this novel tackled. It deal with colorism, ethnic identity, rape, sexism, religion. And there are some readers out there who’re not able to handle this many issues getting thrown at them at once. They want something simpler to devour. I think that’s the case because often the people saying this don’t understand intersectional identities or even want to grasp the concept of it. Every character in this book is a crossroads of problems and issues. To me, their depth comes from the fact that they’re not just defined by one problem. They have many problems, many societal obstacles to deal. That is part of the richness of this book.
Rape is largely at the center of this story and make no mistake, it is no glorification or justification of it. This tackles it head on, brutally and unapologetically as such a subject should be. The descriptions and violence honestly made me cringe and I’ve never been a victim of such a brutal act. The images contained within this novel are so powerful that I wonder if it would actually trigger something in a rape survivor. I don’t know. I just know that what I read was violent, bloody and held back on no details. And the consequences of rape (side note: how despicable is it that we have consequences for a victim?) are laid out in this book with a harsh, revealing light.
The rape that sort of propels the story forward is the tragic sexual attack on Najeeba. She is a beautiful Okeke (an ethnic group I’ll talk more about later) woman and is seemingly living a simple life. One day her village is attacked by a group of Nuru (the other main ethnic group) and Najeeba is viciously raped. It’s a tough scene to read and I can only imagine it being a tough scene to write. It’s one of those scenes where you have to take a break and get a glass of water after you’re done. I can’t speak for the author, but man this must have been an emotionally draining scene to write just because of how brutal it is. Najeeba’s bastard attacker has the nerve to sing, to damn SING as he’s brutalizing a woman. I don’t know why but that particular detail just raises such anger in me. Najeeba manages to survive her rape, but she is rejected by her cowardly husband so she leaves home.
Now about these ethnic groups. Okeke and Nuru in the simplest of terms are dark-skinned and light-skinned, slave and slave master. The relationship is definitely one based on colorism, but it also has its roots in some of the justification used to enslave Africans in America. In this post-apocalyptic world there is The Great Book, the religious text that everyone draws their social mores from. In this book, it is basically outlined that Okeke are shameful and deserve to be slaves of the Nuru. Sound familiar? The same kind of justification was used by whites to enslave blacks when they referred to us as descendants of Cain, the first murderer. Religion was used to enslave it and it is used in this story to enslave the Okeke. This book is used to justify the mistreatment, rape and murder of the Okeke people, driving many of them to the East where they live as exiles.
This brings me to the main character, Onyesonwu, the daughter of Najeeba. She is neither Okeke nor Nuru. Because of her mixed blood and the circumstances of her birth she is called an Ewu. It is believed that the child of a violent rape is doomed to live a life of violence themselves. I think this is a statement on the danger of eugenics because how many articles are we starting to see pop up now that are trying to link personality traits and behavior to genetics? It’s a slippery slope and if we’re not careful we could be making our own Ewus in society.
So you can’t help but to feel bad for Onyesonwu. She’s getting it from all angles. Of course she deals with ridicule as being the child of a rape and all the stereotypes that come with that. Internally, she’s dealing with issues of wondering if she’s anything like her Father. She has to deal with being thought of as romantically unattractive and as just lest aesthetically pleasing to the Okeke people she lives amongst. To top it all off, she’s a strong-willed woman living in a society where women are regarded as less than. I think the deeper part of all of it, is that her very existence serves as a reminder of the violence and torture that the Eastern Okeke have tried to put out their minds. She’s a constant reminder of the brethren they have abandoned. It’s so true that the things we hate are often because they remind us of something ugly in ourselves.
I don’t want to give too much away, but Onyesonwu’s journey reminds me very much of the character of Aaang in some ways. The group of friends she gathers and the journey she embarks really does ultimately change the world she’s operating in. If a love of Airbender isn’t enough to get you to pick up this book it’s a post-apocalyptic African fantasy. Those three words alone should spike your interest. Ultimately, this is a book that tackles powerful topics that are so relevant to today’s world. Like I said, I walked away from this story depleted and I think that’s because even as I was whisked away to another world I was forced to still think about my own.
This and other reviews can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/rrapmag
Onyesonwu is referred to as an Ewu due to her mixed blood. She is was a child conceived from a brutal rape. Her mother is a member of the dark-skinned Okeke tribe who is raped by a man from the light-skinned Nuru tribe. The Nuru and Okeke people have a long, violent, and complicated history. As Onyesonwu matures, she discovers her history and she learns that she has magical powers. Along with a group of friends, she embarks on a a quest to find and defeat her father who is responsible for inciting genocide against her mother’s people.
I had only heard of the author from her young adult work. This certainly wasn’t geared toward young adults with respect to it’s content (e.g., rape, genocide, graphic descriptions of female circumcision) but the style of writing seemed very much to fall in YA genre. The novel tackles gender and racial stereotypes through use of a very strong, complex, and mixed race female protagonist but at times I found it a little obvious with the character explicitly stating about how women can be heroes too. I don’t think this was necessary because her actions were enough to show her strength as a woman without needing to sprinkle in statements explicitly describing her strength. I think this was why I felt like it had a YA feel to me. However, I did think it was a very engaging read that tackled a number of complex issues.
The prose is wonderful. Okorafor’s style combines elements of African folklore with modern ones, creating a story that is strongly rooted in tradition while at the same time forward-thinking in a way that is reminiscent of science fiction writing.
The novel is very close to fantasy genre. There’s magic and sorcery but from a cultural perspective that is different from what we normally see in fantasy. How many epic fantasy novels can you think of that feature a woman of color as the hero? I highly recommend this book for people who enjoy fantasy novels that tackle issues of racial and gender identity.
At any rate, I finished this book in a day, plan to read everything else Nnedi has written, enjoy!