Sunday, August 4, 2013

Who Fears Death - Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death by the Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor is my seventh read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. Not bad considering I only started in May. At this pace I may finish the challenge after all. Who Fears Death was one of the more interesting books that came out in 2010 so of course I missed it back then. It was nominated for a Nebula and the Locus Fantasy Award and won the World Fantasy Award. Okorafor tackles some very difficult themes in this book, stuff that I haven't come across in many other works of speculative fiction so it is not that surprising the book received so much attention. Thematically this is a very unflinching look at the combination of problems some parts of Africa are facing these days. Structurally, I was less impressed with the later stages novel, which is firmly grounded in a number of overused Fantasy clich├ęs.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Sudan, where the light skinned Nuru people are waging a war of genocide against the dark skinned Okeke. The main character, Onyesonwu, is born from the rape of an Okeke woman by a Nuru man. Her mother flees the violence and Onyesonwu grows up in a region relatively unaffected by the violence. As an Ewu, a half blood child born of violence, she is something of an outcast in Okeke society. It is believed that a child born of violence can only be violent herself. The situation doesn't improve when Onyesonwu starts to display extraordinary powers. This combined with her rather temperamental character seem to prove the superstitious Okeke right.  She is destined for great things, that much is clear.

According to Okorafor the origin of this story can be found in an article in by Emily Wax in the Washington Post in 2004. It discussed the use of rape as a weapon in the Darfur conflict. Arab militias systematically raped black women with the intend to make 'light' babies. It is one of the most horrific things that went on in a conflict that is still ongoing. Okorafor is fairly graphic throughout the the novel and she certainly doesn't shy away from showing the full effect his crime has on the victims and the children born from such rapes. People with personal experience with sexual violence may not want to read this.

The setting of the novel is said to be post-apocalyptic but this part of the story is a bit underdeveloped. It is a future Africa where technology is more advanced than what we are used to but magic has found a way into everyday life too. Traditional structures of society have survived in a way, with the community being lead by its elders. I'm not entirely sure how much of it Okorafor based her society and its customs on one that exists in present-day Sudan. The exact location isn't that important to the story anyway. A lot of what drives the story could easily be transplanted into a different kind of setting.

Like any child would, Onyesonwu is looking for acceptance and this search leads her into a second important and controversial theme; that of female genital mutilation. Onyesonwu feels that going through the ritual that is performed at the age of eleven, she will gain the respect of the Okeke and form a bond with other girls. Her mother thinks it is a barbaric ritual so Onyesonwu doesn't tell her about it. Again the description is graphic. Even without possessing the parts that are mutilated it is painful to read. What makes is even worse is that, to an extend, it works. A lasting friendship with the three girls going through the ritual with is is formed.

Onyesonwu's motivation for going through the ritual is nothing short of tragic. Despite her mother's wrath, she feels she has come out a winner at first but she clearly doesn't understand what she has given up to gain a small measure of acceptance. That realization comes much later. The way Okorafor deals with this difficult subject could have been one of the strongest aspect of the novel but I felt the effect of this tragedy was somewhat lessened by Onyesonwu's solution for this. It is one of the many places in the novel where she is able to use her powers to overcome the consequences of rash decisions. She often does rash things and speaks harsh words but rarely does she have to face the bitter consequences of what she has wrought.

When Onyesonwu starts exploring magical abilities she quickly runs into another wall of sexism, tradition and superstition. Magic is for men. She cannot possibly train to become one. Her cycle and her ability to get pregnant would pose too much of a risk. Onyesonwu is determined though. Her father, a great sorcerer himself is trying to kill her. She needs to be able to defend herself. In the end sheer violence is the way to break down this all, again confirming to the Okeke what they already believed, Onyesonwu is a violent creature.

The story turns into something of a messianic tale later on in the novel. Survival is no longer enough, the genocide that is being committed against the Okeke must stop. This is the point where I think the novel lets the reader down a bit. Okorafor has challenged to reader with a number of very difficult and painful themes thus far and then proceeds to put them into the frame of a fairly standard fantasy story. The prophesized heroine who, at great personal cost, savers her people from certain destruction. What saves it from being a complete letdown is that Okorafor continues to use her characters hard. This story burns up a lot of them before their life has well and truly begun.

After finishing the book I thought is was no all it could have been. The novel's strengths, the way it deals with a number of very uncomfortable themes are partly undone by the choice to make Onyesonwu into a messiah. It did occur to me however, that without the hope the prophecy provides it would have been a very dark book indeed. Maybe a little too hard, many people will have trouble with it as it is. Then again, women facing this kind of violence and prejudice in real life don't have the luxury of magicking their way out of it. I think I feel Okorafor may have gone a bit too easy on her readers to get the full effect out of what she has written. Nevertheless, Who Fears Death is a book that is very much worth reading. It is a brave attempt to tackle themes that are rarely discussed in genre fiction. As such, it is very notable work.

Book Details
Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Daw Books
Pages: 386
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7564-0617-2
First published: 2010


  1. Another recent title I've been meaning to read. Thanks for the review, and for getting this one back into the front of my brain.

    1. A good thing about this reading challenge. It gives you an excuse to read works you have overlooked ;)