Nnedi Okorafor’s Novel Who Fears Death is an incredible tale of resilience in the face of discrimination, love in a world of hate, and life in light of imminent death. In short, this book captivated me. Okorafor’s work accomplished, with ease, the incredibly difficult task of immersing her reader in a bizarre and magical world while simultaneously providing characters that one can sympathize for, relate to, and connect with. I read the last two hundred pages of this novel in one day; this book is purely enrapturing.
As a tale of a young girl, Onyesonwu, born of interracial rape in a world that is defined by racism, institutionalized slavery, and a fear of everything out of the ordinary, this book is much more than a fantastical tale. Who Fears Death discusses issues of ethnic cleansing, female genital mutilation, women’s rights, rape and racism. Though dealing with heavy and hard-hitting topics Okorafor still manages to incorporate passionate stories of love that leave the reader itching for more.
Okorafor seems to have drawn inspiration for this novel not only from her Nigerian heritage, but also from aspects life found in communities all over Africa. Perhaps a reader with knowledge of Nigerian, particularly Igbo, culture may pick up more from the novel as it contains many allusions to aspects of traditional Igbo spirituality. As an example, once Onyesonwu learns of her magical abilities she is taught the “mystic points” – Okike, Alusi, Mmuo, and Uwa. These four “points” are also the four fundamental interwoven concepts that formed the basis of the Igbo belief system. References are also made to concepts such as “chi” and “Eshu” which may also provide greater meaning in the novel if the reader has an understanding of their role in traditional Igbo culture.
Though the Nigerian cultural influence is obvious in the novel what I believe makes this story so fresh is the fact that it is not your typical historical account of colonialism in Africa. The book takes place in a post-apocalyptic world filled with magical realities. The setting of this novel is central to the idea that this book is a commentary on present day Africa, not on Africa’s past struggles with colonialism. Though the genocide in the novel could be compared to Nigerian’s Biafran war and the chief conflict of fighting white superiority could be seen as a commentary on colonialism, I believe that this novel is so much. The focus on the usage of rape as a weapon in war and issues of women’s rights creates messages that can speak to anyone around the world. I think that to say that this novel is meant to be representative of any one thing, or any one culture, would be selling the work short. In fact, I believe that Okorafor intentionally blends aspects of various African cultures and experiences to emphasize the universal application of the themes in this novel. I never felt as if I was reading a history book or a newspaper article, I was taken on a journey into an unknown world with incredible people who are willing to die for love, equality, and change.
I found this novel to be incredibly fresh as it was unlike anything I have ever read before. The characters are enticing, complicated, and relatable, while he plot is gripping and provocative. Okorafor’s beautiful use of magic realism truly highlights the concepts within the book instead of overshadowing them. Onyesonwu’s magical experiences actually draw the reader closer to her as they provide a means of getting inside her head. These magical experiences, therefore, enable the reader to relate to the internal struggles of the novel’s protagonist instead of providing a potential for disconnect.
I would recommend this book to any reader but particularly to ones interested in Africa and/or women’s rights. This book is great for all feminists of the world, but will truly be able to contribute something to anyone’s life. Be prepared for quite the experience.
(I’ll post the link once I’ve gotten the email that my post on Amazon has actually been posted!)