Book 17 in my latest reading project is Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (published in 2010), and so far the one I’ve struggled with most.
Content note: references to rape, genital mutilation, slavery and genocide. This is also a very, very, VERY long post.
TL;DR – Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic, magical future with a melange of cultures, languages, relationships and themes fluently handled. A challenging but rewarding read if you’re not afraid of thought-provoking literature outside Anglo-American dime-a-dozen fantasy.
Events in Who Fears Death take place in the Seven Rivers Kingdom and desert lands to the east of it – a possible future Sudan. Lighter-skinned Nuru are slaughtering or enslaving dark-skinned Okeke. An additional tool for the Nuru is politically motivated rape: their soldiers deliberately attempt to wipe out the Okeke by creating light-skinned offspring. The Nuru are slowly succeeding.
The protagonist is Onyesonwu, an Ewu. Ewu are people whose skin and eye color mark them as children of mixed Okeke and Nuru parents. According to long-held beliefs, the Ewu are embodiments of anger, and therefore shunned by most people. Onyesonwy is also a sorceress.
In the first part of the book we follow Onye’s childhood and early teens. She struggles to be accepted in Jwahir, the Okeke town she grows up in, and to get some formal training as a sorceress. The former causes Onye to take part in the Eleventh Rite (a genital mutilation ritual), the latter takes years to accomplish because of the sexism of the most powerful wizard in town. As if that’s not enough, during her experiments with juju Onyesonwu discovers that her biological father – who is also a wizard – is waiting somewhere to kill her.
In the second part, Onyesonwu realizes that both of her peoples’ futures depend on her and leaves to fulfill a prophesy that’s been misinterpreted for years. She doesn’t go alone, however – her lover Mwita and other friends accompany her. Their travels, Onyesonwu’s efforts to stop her biological father and the resolution of her quest to rewrite the Great Book form the third and final part.
There are elements of a coming of age story and a fantasy quest with shapeshifting, spirit-world magic and science fictional tech, but Who Fears Death is not a simple book. It’s difficult because of rape, genocide, bigotry, ostracism and anger. It’s also wonderful because of the richly drawn characters, nuanced cultural situation, messy and complicated politics, (most of) its pacing and its final reveal.
Like I said, reading the book was a difficult but also a very interesting experience from the point of view of self-discovery. The author herself describes it as magical realism (in her reading guide) or as magical futurism (in this Beyond Victoriana interview). I think it was the realism that both gripped and kept yanking me out of the story. I found myself struggling not just with the ostracism and hate and rape, just as I struggle with news stories of them; I also had a tough time with a lot of the setup. And that bugged me.
I read Who Fears Death in my third language, but that shouldn’t have been the issue. Nowadays I do most of my reading in English. Nevertheless, reading Who Fears Death reminded me of how I learned to read novels in English in the first place.
(Navel-gazey background follows – skip the following five paragraphs if not interested.)
My first “foreign” language is Swedish. I use quotes around the word foreign, because Swedish is the second official language in Finland, spoken by a minority as their mother tongue, and therefore not a foreign language per se. For people born to and raised in monolingual Finnish households (like ours) it’s nevertheless usually considered one. Anyway.
Back when I was growing up, at school you picked your first non-native language in the third grade and added a second one in the seventh (with another optional language in eight grade). So, for me it was first Swedish and four years later English.
Being a geek, by the time I hit seventh grade I’d already discovered that a lot of the exciting new SF/F stuff was coming from the Anglo-American world and couldn’t wait to start English classes and to be able to get my hands on more stories beyond the translated works in my tiny, tiny local library branch.
The first whole novel I read in English was a novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope. A safe one to start with, I thought, because I already knew the story. I went through it slowly at first – very slowly, with a dictionary, checking out the new words as I went, much as you would with a language text book in class. (Funny fact: Wedge Antilles’s name taught me the word wedge.) That soon turned out to be too slow for me, though, and out the dictionary went. I found that eventually, if I just kept on reading, I didn’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of a sentence, paragraph or chapter.
Once I got my head adjusted for the different kind of reading, I flew through the rest of A New Hope. Were there things I missed? Absolutely. But I got through, and more importantly, it gave me the confidence to read another novel in English, then another and another. Fast forward a few more years, and at the end of high school I was fluent enough to match or outperform most of the kids in my school who had started English in third grade, four years before me. I was and still am proud of that achievement. (Shows you what motivation can do!)
In a stupid-obvious hindsight, my difficulties with Who Fears Death simply came from the fact that I didn’t reset my frame of reference until well into the book. It’s SF/F, right, and I’ve been reading that for decades, so of course it’ll be effortless, right?
Not so much. Okorafor’s novels reject your typical western assumptions. She taps into wholly different mythologies than your run-of-the-mill European / Anglo-American SF/F, and combines fantasy elements with actual African traditions and spirituality – Nigerian (Igbo) masquerades, for example. And she’s really unapologetic about it, assuming that the reader either knows already or will be able to pick it up.
I was basically trying to compare my newbie experience with something I have decades of practice with. Just like my beginning-from-scratch seventh-grade English vocabulary, the cultural knowledge for figuring out Who Fears Death doesn’t just magically appear in my head – I have to consciously build it by reading, watching and listening.
And despite hailing from a small culture in the back corner of Europe and speaking an odd non-Indo-European language and therefore having a somewhat different POV than most Anglo-Americans, I am white and my pre-programmed assumptions about the world are undoubtedly western. Nowadays I read western European / Anglo-American stories effortlessly because I’ve taken years to become familiar with them.
I know next to nothing about literature from Africa, and very little about African cultures. Is it any wonder that making sense of Who Fears Death was tough? No, no it’s not. Reading did get easier once I made that adjustment – that I must not expect to get everything at once and that I needed to start building a mental dictionary of sorts.
Another, slighter difficulty I had concerns the setting, but that’s solely the result of how my brain works. I’m a visual and pragmatic thinker and reader. I can’t help – and I like – pondering on how people in stories actually live, what are their daily routines, what they eat or wear, how do they clean their hair, etc.
Having grown up just south of the Arctic Circle, I’m literally from half a world away. The desert climate is utterly different from what I know (unlike in The Left Hand of Darkness which is at least somewhat familiar, even though the Finnish weather is nowhere near as extreme as that of Gethen). Also, I’ve lived in seaside cities near wooded, low-lying lands all my life; inland environments are somewhat strange to me. Finally, all of my long-term living experiences are from cool or cold climates where snowfall in the winter is a given.
Imagining desert travel and towns and foods, for example, distracted me several times in a pleasurable way, but it made the reading experience a little fragmentary. Fortunately, Okorafor’s worldbuilding is great for details like how people get from A to B, how their routines are different from their neighbors and so on. My pragmatic brain cheered every time she took care of her characters’ physical needs and creature comforts. For example, portable water capture stations allow for frequent bathing, and magical rock fires provide heat in the desert night. Such great details!
On the other hand, the seamless multiculturalism was familiar and welcome. Who Fears Death handles multiple identities plus co-existing cultures and languages like breathing – a natural part of life. Hello there, realism!
The importance of languages (at least: Okeke, Nuru, Igbo and Vah, plus a magical script Nsibidi) and special words in the novel was also fantastic. It kind of reminds me of the sung, poetical magic in the Finnish Kalevala, actually. For example, in the first Väinämöinen cycle, young, brazen Joukahainen challenges Väinämöinen to a singing contest. Older and more knowledgeable, the god / wizard Väinämöinen punishes Joukahainen’s impetuousness by sinking him into a bog by the power of his singing.
Another favorite were the Red People, who live and travel in the eye of a sandstorm. Their way of life, filled with kindness, contrasts with the Okeke-Nuru struggle and creates a bit of calm in the story, much like the center of their protective sandstorm.
I also really appreciated Okorafor’s focus on a variety of relationships and complex interactions between all kinds of people, especially Onyesonwu and her three best friends. (Dare I say it again: realism!) I’m so tired of lazy writing and token stereotypes, especially of women, and Okorafor is nothing but attentive and diligent.
The very end surprised me not only structurally but also storywise. After chapter 60 comes an epilogue followed by chapters 61 and 62. Then Okorafor gives us a second chapter 1, a retake of Onyesonwu’s final moments. Having read Onye’s vision of her death earlier in the book, I did really, really, want something better for her than what the original vision predicted.
I’m not yet entirely sure what I think of Who Fears Death as a whole. Okorafor has written a reading guide for Who Fears Death for her website. I wish I’d realized to look for one before finishing the book; it has several notes and questions that would’ve helped me, especially in the beginning. Also this review at Lady Business by nymeth had valuable thoughts.
It feels like Who Fears Death is going to stay with me for a long time, like N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology (which I love, love, LOVE). There is a certain directness and frankness about Okorafor’s narration that I prefer over more elaborate, flowery prose. (Yep, showing my Finnishness there.)
What I didn’t like is the hate and violence. The inevitability of violence at the end, even though what there was isn’t explicit or gratuitous, was also depressing. (Yep, showing my white privilege-with-safe-life.) And yet, it’s another demonstration of Okorafor’s realism: regardless of how much we may want it, there rarely are quick, neat solutions to strife that’s been going on for generations.
Since finishing Who Fears Death I’ve also read a few other stories by Okorafor, and I’ve come to the conclusion that her ability to write extremely strained moments between characters (where violence might erupt at any point) is beyond comparison. Reading through a scene like that I can feel myself tensing up, bracing for a physical confrontation.
In the end, I’d say Who Fears Death teaches you as much about yourself as its world – a sure marker of great literature. I’m really glad I chose to include Okorafor.