Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 7, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.

Thoughts: Reading this book was a real break from my usual reading fare, and indeed a break from the majority of genre fiction on the shelves today. Set in post-apocalyptic Africa, Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death,” is ewu, a child of rape and regarded as cursed by those around her. A stubborn young woman, this doesn’t stop her from rebelling against what others deem to be her fate, and instead she rises up against adversity, against those who would keep her down because she’s ewu, or female, or young, and she takes steps along a journey that will ultimately change the face of her very culture.

It’s an interesting setting that Okorafor plays with in this book, and one that is sadly underrepresented in genre fiction. Post-apocalyptic Africa allows for a setting that most Western readers will be largely unfamiliar with, and, if they’re anything like me, their interest will be piqued enough to get them doing some research about issues present in Africa today. Onye is the kind of character who can make you interested in anything she’s involved with, from cultural differences to gender politics to the acquisition of knowledge, simply by being the kind of headstrong and independent character who doesn’t take no for an answer and who tries to forges her own destiny. Onye is The Other, right from the moment of her conception, and how can we resist insight and investment into what makes her tick?

Much like Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Who Fears Death is not always a comfortable read, nor is it meant to be. Weaponized rape, female circumcision, sexism, racism, torture. But it also has hope, strength, survival, overcoming adversity, love. This isn’t a book you can read lightly, nor is it a book you can read and go untouched by. It will make its mark on you, and again in the way of Wild Seed, I think an entire book could be written just to deconstruct this book.

Okorafor weaves complex themes around each other into one beautiful and unforgettable whole. Told in the first-person from Onye’s viewpoint, we see actions and consequences both large and small, a story revolving around a believable cast of characters who are selfish and sacrificing, bundles of contradictions and foibles and each one of them is so realistic you finish the book feeling like you just finished a journey yourself. Poetic, insightful, and fluid, this is masterful storytelling as its finest.

The appeal of this book crosses genres and isn’t to be missed by anyone. It’s a timeless and disturbing tale, as applicable now as it is in the hypothetical future it takes place in. Magical realism and spirituality vies with social justice for the limelight, and on the whole this is a brilliant book that will, in the end, leave a deep mark upon your mind.

8 comments on “Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

    • That’s the thing about books that are uncomfortable in that way. They’re not meant to make you feel good about yourself in the end; they’re there to educate you to how big the world is outside your box, and how much goes on around you that you don’t see because you don’t want to see it. It all gets put in uncomfortable context, and I’d rather have that than fluff, most days.

  1. I quite liked and admired Who Fears Death, but I think I was put off a bit more by certain aspects. I wasn’t thrilled with the writing, and the plotting seemed a bit unbalanced to me. Overall, I agree that it’s an incredibly interesting book that spans across many genres and topics, but I just wasn’t as overwhelmingly enthused as you. Ah, literature. Always with differing opinions.

  2. Pingback: October in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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