To be something abnormal meant you were to serve the normal. And if you refused, they hated you …and often the normal hated you even when you did serve them.
Who Fears Death is the story of a young woman who, in the face of formidable obstacles, must change the world. Onyesonwu, whose name means “who fears death,” possesses mystical powers. While this makes her unusual in her town, it is not what sets her apart from others, at least not at first. The novel takes place in a world where sorcerers and spirits are real and exist alongside modern technology such as computers and motor scooters. That Onyesonwu is a woman with these powers is one problem. The fact that she is biracial, an ewu, is the bigger and more dangerous problem. The Seven Rivers Kingdom, which is located in Africa, is riven by war and genocide, with the lighter skinned Nuru people enslaving and massacring the darker skinned Okeke. Ewu are usually the product of rape and are stereotypically considered to be evil and prone to violence. They are shunned at best, driven out of town and killed at worst. The main themes of the story have to do with equality and justice for women and for all outcasts, particularly those defined as outcast based on skin color. But the novel also focuses on violence and the tendency to meet it with violence in kind. The novel features an epic battle of good versus evil, with Onyesonwu and a small group of friends engaged in a quest to find and eliminate the root cause of the genocide that has devastated their world and threatens to spread.
The novel starts with our main character imprisoned and awaiting death; she is speaking to an interviewer and relates a tale of something that happened when she was 16 that changed her life forever. Then we go further back and meet Onyesonwu (Onye) as a small girl, about 6 years old. She and her mother Najeeba have settled in the Okeke town Jwahir after living a nomadic existence in the desert for Onye’s entire life. Onye does not understand that she is unusual and that people know things about her simply from the color of her skin, hair and eyes (hair and skin the color of sand and eyes like a tiger’s). She makes a friend in the local blacksmith, who ends up becoming her stepfather and, because he is so respected in Jwahir, Onye and her mother Najeeba are tolerated. When she is 11, Onye makes several life changing discoveries. First, she discovers that she is an eshu, i.e., a shapeshifter, and that there is another ewu, a boy, in Jwahir. Mwita is a little older than Onye, and he seems to have knowledge of Onye’s skills. He also is an apprentice to the mysterious Aro, a sorcerer who could teach much to Onye if only he would accept female students. At 11, Onye also voluntarily submits to the Eleventh Year Rite of female circumcision, a practice that is accepted in Jwahir but was not in Najeeba’s village when she was young. As a consequence of this rite, Onye finds herself with friends. The three other girls who undergo the rite with her are bound together, and despite their misgivings about having an ewu friend, they do watch out for and protect one another through life. And finally, Onye learns the truth of her origins — that she is the product of a brutal rape and that her mother forever lost her voice as a result of it. The descriptions of female circumcision and Najeeba’s rape are quite disturbing, but they are essential to the plot and the themes related violence and male dominance.
Onyesonwu is a strong but conflicted young woman. She possesses unusual powers even for a sorcerer, she is fearless and unrelenting, persisting until Aro takes her on as a student. Yet her anger and desire for revenge against her biological father, her own proclivity toward violence, threaten to reinforce the stereotypical views of ewu as inherently violent and women as overly emotional and lacking control. Her friends and Mwita, her lover and closest friend, help Onye find balance and support her on her quest. Mwita, taking on the uncharacteristic role of right-hand-man to a woman, heals her physically and emotionally as she learns to use her powers.
Nigerian-American Author Okorafor is a gifted writer. Her characters and their relationships are very real and recognizable. These are flawed people who are capable of both heroism and cowardice, who are simultaneously progressive and retrograde in their thinking, but are willing to learn and change. Onye’s friends Luyu, Diti, and Binta are typical young women in some ways. They are interested in men and sex, they enjoy having a good time and getting away from the constraints that family and society place on them. They and Onye embody a growing tide of female empowerment; while there are quite a few powerful and respected women in Jwahir, they all are subordinate to male power. Onye and her friends resent those constraints and buck against them. When Onye must leave for her quest, the three young women insist on joining her, and each learns more about herself along the way, usually through painful lessons.
Onye’s relationships with men, other than her stepfather who loves her and supports her unconditionally, are sometimes contentious. Aro and Sola — powerful sorcerers — seem disgusted by her femaleness and appalled that she of all people would possess such powers of sorcery. They begrudgingly teach her. Mwita is far more admirable; he recognizes that Onye outshines him yet struggles with jealousy. He eventually embraces his supporting role in her quest because he truly loves her. Mwita is the person who can draw her back from the brink of destruction and heal her, something that Onye recognizes and values.
Okorafor also distinguishes herself as a writer by addressing modern day atrocities in her story. As mentioned above, she includes the overt misogyny of male dominated cultures, female circumcision and rape, particularly rape that is meant to destroy your enemy’s culture. In her afterward, Okorafor mentions this AP story from several years ago which served as an inspiration for Who Fears Death. The Nuru, like the soldiers in Darfur, rape their enemy’s women for torture, shame and to destroy families. It is a form of ethnic cleansing. Okorafor also includes incest, child soldiers, and, briefly, albinism in her novel.
The other topic that Okorafor handles so deftly is religion or religious belief and its role in perpetuating injustice and inequality. Throughout the story, the reader gets pieces of the belief system that shapes the world of the Nuru and Okeke. They have a “Great Book” which explains the origin of the Okeke and Nuru, the role of the goddess Ani in that creation, and the reason for the Nuru subjugation of the Okeke. In the end, according to a prophecy known among sorcerers, the Great Book must be rewritten. In other words, there needs to be a fundamental change in the entire belief system. This is an aspect of the novel that I found fascinating. Okorafor uses known religious tropes in her story: exile in the desert, visions, a chosen one, false prophets, the notions of supreme sacrifice for the benefit of all, and an afterlife. She gives the reader much to ponder regarding religion and the ways it might be employed to harm others while empowering oneself.
This is an extraordinary novel. There are so many important topics and ideas that could fuel lengthy discussions in a classroom or book group, or even in a community read. The ending was quite powerful. Was the quest successful? What kind of world has been created? Do we live in the world before a recreation or the world that comes after? Okorafor does not give her readers the kind of obvious triumph of good over evil that one finds in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, and I think that’s what makes it so good. You are left thinking.