Who Fears Death – Reviewed

Mostly Spoiler-Free Impressions After Reading the Novel by Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: 7.5

It’s hard for me to imagine the power of Who Fears Death to the author herself, in the world in which it was written, over a decade ago. A Nigerian-American who spent her childhood back and forth between both countries, Okorafor clearly holds the stories of her people close to heart. The tragedies of tribal warfare, desperate desert lands, and patriarchal savagery run through the book like veins – full of blood. Okorafor was an athlete before she was an author, paralyzed in an accident of spinal surgery, who struggled through physical therapy for years simply to walk again. So the shape-shifting, astral-projecting, mixed-race protagonist Onyesonwu seems a form of wish fulfillment for the author, and that is beautiful, only feeding the honest passion on display.

Onye’s is a story of prophecy and magic in the near future, after a mysterious apocalypse. People have given up nearly all tech and the Republic of Sudan has become an endless, unforgiving desert. Scattered villages and a few portable digital devices are all that’s left. This is the story of how their Great Book has lead the survivors astray, with a distinctly African mythology. It limits their views of family, culture and sexual relationships, to strict traditions, slavery and genital mutilation. The two main ethnic groups are in a state of perpetual war. A new general has risen from the Nuru in the West, and he wages a brutal genocide against the Okeke. Burning villages, his armies use rape as a weapon, impregnating Okeke women with mixed-blood children who aren’t accepted by either side, destroying a generation of mothers with shame, even as the Okeke men are slaughtered.

Onyesonwu is one of these mixed-race, Ewu offspring, and so hers is naturally a story about healing cultural divides and overcoming old traditions, but even more it’s about friendship, love and sacrifice.

Still a young woman herself, Okorafor at the time had published two young adult novels. Who Fears Death was hailed as her first “adult” work. The rhythms of her narrative here are still those of a young adult author – the prose is clunky and the pacing gives the impression that things were often made up as she went along. The characters are convincing enough but never terribly deep, and in general it is clearly a product of what one might call the “Marvel generation,” and so a bit of a tired, formulaic adventure from the outset for me. It would be easy to mistake Onye for just another wannabe-phoenix-force, to take the whole novel as a superhero fantasy. But that would be a disservice to the fertility of this author’s imagination.

An HBO adaptation is in the works, and no less than Tessa Thompson has signed on to produce, but I’m concerned, as awesome as it might be, that the execs at Warner probably won’t know what to do with this. Because on the surface it looks like Marvel. But once you get into it, you find that this Onyesonwu isn’t playing by the rules. She’s an unapologetically African sorceress, shape-shifting into a vulture and a lizard, talking to camels and singing to owls, in a world destroyed by warring, jealous, incestuous men. Onye, and so Okorafor through her, is challenging all of it, without giving up an ounce of authenticity. Her dreads are thick and bushy, her existence, let alone her empowerment, unacceptable to both sides. *Spoilers* At her most powerful she is routinely naked, shedding her clothes to become a tigress, a dragon or a ghost, healing her sisters by giving them back their clits, slaughtering entire villages of men in the shockwave caused by the culmination of conception in her womb.

In practice it is nearly as awesome as it sounds, by the end. From my comfy chair in American suburbia, it’s hard for me to understand just how much it all might mean to Okorafor, and the very real risks she took to even write it down as a young author. In my culture, we think it’s a big deal to cast a black actress to play a traditional white princess in a fairy-tale about a mermaid – a very white story if ever there was one. If HBO is ready to adapt Who Fears Death faithfully, they are further ahead of Disney than I had thought, and I’ll hold some hope until I hear otherwise. But it’s clear that Nnedi Okorafor isn’t afraid of much. This is an African fantasy about Africans, with authentic etymology backing up its systems of juju and tribal war.

This may be her first “adult” book, but it is written in that young adult style for better or worse, and honestly, it’s just the kind of book I’d want my daughters to read. Or should they grow up afraid to use words like “clit?” Afraid to call out the books, and the men, who are leading us all astray? Afraid to challenge the rape, oppression, and lack of shape-shifting imagination all around us, stifling the very air we breathe?

The Okorafor here from 2010 may not yet be a master of character, plotting, or philosophy, but there is an honesty, cultural awareness and worldly uniqueness, and just a straight-forward fire of imagination running wild – with a caring and wisdom at its heart despite any lack of experience – that will bring me back. Sure, I love a good poet, but what I really need is an author with something to say, and the fearlessness to lay it out in real terms for this timid, careful, comfortable world. Time to order up one of her more recent works and see what she’s become.

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