Her words fell like raw diamonds: harsh, inconsistent, and stunning. Bringing out their beauty requires exceptional skill and craft. Ma Masilela offered both in abundance. Words surfaced both repellent and inescapable, eroded by time, yet nevertheless radiant. I sat for hours listening as Ma Masilela’s life unfolded. Most memorable, her anger and despair at the actual and metaphoric filth that encompassed Pretoria in the immediate post-Apartheid transition. The firmness and urgency with which she refused to offer redemption and solace. Ma Masilela held before me the dark, forgotten, and hidden nuggets of her life-story and transformed them into something brilliant, accessible, and revealing. In Who Fears Death author Nnedi Okorafor demonstrates the same remarkable ability to transform dark harsh realities into compelling, raw, and honest insights.
Motivated by contemporary news accounts of rape used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing in Sudan, Okorafor crafts an innovative origin and coming-of-age story about the child of weaponized rape set in a far future post-apocalyptic Africa, plagued by genocide and post-nuclear-holocaust. An aggressive race known as the Nuru seek to enslave and exterminate the Okeke. When the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape and give birth to the girl Onyesonwu, which translates as “Who Fears Death?”. Through an epic journey of personal maturation and acculturation, and personal and community suffering, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny to end the genocide and begins to heal the world’s trauma.
Who Fears Death confronts the unknown. The main character literally confronts and learns to accept the unknown of her own death, hence the title Who Fears Death. Likewise, set in the middle of racial genocide, Okorafor offers the immediately accessible and insightful unknown of ‘the other’. Repeatedly the interactions between characters are defined and shaped by the alienation and isolation of difference. Characters perpetually exclude and are excluded based a myriad of characteristics from race to dress. In so doing each character is able to forge a sense of identity and moral purpose. Occasionally characters transcend the unknown through tolerance and civility and in so doing illustrate the communal and personal growth opportunity found in embracing the risk and uncertainty of the unfamiliar.
I must admit I started reading this book because I heard it was a science fiction / fantasy novel written by a female author of African descent. Who Fears Death is an exemplary novel in its own right and it’s easy to fall into the trap of dismissing the novel as something good for a (pick an identifying group of your choice). Nevertheless, I found Okorafor’s reinvigoration of the genre with a unique writing style and point of view the most enjoyable aspect of Who Fears Death. Many times I found the South African oral history style of Ma Masilela echoing through the writing while other times I can see the clear influence of traditional speculative fiction styles. Rather than simply setting this piece in Africa, Okorafor synthesizes, adapts, and infuses numerous story telling traditions to craft a truly remarkable and distinct novel.
Which leads to what I sense may be Who Fears Death’s greatest challenge: the stylistic and narrative choices which occasionally leads to a languid plot. For me, the pace of the novel was perfect, focusing on intricate and detailed character development. Who Fears Death’s beauty is found in the ample time it affords to understand the motivations and depth of characters. Insight and truth emerges from the way Okorafor so expertly crafts the evolution of characters as they confront the moral and ethical challenges of their journey. As a result, I found myself lost in the people Okorafor creates often lacking interest in the overall exposition. I found this deep visceral connection to the characters Okorafor elicited in me a remarkably feat, but if you find narrative intrigue to be the most compelling aspects of a book, you may find Who Fears Death somewhat lacking.
I look back to my time with Ma Masilela. I know much about the historical facts of the early post-Apartheid days. I know little about the emotional upheaval and perceptions of those living through the experience. Ma Masilela’s gift with words brought that experience to life. Who Fears Death shares a similar talent. While dark and troubling, the concepts Who Fears Death raises are not especially new and the insights are already written in many forms. Okorafor’s power is the synthesis of literary styles to create an intuitive emotional link with the reader which transcends the limitations of more traditionally Western literary forms.
Pages: 386 FOA: 20,668
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