Who Fears Death

by Nnedi Okorafor

Daw Books, Inc. | 2010 | 386 pages | $24.95

Reviewed by Janet Garber

nnedi okorafor photo

African Golem

A child conceived in unusual circumstances, raised by its mother, never knowing its real father, soon discovers its superhuman powers, and then goes on a quest to deliver its people from harm, ultimately sacrificing itself for the common good.  Sound familiar?  Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces traced the mythic trajectory of the hero back in 1949, and found that most of the world’s great stories and great religious heroes (Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, the Buddha, Christ) fit this archetypal pattern.

Drawing on a plot line with such deep ancestral appeal allows Nnedi Okorafor to take the familiar in Who Fears Death? while giving it her own unique African feminist spin.  She creates a black African heroine of mixed blood, conceived in an act of rape, whose parents are not divine, but not ordinary either – both are sorcerers from two warring tribes. The heroine, Onyesonwu (“who fears death”), enacts a redemptive tale – she dies for her people’s sins and is resurrected, overcoming death itself.

It is set in an unnamed time, with old computers, GPS-like gadgets, and “capture stations” that wring water out of the desert atmosphere litter storehouses. People are reduced to living in the most primitive circumstances and the story’s preoccupations (racial prejudice, systematic genocide, weaponized rape) seem ripped out of headlines about Darfur.  In this version, the lighter-skinned Nuuri oppress the Okeke, making them their slaves and raiding their villages, raping, slaughtering and obliterating.  Rising out of this mayhem comes Onye, an “Ewu” (half Nuuri/half Okeke), blamed, scorned and feared because of her “genetic” propensity towards violence.

Onye grows up sheltered by her mother in the desert, and is later brought into society and protected by her stepfather for a while.  She’s been told by her mother that she has a special fate, and she quickly figures out that she can shape-shift into a variety of animals, astrally project herself and fly over thousands of miles, making herself “ignorable.”

At her stepfather’s death, she learns that she can heal and even bring people and animals back from the grave.  Hearing her birth story, her one motivation in life becomes to defeat her evil Nuuri father and to bring an end to the murderous rampages and fighting between the tribes.  She tries repeatedly to get herself (a girl!) accepted as an apprentice to the great sorcerer, Aro.  Much like a 21st century woman, she refuses to live within the limitations imposed on her sex by society, even if she has to resort to violence to make her point.  Ultimately, she passes all trials and is initiated.  She vows to end the violence in her country, but no pacifist, she - more like an avenging angel!

Onye leaves for her quest with her girlfriends from the Eleventh Rite (genital mutilation) ceremony and her true love, another Ewu, whose parents were martyrs to their forbidden love.  The troupe encounters many obstacles on their path, including fantastical creatures and strange desert wanderers, until at last they confront the arch evildoer, her father.  As in all great myths, the king must die.

Will there be lasting change in the region?  The answer seems to be: not unless all are “blind” to their superficial differences, or more radical still, until all the war-crazed men who use rape as a tool for subjugation of a people are no more.

Okorafor is a 1st generation African-American (her parents are from Nigeria), a PhD professor of Creative Writing at Chicago State University, and she has won many awards for her young adult fiction, as well as her nonfiction.  This is her first foray into adult fiction and it’s an impressive feat.  She has created a memorable heroine in Onyesonwu – a raging, sexual, smart, intrepid, but impulsive creature whose out-of-control nature gets her into perilous situations before she’s ready for them.  (Fortunately, she brings along her entourage – her lover, whose mission in life it is to protect and heal her, and her friends, who provide nurture and emotional support – it takes a village?)  Okorafor also creates a complex world of the future, complete with religion drawn from The Great Book, and traditions that cry out to be changed.

I believe that Okorafor will certainly mature as a novelist. The defeat of the villain father was not entirely satisfying, and he tended to be one-dimensional, while the friends sometimes felt a little interchangeable. Onye tarried a bit too long on her journey and risked losing the attention of the reader and the “frame” of a twin recording Onye’s last words felt tacked on as an afterthought, but these are minor cavils.

Okorafor has interwoven magic realism with real-life events and fashioned a compelling story.  Like all good fantasy, it’s wishful thinking.  Millions have died in the civil wars that have raged in Sudan for the last 50 years, as anyone reading Nicholas D. Kristof’s articles in The New York Times knows.  And if we’ve read Dave Eggers’ What is the What, about child soldiers in Sudan, that helps round out the historical picture.  We are forced to ask ourselves:  Is this what it will take to cure the intractable problems of post-colonial Africa?  A teenage girl in the shape of a fire-breathing dragon???  An African golem?  So be it!

Can we get one too, please, for the Middle East?

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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