by Matthew Cheney
So much reverberates between the lines of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death that the greatest marvel among the many here is that the novel succeeds in creating music and not cacophony. Archetypes and clichés jangle against each other to evoke enchanting new sounds, old narratives fall into a harmony that reveals unseen realms, and the fact of the book as artifact becomes itself a shadow story to that on the pages within. Okorafor is up to all sorts of serious, necessary mischief, setting up one expectation after another and dashing them all like dominoes made of dust. When the dust settles, rich realities emerge.
Who Fears Death feels at first like a young adult novel, a conventional coming-of-age story about an outsider child who discovers she has magical powers, and just when the reader has decided that this book is, perhaps, a less whimsical Harry Potter sort of story, it matures into a Lord of the Rings quest in which a small band of friends set out to destroy a Dark Lord. But that doesn't last, either, because the moral equation here is more complex than the simple arithmetic of good vs. evil. And despite some epic moves, this is not an epic fantasy—the focus is on one person, the narrator Onyesonwu, whose name means "Who fears death?" and whose life is destined to change the shape of a post-apocalyptic Africa where the light-skinned Neru people terrorize the dark-skinned Okeke people. Onyesonwu is the child of a rape committed by a Neru man against an Okeke woman, making Onyesonwu an Ewu, the crime of her birth forever apparent in the not-quite-light/not-quite-dark color of her skin.
The effect of the engendering crime will ripple through Onyesonwu's life, but its meaning will metamorphose, as will she; it is not long before she and everyone around her discovers that she is a sorcerer of extraordinary power, destined to a tragic fate. That fate and its tragedy are inscribed on the interstices of Onyesonwu's world, for this is a novel where what is real is a kind of text. Writing in Who Fears Death is not only about memory and history and myth, but also about magic and power—certain alphabets can protect or destroy life, certain words can bind people eternally in love or hate, certain books can contain the entire universe. The forces of language and text are not academic ones for Okorafor's characters; these forces are among the most vital not only in the world of quotidian reality, but in the spirit realms that influence and shape the everyday lives of the visible plane.
There is nothing simple about this reality: its power may be textual, but the text teems with ambiguities and paradoxes. Onyesonwu is as much a savior of her world as Harry Potter is of his, but Okorafor knows that anyone who was the subject of such a fate would be haunted and possessed, tormented, forever destined to be misunderstood, resented, feared, hated. Onyesonwu's nemesis is as determined to create chaos and suffering as Sauron—he even appears to Onyesonwu as a giant eye—but Okorafor's imagination is more realistic than Tolkien's, less nostalgic for the heroism of macho myth and legend, and so the battles in the book are never thrilling, never described with loving detail. The quest feels pro forma; it exists so characters and readers can analyze it, but the thrills of the narrative lie elsewhere. The antagonist is almost humorously familiar, complete with a final scene where he talks like a cartoon villain about his dastardly plans, but his inevitable, predictable demise is not one of climactic agony. Again and again, the escapist alphabet of popular fiction and the simple runes of myth and legend appear upon the page, but just when it seems the novel will give in to the language of cliché, Okorafor brings us toward a greater understanding of the desires that allow habitual expressions and shopworn stories to maintain such power over our imaginations. We want suffering to bring enlightenment, we want Onyesonwu's revenge to achieve wholeness for herself and the world, we want love to triumph over all obstacles, we want friendship to be the source of eternal satisfaction, and most of all we want a rip-roaring good yarn.
And yet revenge provides little satisfaction. Sacrifice is more painful than ennobling. Martyrdom, too, is overrated. We know this, of course, and that's why we seek refuge in legends and stories—they're more satisfying than the ambiguities and loose threads of life. Such truths make this novel of an unreal world feel more real than most. All our escapist desires are teased, but Okorafor is too canny to indulge them. Her eye is sharp, not cynical, and satisfaction ensues, but the shallow satisfaction of escape is replaced with the rich reward of wisdom.
This is largely because Who Fears Death is a profoundly artificial novel; Okorafor uses artifice to encourage reflection on how stories, myths, and legends shape the world of their audience. Some of the ways Who Fears Death achieves this do not become fully apparent until the final pages, but they are hinted at from the first chapter. Instead of shifting the engines of verisimilitude into overdrive and presenting every detail purely for its reality effect, this book exploits the tropes of fiction, creating paradoxes even at the most basic level of its narration. For example, the story is told by Onyesonwu, and during most of the narration we are allowed to forget that she is telling her tale to someone who is writing it down. But every now and then a flourish reminds us and adds more information about where Onyesonwu is as she tells her story and who the person is who chronicles it.
The narration, though, has the form not of a transcribed soliloquy but of a novel, complete with complex dialogue and speech tags. In the world of the book, Onyesonwu's story has been wrought, her words made to conform to the conventions of fiction, and so the novelistic form of the storytelling is foregrounded. Even the dialogue is only semi-realistic—pauses and hesitations are indicated, but most of what the characters say is expository or didactic, with the results feeling more shaped than spoken. In the same way that it dances with a tremendous range of genres and modes, Who Fears Death unsettles the idea of a master narrative. The situation of the novel's telling is even more layered than it seems on a first encounter, and this complexity is exploited magnificently in the final chapters, where Okorafor takes our readerly assumptions and presumptions, our expectations and desires, and explodes them, daring us toward greater imagination while also exhorting us to think about our own world, our knowledge of it, and the ways we tell stories about what we know and don't know.
If the pleasures of Who Fears Death lie in its web of artifices—its mysteries and melodramas, coincidences and plot points, dei and machinas—its power issues from the resonances produced by the intersections of art and life. Okorafor has said the novel was partly inspired by a newspaper report of rape used as a weapon in Sudan. So, too, do other practices and problems inform the book, from the ritual practice of clitoridectomy to the more general power struggles embodied in generational disputes, clashes of cultures, assumptions about gender roles, and fear of difference.
All of these items could be dealt with in a novel set in a less imagined world, a novel more beholden to verisimilitude in its writing technique, but Okorafor knows that it is not just problems and practices that matter—it’s how we talk about them. Words have power, even in a world without sorcery, because words create our perception of the world, and our actions are founded on our perceptions. An African setting is an especially appropriate one for such an insight, because "Africa" did not exist until outsiders entered the continent and needed to define everything there as different from themselves, wrapping vastly varied cultures and landscapes into a single concept: other-than-us and, therefore, less-than-us. The effects of that unifying concept were, of course, profound. Similarly, European ideas of what is normal, civilized, advanced, and desirable continue to make it difficult to think outside those labels.
Novels such as Who Fears Death, which lay bare the artifice of terminology and open entire dictionaries of assumptions for analysis, serve not only as mirrors on the world, but as tools with which to reconfigure out perceptions of it, and therefore to affect our actions within it. Such novels give us an unreal world, and in so doing reveal to us the realities of our own.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010