Summary: The child of a violent rape in a post-apocalyptic future Africa is named Onyesonwu, or Who Fears Death.
Who Fears Death seems to be Nnedi Okorafor’s best know book. But that may be surpassed with her recent Binti trilogy. This is the fifth of Okorafor’s books I have read in the last 18 months or so. The books are not the same story, but there are elements where I can see her style and perspective carrying through. I cannot help but compare her to Octavia Butler because I am two books away from reading all of Butler’s fiction. Both Butler and Okorafor write strong Black women as their protagonists. All of Okorafor’s settings are future Africa, but there is a mix of fantasy and science fiction elements as well as Magical Realism.
I am not sure how I fully feel about Magical Realism. There are times when it appears that the magical realism is science that can be controlled. But other times when it is magic that based on cultic beings or maybe elemental structures that are not quite scientific. And still others times the magical realism feels more like a method of describing religious beliefs or beings.
Who Fears Death is not my favorite of the Okorafor novels, but it is a solid novel that was worth reading. One of the reasons I have continued to try to be intentional about reading diverse authors is that the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds means that I am exposed to different methods of story telling and assumptions. I cannot really describe Who Fears Death as Dystopian YA in the sense that Hunger Games, Divergent, the Giver or Maze Runner are Dystopian YA. I am not even sure if it is really YA, although it is the story of Onye, focusing primarily on her life from 16 to 21.
The culture and assumptions are foreign to me. Veils, ritual genital mutilation, caste systems and different senses of shame and independence from community help me to see how much my own western cultural assumptions are a lens that I make normative and how much I need to decenter my own perspectives to work on empowering others.
There is a real critique of some aspects of culture in all of Okorafor’s work. But it is a critique from within not an external critique. Her books are not written for me, I cannot reduce my reading of her to cultural education, these are stories that are designed to be stories. I can learn from them, but my learning is not the intent of the stories. So even less than normal, my thoughts about these books are really just brief thoughts not a fully informed review.
I am not going to give much plot. Onye is born of rape. The actual rape is across ethic lines and so Onye is marked physically as the child of rape because of her skin. Her mother loves her and cares for her outside of society for a while, but then in a new place where Onye is always an outsiders, but where she can learn and growth. Eventually she learns of her own magical powers and seek training for them, but a powerful sorcerer seeking her death causes her to stop that training and go on a quest both for her own protection and to protect and maybe free a large group of people that are being held as slaves. That is a very light overview.
Many of the story elements seem to jump into place abruptly. I am not sure if I was just missing clues to what is going to happen because of my lack of cultural familiarity with some of the African cultural elements or if that is a stylistic choice. Plotting here and in Akata Witch seemed primarily to give a reason to know the characters and see their development rather than the stories being primarily about the story arc and the development of the story. I mostly read fiction for character development, so I am not put off by that, but others probably would be more put off by that.
Mostly what I feel when I read Who Fears Death is that I know am familiar enough with Okorafor’s writing to be able to follow the story as story, but not familiar enough to fully get it all. I need to read different African writers more to understand what is Okorafor and what is not.