Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

I finished Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor about a month ago. I was stunned. It’s taken me about a month to sift through my feelings and impressions.

Nnedi has graciously agreed to answer some questions about the book, and I’ll post those here when they come. Here’s my review.

One of the interesting routes that fantasy can travel is to comment on an important issue in the real world. I respect escapism, but find that my literary side appreciates an author who takes the time and the responsibility to use the literature of the fantastic to raise awareness. Who Fears Death is that kind of book.

The book begins with death. We progress to rape, genocide, and female genitalia mutilation. The countries in this book mirror countries in our world, and the same problems exist in regard to racism, violence, sexism, and intercultural relations. This book looks African politics and genocide squarely in the eye and says important, significant things.

It is not an easy or a comfortable book to read. It is an important book to read. I am no where nearly as fluent in these cultural issues as I suspect the author is after writing this book, or growing up in dual cultures, but I have had the privilege of teaching. And these are among the stories I have heard in student papers.

I have heard about Both Olieny’s life as a refuge taking care of his family as the wars in Central Africa moved him from camp to camp. A woman from Sierra Leone writes of rape and seeing a baby cut from a living woman. Students strike out to sea from Somalia in a boat with no idea what will happen next. A man smuggles himself out of Eritrea in a trunk to avoid the death sentence that is the army. A Rwandan woman, half Tutsi, half Hutu, leaves the country, because there is no longer a place for her, and loses half her family in the process.

We haven’t got a clue. We hear about it, but we haven’t got a clue.

Who Fears Death takes readers to these places. By reading about Onyesonwu and Mwita, by seeing their journey, and by understanding the implications of their very existence for the people of both the Okeke and Nuwu tribes, Okorafor slams the reader up against uncomfortable issues. Onyesonwu speaks about the complacency of the tribes as long as the war doesn’t reach their towns. She condemns the justification of violence as laid out in the religious Great Book. As a person on the edges, an Ewu, a half-breed, she is both marginalized and capable of seeing from the margins.

Who Fears Death goes beyond shock and horror to make you see what the nightly news has watered down to a factoid. You can’t see Onyesonwu’s conception by rape in this book and detach, like when you hear about Darfur from by Brian Williams.

It is only such a person looking in that is brave enough to make the changes that are needed in the conflicts between these tribes. We think we know what the ending of the book will be, as Onyesonwu’s fate is revealed to us early, but her end is as unpredictable as the changes she makes in each town she visits, each life she touches.

Don’t miss this book. It’s an important book, regardless of how you classify the genre. You need to journey with Onyesonwu and be awakened, like her friends, by her journey.

I always look forward to more books from Okorafor. Now I’m holding my breath to see what she gives us next.