Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor (2010, 419 pages) is a novel in the fantasy genre, set in a dystopian Africa with a strong female protagonist.
Onyesonwu, which means Who Fears Death in an ancient language, is a child of rape. Her Okeke mother, dark of skin, was assaulted by a Nuru man, light of skin and a general among his people. The Nuru have been systematically destroying Okeke villages, as well as its culture, and part of this is through weaponized rape wherein the Okeke women are impregnated. The Nuru know that Okeke women will never terminate a pregnancy for any reason, and that a child born of this violence–with sand-colored skin and mixed features–will be outcast. Called Ewu, they will never be welcome in either society.
Onye’s mother survives the desert after giving birth alone, and heads east, away from the violence, and settles in Jwahir, where Onye’s Ewu status is remarked upon and frowned at, but is tolerated. Here she grows into a spirited young woman, angry at her fate, but not getting many answers from her mother. It’s only when something strange happens when she’s thirteen–she dreams of being a bird and wakes up in a tree on the town common–that her mother tells her of her conception. It’s unclear at this point what the connection is.
At this time, Onye meets another like her, an Ewu boy named Mwita, who tells her she is Eshu, someone who can shape-shift into other life forms. She and Mwita form a strong bond, and she also finds friends in three Okeke girls–Luyu, Dita, and Binti–who had shared a ritual with her at age ten. I’m talking about female genital mutilation, and if that doesn’t outrage you (as well as make you shudder), there’s plenty else in this tale that will.
After years of trying, she finally convinces the local sorcerer, Aro, to train her (he’d refused because she was a girl), and learns to control her Eshu powers, as well as the “Five Points”. She also learns that her father, the Nuru man who raped her mother, is a sorcerer trying to kill her. Not only that, but he is the one who is behind the virtual genocide of the Okeke people. Believing that she is the Ewu prophecized to stop him and re-write “the Great Book” (a kind of Bible that paints the Okeke as a slave race), Onye sets out west with her lover Mwita and her friends to find the man, exact revenge for her mother, and stop the carnage taking place.
This is a complex story with a richly described setting and culture. Its African roots are a breath of fresh air amid all the tired European tropes crowding the genre. There is some technology left over from some long-ago past, but sorcery, and the more rudimentary “juju”, are the commonly accepted source of awe.
Onye as a character is a bit exasperating–her strength and bravery are admirable, and you want to see her succeed, but her character flaw is rage and her inability to control it. She’s a tad unreasonable sometimes. Her hero’s journey is to not only physically travel through the desert and overcome many obstacles, but to master herself and her angry impulses, in order to truly become what she’s meant to be.
Okorafor, through this cultural and fantastical lens, addresses violence, not only against a race in general, but towards women in particular. Whether it’s physical violence, genital mutilation, or a more insidious refusal to view women as equal beings, Onye rises above it all, through her powers, her inner strength, and her sexuality. Sexuality permeates the novel; it can be a healing force or a destructive one. Even conception itself, while giving life, can be used as a weapon in this world, on many levels.
Who Fears Death is a fascinating read, but also just a plain entertaining one, about a woman who transcends fate and changes her world.