Who Fears Death?
When I went to WisCon last year my reading list grew tenfold in one short weekend. One of the authors who jumped to the top of the list was Nnedi Okorafor. Despite my best intentions, I only just read my first Okorafor novel last week, one I picked at random based on its cool title: Who Fears Death.
Who Fears Death (2010) is Okorafor’s first adult novel. It tells the story of Onyesonwu, who is a social outcast because she is Ewu–the child of an Okeke woman who has been raped by a Nuru man. As Onye ages, she comes in to great powers and uses them to stop the war between the Okeke and Nuru peoples.
Not offensive to women = 1 pt*
Who Fears Death gets this point from me but it’s worth noting the book takes a hard look at treatment of women, and that can mean some tough scenes. From her mother’s rape to Onye’s circumcision, there were plenty of moments I struggled to get through. Not everyone will be comfortable with them.
Another aspect that I liked, but others may find offensive, were the portrayals of Onye’s relationships to the men around her, including her teachers, her lover, and her friends. The characters exist in a patriarchal culture and though Onye has positive relationships with many men around her, the men themselves are not perfect. Onye must choose when to fight her feminist battles, something I found very true to real life. I’ll touch on this idea again later on.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts & Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts
Who Fears Death is Onyesonwu’s coming of age story and is told in first person. She also has three close female friends, as well as a strong and positive relationship with her mother. Onye’s close friends are the girls who went through the Eleventh Rite with her–meaning they were all circumcised at the same time. I was fascinated by the Eleventh Rite customs (drawn from Okorafor’s Igbo heritage) wherein older members of the village tell the girls they are now bound for life. This was a strangely positive side effect of female genital mutilation and showed how the act was bound up in the culture. Onye’s relationships with the three other girls play a big role in Onye’s development. Their interactions easily pass both the Bechdel test and the Bechdel test for people of color.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts
Despite heavy themes, Who Fears Death is written in YA-like prose that makes it a very fast read. I had some problems with the magic system (it left questions that were more confusing than intriguing) and with some of the characters. But I still gave the book four points in this section because it was very fun to read SFF set in Africa, especially seeing the cultural aspects of what a futuristic Sudanese society might look like. And while not every novel has to address serious, real-life issues, Okorafor makes a clear statement about ethnic violence within her beautifully-drawn world.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts
Sadly, almost any book with prominent characters of color would basically pass this section because so much of our media features white/Western characters and story lines. But beyond that, the reason this book gets five points from me is because of the way Onye exists as a savior in a patriarchal culture. Like I said earlier, none of the characters are perfect and they grapple with real problems presented by a patriarchal culture. Onye’s lover is resentful of her power, even though he is a gifted healer (considered a womanly skill). Onye’s female friends have fraught relationships with sex. Onye chooses to undergo circumcision in order to be accepted in her town. When faced with Onye’s great powers and prophesied destiny, her teachers and friends still struggle to accept her because she is a woman and Ewu-born.
One exchange I liked was between Ting, a powerful female sorcerer apprentice, and her male master Ssaiku:
“…Ani is testing me again.”
Ting snickered, and Ssaiku gave her a sharp look.
“I’m sorry, Ogasse,” she said, still smiling. “You’re doing it again.”
Ssaiku looked very annoyed. Ting wasn’t frightened by this. […]
“You told me to tell you whenever you do it, Ogasse,” Ting continued.
Ssaiku took a deep breath. “My student is right,” he finally said. “Understand, I never believed the one I was to teach would be this long-legged…girl. But it was written. Since then I promised to taper my assumptions. There’s never been an Ewu sorcerer. But it has been asked. So it’s not because Ani is testing us that it’s so, it is merely so.”
“Well said,” Ting said, pleased.
There is clearly a back-and-forth between student and teacher, where the teacher must also learn to change his older ways of thinking. Ting and Onye cannot give up their magic just because their masters are sexist. They have to find a way to live in their world and that involves a give and take.
Despite all this, the Onye’s personal feminist struggles only come to the forefront every so often. I felt this was true to real life. In real life, a feminist does not always have the ability, time, or even the language to defend against every offensive comment or action. We can only do our best, and then get on with our other important work, which is what Onye does.
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*This is a category that could get very complicated, very quickly, if we tried to list everything that could be offensive to women. Instead, we use this category as a way of showing our own personal reaction to whatever we are reviewing. All contributors to this site are women and can speak from a woman’s perspective. However, no woman can speak for all women so we do our best to explain our choice one way or the other. We encourage all readers to share their opinions in the comments of every post if they want to express agreement or disagreement with our rankings.