Bookshelf: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
March 22, 2011 4 Comments
I have been meaning to start a “Bookshelf” section on this blog, because one of my absolute favorite things is to share what I am reading; however, since I have been preparing for seminary, many of my reading-list books have been really dense (yet, incredibly interesting) texts about Unitarian Universalist polity and history as well as black liberation theology and texts about the problem of evil in 21st-Century black literature (shout out to Dr. Qiana Whitted).
A few weeks ago I came across the Nebula Award Nominee List, and in honor of the great Octavia Butler, I decided to devote a few hours each day to a science-fiction novel. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is a nominee, and after reading Who Fears Death, it seemed a perfect novel to share as the first book on Bookshelf. I will not promise weekly additions to Bookshelf, but I will share my reads as the spirit moves me.
One more thing about the format of the section: I got the idea for the Bookshelf format from fellow writer and blogger Ernessa T. Carter. Ernessa maintains the blogs Fierce and Nerdy and 32 Candles, and since I love her succinct book-reviewing style, I asked her if I could use her format here on SVP. Needless to say, she said yes.
Why I decided to read Who Fears Death: I like science-fiction. I love magic realism. I like women who both imagine and live in a world in which magic is absolutely possible. And I adore black women who courageously use the medium of science fiction/magic realism to tell important stories. Last week someone on my Facebook feed posted something about Nnedi Okorafor, and I went from being totally unaware of Okorafor’s noteworthy body of work to a bona fide supporter of her journey as a writer/author/teacher/mother!
It happens like that for me.
What is Who Fears Death About?: Who Fears Death is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story about a woman who carries within her the power to change her world. Onyesonwu (whose name means “Who Fears Death”) is destined, because of the strength and prayers of her mother, to be the one who will, quite literally, change the narrative of her war-torn country, a country whose soil is soaked with the blood of the victims of tribal genocide.
Set in what is now called Sudan, Who Fears Death is a novel about the evil and destructive forces of genocide and the healing power of a mother’s love. It is a novel that challenges at every turn the perceptions about women in a patriarchal society. In order to live her destiny, Onye must challenge (if not successfully dismantle) traditional ideas about who she can become because she was born a girl and born into what is considered the lowest class of people in her home Jawhir.
What makes Who Fears Death Different?: Okorafor asks us to suspend what we think we know about science fiction and even what we think we know about Africa and be with her and her characters as she shows us a new reality. She creates a world in which women who heal themselves and others, sorcerers who shape-shift, and teenagers who have been chosen to learn the secrets of magic are as just as normal as children playing in a school yard. Okorafor uses magic and the different ways her characters practice magic to challenge our perceptions about difference and how humans treat those we perceive as “other.”
What I Loved: I loved the celebration of the divine feminine! The women in Who Fears Death are fierce, self-directed, sexual, and powerful.
With that said, I loved the Okorafor’s protagonist Onyesonwu! Onyesonwu works perfectly as both protagonist and narrator of the story; she is a complex young woman who does not always understand the gravity of her choices, but she is willing to make sacrifices in order to fulfill what she believes is her destiny. She is a thoughtful, courageous, independent, committed, and loyal friend and daughter.
Although Onyesonwu is fiercely independent, she understands interdependence, and she relies on her chosen family to make a very difficult journey with her. This is why I also loved Onyesonwu’s friends Luyu and Binta. These girls/women show us how the power of love operates through commitment and friendship.
Okorafor removes the shock value of flying children and roaming spirits and uses those very details to tell us a story about what it means to be human.
Writing Lessons Learned:
- Good storytelling requires excellent pacing. Okorafor seems to have an innate sense of timing that makes great storytelling. Each chapter moves gracefully into the next, and the reader never feels lost or rushed.
- Know your place (real or imagined). Who Fears Death’s setting works because Okorafor has a clear sense of place.
- Be willing to listen to your characters. Okorafor’s characters are essential to the telling of the story. I know this seems an odd thing to say, but we all have read at least one novel in which the characters seem like they exist only to do the author’s bidding. Who Fears Death is not one of those novels; the reader feels as if Okorafor has given herself over to the story and the characters in it. She is a conduit. Plain and simple. And that, in fact, the role/responsibility of a master storyteller.