Bookshelf: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

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. ūüôā

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.

To Whom Would I Recommend this Book?: Everyone! Especially those of you who have read and loved the novels of Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Tananarive Due, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Reading Near the Ocean: Substitute Me by Lori L. Tharps

Since summer is almost over, and since I really needed to be near the ocean, my wife, our three-year-old niece, Angel, and I had an OBX weekend. We did not quite get the rest and relaxation we hoped for (three year olds are hard work!), but we did have a great time. ¬†We played, we swam, we had great vegan food from a nice place in Kitty Hawk, and while Angel and Auntie Jan built sandcastles, I had the pleasure of reading Lori L. Tharps’s new novel Substitute Me.

Book clubs, brace yourselves; Lori L. Tharps delivers a book that you will be talking about for hours! ¬†Picture this: Zora Anderson, a young (30), whimsical, black woman from a well-to-do family in Michigan moves to New York and accepts a job as a nanny for a young (30ish) white woman in Brooklyn.¬†Told mostly from the perspectives of the two women, Substitute Me is layered with questions about parental expectations, race relations, work-life balance, following one’s passion, and the true nature of love.

Substitute Me will be available on Amazon tomorrow. Check out fellow blogger  Evelyn N. Alfred reading from Substitute Me.

Thanks for reading.


Breeze Harper and The Sistah Vegan Project

Hello, Readers

Our dialogue about food and mindful consumption continues…

My research on veganism, specifically the ways in which black women practice veganism, led me to the work of A. Breeze Harper, a doctoral student at UC Davis, founder of The Sistah Vegan Project, contributor and editor of the anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society. A collection of poetry and prose, Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society contains the narrative voices of twenty-six black-identified female vegans who offer their individual stories as necessary contributions to the collective ¬†“black female vegan experience.” Each woman uses her voice to help shape and expand the meaning of what it means to be black, female, and vegan in this society.

Excited about reading a work by black women that was created to inform, challenge and highlight the issues of black-identified vegan women, I skipped Amazon(dot com) and rushed to¬†Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC to pick up my copy of the book. As soon as I read the first essay, “Thinking and Eating at the Same Time” (Michelle R. Loyd-Paige), I knew that (1) Breeze Harper was on to something with this anthology and her Sistah Vegan Project work, (2) I wanted to help her timely and relevant work gain exposure, (3) I wanted to talk with Breeze about her social justice work and her experiences as a black-identified vegan, and (4) I wanted to interview Breeze for “Shifting the Vantage Point.” Since my first reading of “Sistah Vegan,” I have had a few online opportunities to discuss The Sistah Vegan Project with Breeze Harper, and as an extension of that conversation, Breeze agreed to answer some pre-selected interview questions via video; you can view the interview at the bottom of the post.

Although this is not (necessarily) a book review, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in plant-based diets, compassionate consumption, the relationship between food and sex, ecowomanism (a term from the book), and/or social justice issues. I (and you will) look forward to more work from Breeze Harper.

Thanks, again, for reading.



Food Choices

I currently practice a moderate form of veganism, which means I do not eat the flesh of any animal, and I avoid the consumption of all dairy products. Although I believe in animal rights, and I practice compassion and non-injury (ahimsa) in my daily life, my entry point to the vegan life was a dairy allergy. Unfortunately, my excessive consumption of all things dairy, resulted in a pretty severe scalp condition, a mild form of eczema, frequent occurrences of acne, stomach pains, and high-levels of mucus; however, before being officially diagnosed with an allergy, a friend who had been doing some research on the effects of dairy consumption, suggested that I eliminate dairy from my diet in order to see if any or all the symptoms disappeared. Who would have thought that fifteen days after eliminating dairy, I would have clearer skin, a settled stomach, and no morning/afternoon/evening mucus to contend with? Even without the doctor’s imprimatur, I knew a dairy-free lifestyle was for me.

My resurgence of health also prompted me to do some food research of my own, and I soon discovered that most of my food choices were unconscious, and negatively influencing my health and my life. I realized that consuming  gluten caused me to become sick, unusually fatigued and cognitively fogged; I noticed that I felt listless and uncommunicative after sugar consumption, and after eating flesh, I felt plain sad. Conversely, after eating fruits and vegetables, I felt more lucid and more energetic.

When I decided to practice veganisim, I found a wonderful support system‚ÄĒan entire food movement; there were other people in my physical community, my Facebook community and blogger community who have also made the decision to live in a way that is sustainable and supports health and wellness. I discovered ¬†CSAs and farmers markets, I found vegan restaurants and supermarkets that specialize in whole, local foods.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be on this journey at this time in my life. I am still shaping my perception of food, and I am still considering what it means to be a Black-identified, lesbian-identified, sometimes-Buddhist, female vegan in America, and I know that this is not consideration that can happen in exclusivity; it is a conversation.

It is a conversation about who has access to whole foods and why.

It is a conversation about change and sustainability.

It is a conversation about spirituality and community.

It is a conversation about environmental ethics.

It is a conversation about social justice.

Please be a part of the conversation.


A Few Good Reads:

In Defense of Food / Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma/ Michael Pollan

Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society / A. Breeze Harper (Editor)

Potatoes NOT Prozac / Kathleen DesMaisons

%d bloggers like this: