Note: This review contains reference to rape, female genital mutilation, genocide, and violence. Please read at your own discretion.
These days, it seems like every other novel on bookstore (virtual or brick-and-mortar) shelves is some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopian story. The Hunger Games is one of the highest-grossing series of the past few years; the Divergent series has sold millions of copies; don’t even get me started on World War Z and Maze Runner. In a lot of ways, we seem to be oversaturated with post-apocalypse stories, to the point where they all seem to run into one another, the details getting lost.
Earlier this year, I picked up Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower in a fit of “where the hell has this been all my life?”, and was blown away. This was post-apocalyptic fiction in a way I had never envisioned, with a woman of color at its center and an entirely different focus than anything I had ever read before. Post-apocalyptic fiction written by men, in my experience, focuses on survival and blood, post-apocalyptic fiction by white women looks at the human aspects of survival, at relationships and families, but womanhood, even of the main character, feels like an afterthought. More often than not, references to womanhood and femininity come in the form of a not like other girls aside, mention of the ways in which our heroine defies gender norms, the ways in which her difference is separate from traditional femininity. Parable of the Sower thrust that aside, creating a protagonist whose story is undeniable female, her experiences inseparable from her womanhood. Despite the darkness and fear of the story and its sequel, I was drawn in like a moth to a flame.
Who Fears Death is the second post-apocalyptic novel by an African American woman I’ve picked up this year, and, just like Parable of the Sower, I’m enthralled.
Set in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, Who Fears Death centers on Onyesonwu, a child conceived through a violent rape who is marked as an Ewu, a biracial child of two cultures: the Okeke and the Nuru. The world that Okorafor creates is a dark one, where rape and violence and genocide and magic intersect, but there is light there as well: friendship and family and love and a fierce strength that brings characters together. Onye’s story is a coming-of-age one, as she leaves her mother and her home behind and undertakes a journey to fulfill a dark, dangerous destiny. She brings along her lover and some friends, and strikes out into a world of sorcery and darkness to defeat her biological father, the man who raped her mother and very nearly killed her lover.
Like Parable of the Sower, Who Fears Death is a story defined by women and femininity. Onye’s conception through rape anchors the story in a fear that women across the world carry in their hearts, often when we’re too young to really even understand what it is we’re fearing, a fear we learn from our mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts. Najeeba, Onye’s mother, connects to her pregnancy in a show of strength and iron will, delivering alone in the desert after her husband casts her out, and for the first six years of Onye’s life, her mother is her deepest connection. Throughout the book, even after Najeeba fades into the background (in the way that mothers, in coming-of-age stories, must inevitably do), Onye’s heart calls back to her mother’s in a longing felt by daughters everywhere.
Okorafor addresses female genital mutilation–“the Eleventh Rite”–with grace and sensitivity. Onye chooses to undergo the Rite, and as she does, forms a binding and heartfelt connection with the three girls who are circumcised alongside her. Onye’s agency in this is critical; her family rejects the ritual, and it is Onye herself who sneaks out in the night to participate. This haunting scene, in which only women are featured, involves the three girls beside Onye quietly disclosing various levels of sexual activity, including one girl softly telling the others that her father has been sexually abusing her for years. The Eleventh Rite, in many ways a taking, is for this girl a marking of new standing in the community, allowing her to voice her father’s abuse and for the elders to force him to face his actions.
Gender and womanhood provide an undercurrent for the entire novel. When Onye begins to demonstrate magical aptitude, the sorcerer in the village, Aro, refuses to teach her on the grounds of her sex. The fear–and threat–of sexual violence hovers like a cloud along the edges of the novel, and Onye’s heightened awareness of her body and her sexuality as she moves from childhood to adolescence to womanhood comes with a realization of the threat of rape and forced pregnancy. But this fear is not sensationalized or glaring, it simply is, in the way it simply is for women across the globe. It is there. We walk a little faster, we stay closer to our friends and our sisters, we don’t walk alone. This is our reality. This is life.
I haven’t finished the story yet, and so I can’t tell you how it ends–but in all honesty, I don’t want to. This story is dark and heart-wrenching, but it is magical, too: myth and sorcery and cultural history weave seamlessly with technology and mystery and nature, and the language is warm like sand in the sun. The imagery is so visceral you can feel it in your skin, the characters so real in their fears and dreams and imperfections that you could reach out and touch their hands, hold them in your heart. It’s been a long time since a book tore at my heart like this, and putting it down each night is like pulling something out of my soul.
In a review of Say You’re One of Them, a collection of short stories, Nnedi Okorafor wrote, “I can stand the dark but I need light so that I can see where I need to go.” I can’t think of any better way to describe Who Needs Death: there is darkness, so much it sometimes seems that it’ll bubble over and break you into pieces, but there is light, too, and Onye sees it, drawing us closer to it.
Onye keeps moving. She doesn’t just walk. She flies.
And reader, she takes us with her.