Who Fears Death is not a book for the weak-stomached. Weaponzied rape, female circumcision, mob killings and genocide are all prevalent in this novel by Nnedi Okorafor. The book is labeled as science fiction and is set in a futuristic African desert environment.
The heroine of this story is Onyesonwu (which translates to “who fears death”). A child of rape, she is born the wrong color. She participates in The Eleventh Rite (female circumcision) in order to try and fit in with her peers. If being “too light” wasn’t a big enough problem for her, she soon finds out that she possesses magical powers and is Eshu (someone who can transform into something else, such as a bird or beast).
Onyesonwu is haunted by her biological father and realizes he desires nothing more than to murder her. He also seems to be leading an army of Nuru people who want to kill the Okeke people. Mass genocide is coming to Jwahir, Onyesonwu’s peaceful town.
She must beg the local sorcerer to train her. He refuses, because she is female and volatile. This is only the beginning of the sexist, racist circumstances Onyesonwu finds herself in. The amazing thing about this heroine is that she persists. Despite the hundreds of reasons to quit, Onyesonwu continues on her quest to eliminate her biological father and end the suffering of the Okeke.
Like her true Eshu nature, she literally transforms into a wonderfully powerful sorceress. Breaking down every socio-political barrier she comes across, Onyesonwu uses her femininity to bring down entire cities that wrong her. When her friend and traveling companion is murdered by a crazed mob, she inflicts blindness on the whole population. She also uses her powers to heal a village full of wounded, maimed people, becoming physically ill herself in the process.
Although there are many themes throughout this novel, the one most questioned is traditions. Familial and religious traditions are powerful and in the case of this book, they can be magical. Onyesonwu wonders why her cultures’ traditions constantly limit her and her companions. “Oh, how our traditions limit and outcast those of us who aren’t normal,” she laments.
This book not only empowered me, but it also made me question my own ideas of femininity and what it means to be a feminist. One of the most powerful characters in Who Fears Death is the Ada, the town’s female version of a sorcerer. She performs the Eleventh Rite on the girls of the town, yet she is highly educated, lives on her own and is one of the town’s elders.
An amazing read, this book will haunt you even after you finish it. The vivid characters stick with you and the similarities between this fictional , future Africa and the current Africa are disturbing. Not a book I would recommend as light reading material, it is certainly unique and full of thought-provoking themes.
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