Review: Who Fears Death

CW: rape, FGM.

Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death is one of those texts that casts a weighty shadow on the genre. Published around the time that work by people of colour and LGBT+ people – and particularly work that actually centred the experience of characters with these identities rather than seeking to educate white straight people about them – was moving into the SF mainstream (Racefail, a conversation about people of colour in SFF, had happened just a year before), it’s often cited as a significant work of specifically African SFF: Tade Thompson here calls it a “milestone” and Okorafor “The most significant writer in African SFF”. John Ottinger III here describes the novel as “perception altering”; Yvonne Zipp called it “wondrously magical and terribly realistic”. Reading it 12 years later, then, it’s interesting how formulaic it ultimately feels.

Set in a far-future Sudan whose inhabitants have for the most part rejected modern technology as sinful and dangerous, it follows the teenage Onyesonwu, the daughter of a woman of Okeke ethnicity who was raped by a man of another ethnic group, the Nuru, in an attempt at systematic genocide. Onye, as she’s nicknamed, overcomes the mistrust and fear of her community, not to mention institutionalised misogyny, to become an immensely powerful sorcerer in order to prevent the wholesale destruction of the Okeke, who she regards as her people thanks to her mother, by the Nuru in a campaign orchestrated by her father.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and before I dive into my criticisms of the novel I want to mention something about it that I do think has stood the test of time: namely, that this is a story about systematic oppression featuring African folks that is not about white people. There’s one character who we might read as white, but whiteness as a construct, as a structural force, is absent. That still feels unusual in today’s literary landscape, although it’s becoming less so with the advent of novels like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

For the most part, though, Who Fears Death simply reheats the Hero’s Journey: Onye passes a test to gain access to a reluctant teacher and develops incredible powers, but leaves her training early in order to confront her evil father, who is plotting genocide…I’m finding it very hard not to think of Star Wars, here. That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. Are we not constantly being told that there are only approximately seven basic plots? But in a novel so lauded, I would have expected to see some sort of subversion of this classic structure, and it’s just not there.

Well; perhaps that’s not quite true. One of the things everyone mentions about Who Fears Death is its violence: there is rape, there is murder, there is FGM. There’s also a lot of explicit sex. I wonder if what Okorafor is attempting here isn’t a bit similar to what Marlon James is doing in Black Leopard, Red Wolf: exposing the violence inherent in traditional Western fantasy, making it explicit rather than cloaking it behind faux-medieval notions of honour and nobility. There’s also, I think, an attempt at greater honesty around teenage attitudes to sex than is typical in fantasy, and particularly the YA fantasy that Okorafor is most clearly responding to.

This explicitness doesn’t work as well as it does in James’ work primarily because we’re not actually supposed to like any of James’ characters, and because James’ commitment to the bleakness of his vision is unwavering; whereas, although Onye frequently behaves in unlikable ways, I think we are ultimately supposed to root for her and identify with her. Supposed to being the operative phrase: to me, she felt simply inconsistent, by turns manipulative, loyal, self-centred and altruistic; Okorafor seems bent on telling us that she’s admirable while showing us a reality that’s quite different. Onye is supposed, I think, to be morally ambiguous; but her characterisation ends up simply being confused. It doesn’t help that explicit depictions of sex and violence aimed at undermining the colonialist and misogynistic bases of Western SFF have become steadily more commonplace in the genre since Who Fears Death was published: Okorafor’s work here simply feels less innovative, less startling, than presumably it once did.

I think my greatest problem with the novel, though, is its affect. Magic as a literary device is, at its core, a way of talking about the numinous: the irrational or invisible forces (luck, faith, the psyche, nature, fear, love, despair, hatred) that shape our lives in often ineffable ways. Its narrative charge and resonance, generally speaking, comes from its obscurity: the most effective portrayals of magic, in my opinion, preserve some element of mystery, of inexplicability. Okorafor’s descriptions of magic and spiritual experience, though, are flat, matter-of-fact, thuddingly literal:

“Then I noticed it. Red and oval-shaped with a white oval in the center, like the giant eye of a jinni. It sizzled and hissed, the white part expanding, moving closer. It horrified me to my very core. Must get out of here! I thought. Now! It sees me! But I didn’t know how to move. Move with what? I had no body. The red was bitter venom. The white was like the sun’s worst heat. I started screaming and crying again. Then I was opening my eyes to a cup of water.”

And Onye is massively overpowered: she’s apparently capable of doing pretty much anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, which further dilutes the significance of her abilities. Her magic, ultimately, comes to feel inconsequential and incoherent; it exerts little force in the narrative.

I think, then, that this is partly a case of a once-innovative novel ageing badly: it’s clearly attempting to coopt, and thus comment on, the structures and assumptions of contemporary fantasy, and its non-Western setting and cultural milieu are important aspects of that attempt. But there are enough newer texts doing the same work better – works with more resonant force, with greater clarity of character and theme – that this one feels out of date.

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