The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nigerian Apocalypse

I was really looking forward to Who Fears Death.  It’s billed as feminist post-apocalyptic African science fiction.  Do you see, Gentle Readers, why I wanted so badly to love it?  Unfortunately, it is pretty forgettable, in spite of all the accolades it has received: winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award (speculative fiction dealing with race/ethnicity), and nominated for the Nebula and the Locus Fantasy Awards.

I was so excited to read a book by a female Nigerian author with a magical female protagonist.  The idea of African science fiction is be fascinating!  Science plus magic is a great starting point for a story, especially with the varying African traditions of juju, vodoun, hoodoo, etc.  I even like the cover art.  

I began this book expecting to be a fan.  I am a firm believer in supporting diversity in the world of literature, especially in speculative fiction, which has so long been a bastion of DWM (Living White Males, too).  So bring on the women, the non-European traditions, the queer, the trans, the subversive...  And I went into my reading experience with a giddy literary crush on the author.  The New York Times Book Review says Nnedi Okorafor is the heir to Octavia Butler!  That's her above, hanging out with Wole Soyinka!

I really, really, REALLY wanted to love Who Fears Death.  

...It's fine.

For me, the book never found a focus.  At times, it was a clear magical bildungsroman.  Then an exercise in contemporary tribal politics and prejudices.  But then the book became a desert road trip focused on female friendships, and I got bored.  The quest—saving the world, averting genocide, defeating evil—becomes secondary to a juvenile squabble for power in personal relationships.  For a book that takes on such massive, serious topics as weaponized rape, female circumcision and ethnic cleansing, the big ideas are too easily pushed aside and made secondary.  There was so much to write about, and so little addressed.  I was disappointed.   

Although Who Fears Death is not a young adult novel, it reads that way.  Okorafor has four other books out, ranging from middle grades to YA, and this book just hasn’t seemed to make the leap from one to the other.  Now, Gentle Readers, you know that I adore my YA reading, and sometimes it is as effective, if not more so, than “grown up” books.  When I describe Okorafor’s book as being reminiscent of YA literature, however, it is not a compliment.  At first, I thought the problems I was having were merely stylistic, as if Okorafor were trying to write in the manner of a folk tale or an oral history, but that hypothesis just doesn’t ring true.  The characters are naive, and the conflicts are overwhelmingly simplistic.  While the subject matter is certainly adult, the book never feels complex.

The themes of Who Fears Death don’t shy away from the dark nature of adult post-apocalyptic literature (at least in the beginning).  Our protagonist is the child of rape, an Ewu child whose very mixed-race skin marks her violent origins and causes outsider status in her village.  Her mother, a dark-skinned woman of the peaceful Okeke race, was raped by a violent “sun-colored” Nuru man.  Onyesonwu, the resulting child, struggles to find her place in the world and to control her burgeoning magical talents.  I was impressed that this book addressed very real issues,  in that Onyesonwu was facing contemporary prejudices including being a mixed-race child, a female in a patriarchal society, and a child of a violent act.  In order to belong more fully to her village, Onyesonwu insists on receiving the traditional clitoridectomy of a maturing woman.  This book seemed to pull no punches!

Onyesonwu's romantic relationship has the opportunity to be a high point, as she and her lover Mwita jockey for control.  He is a traditional man who believes that he must protect her, but her magic is far stronger than his.  He tends to respond by withholding information, making her dependent on him.  It is a loving relationship, but one fraught with tension and one that should be far more nuanced than it is.  It has the opportunity to be a parable of the female within the traditionally male scifi community (for an explanation of this very real conflict, see here).  This book exhibits so much potential!

But then the magic appears.  While the mythology of the world has smatterings of “the time before,” there’s very little science in the fiction.  Although the characters do have water capture stations and palm-held computers, they rely mostly on magic and juju.  And unfortunately, Okorafor uses magic as a deus ex machina, a quick fix for every problem.  The voluntary clitoridectomy is causing discomfort and pain?  Onyesonwu magically reverses it!  In doing this, the trauma of the surgery is wiped out, and the subtextual discussion of why a young girl might choose such a mutilation is negated.  The choice has been reversed, and any emotional trauma resulting from the act (or of its reversal, and the rejection of the tradition) are ignored.
Other scenes of trauma are equally ineffective.  All suffering is given the same treatment in the book, so Onyesonwu’s physical pain during the clitoridectomy is equal to her emotional anguish watching a friend’s murder, but is also equal to having her feelings hurt by a misogynist sorcerer, or a stranger calling her names.  There is one emotional note for suffering, and it discredits the thought-provoking themes of the book by whitewashing them and making them too much alike.  

Even the climax of the book, a flurry of sacrifice, generation and war, is somehow unsatisfying. 
Onyesonwu wins the day, kills the evil sorcerer (who happens to be her rapist father), and prevents the genocide of her people.  She is, unfortunately, stoned to death for her trouble.  But here is where it gets disturbing.  She kills all the Nuru men of weapons-bearing age.  She seems to believe that it is the only way to prevent the slaughter of the Okeke, but still...she commits mass murder herself.  In order to atone somehow, for the death of all these young men, she spontaneously magicks all the women of child-bearing age.  Yep, all the women in town become magically pregnant.  

Now I know that this is not rape, and there is no physical trauma visited upon these women, but WOW.  That is still a helluva violation of personal choice, personal space, personal agency...  And somehow, the violation is greater, as it is practiced on women by a woman. 

All in all, as much as I wanted to love this book, I was disturbed by it.  I found it disappointing in plot, in politics, in tone, in follow-through.  I felt as if the book squandered its potential, and that I had squandered my attention.  

But if you try again, Ms. Okorafor, I will read another book.  I live in hope that you will find a way to harness all that dark, chewy, important "stuff" that needs to be said, and you will say it in an engaging, important book.  Let's both try again.