Normally I would agree with the “each to their own taste” philosophy, but Nnedi Okorafor’s entrancing novel Who Fears Death is something I think everybody needs to read. Right now.
In post-apocalyptic Africa, our narrator and main character Onyesonwu sits imprisoned and waiting for death. The world teeters on a tumultuous climax of the race war between the Okeke and Nuru peoples. Onyesonwu finally tells her full story, holding nothing back. She has lived her whole life marked by her skin as Ewu. A child born of violence, both Okeke and Nuru. Yet accepted as neither. The disadvantages of her mixed race and her gender make her an unlikely candidate to become a sorcerer. Especially one seeking revenge against the Nuru General Daib – her mother’s rapist and her own biological father.
I won’t sugarcoat that Who Fears Death is painful, sometimes to the point that I had to look away. Its pages detail violence and heartbreak, but also love and hope. And this is why it’s so important. It has a consuming power that pulled me out of myself, my own individual perceptions and inadvertent prejudices. Okorafor paints a vivid picture of the cost of turning a blind eye to injustice in the world. And worse, she shows us what it costs to lose yourself in the face of pride, anger, and blind belief in a poisoned status quo.
Each character, relationship, and culture is written with an intricacy that resounds with the complexities and flaws of real life. I found myself absorbed by Onyesonwu’s compassion, frustrations, and stubborn nature. In her love for the desert (her childhood home), her anger at people who wrong her, and her desire to learn sorcery for motives that blur the lines between peace and violence. But I try to remain aware of something important. I am not Onyesonwu. I am privileged. I will never know frustration or the pain of being disadvantaged by the color of my skin or the social position I was born into. And that can be an easy and dangerous thing to forget.