#Afrofuturism from my “What to Read after Black Panther” list part two: a full-length adult novel from Nnedi Okorafor, whose books for younger readers I had aggressively sought out while putting off this intense book. Not for the faint of heart, including rape, female circumcision, and lot of death, but well worth it if you’re able to make it through.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. DAW, 2010.
Onyesonwu is Ewu, a child of deliberate rape of her mother’s Okeke people by the Nuru, whose Great Book tells that the Okeke are meant to be their slaves. Her name means “Who Fears Death”, a name to give strength to a child whose mixed-race face marks her as an outcast. Onyesonwu’s mother is one of the few that survived the attack on her village. After years in the desert, they settled in a village far away from the border and its attacks, where Onyesonwu’s mother marries a friendly blacksmith and they try to carry on with life as normal.
But life isn’t normal. Onyesonwu has juju, something only men are supposed to have. When she accidentally performs large magic in public, life gets difficult. She befriends a group of young girls her own age, bound by their participation in the coming-of-age rites they all come to see as cruel. This is a diverse group of girls, including a girl with a hefty sexual appetite, one with a steady sweetheart, and one whom the whole village knows is being abused by her father. She also meets, Mwita, a boy her age who’s the only other Ewu she’s ever me. He, too, has magic, but he has no problems getting the local master magician to train him, while Onyesonwu has to beg.
There are multiple missions wound through this book. The most obvious is Onyesonwu’s hunt to find the evil man who raped her mother and gain revenge. But she also wants to know why even the Okeke accept the message of the Great Book that says that they are inferior, and she works to fix the damage caused by female circumcision, which is here “enhanced” with magic meant to ensure chastity.
The setting is obviously West African, but the time is less obvious – old, breaking-down technology more advanced than our own is in everyday use in the villages, while there are hints of older, very rare plant-based computers like those used in Zarah the Windseeker. Small appearances of Nsbisi, the magical writing system used in the Akata Witch books make me think that all of these books take place at different times in the same universe.
Okorafor writes with simple words and a cadence that, while perfectly understandable and correct, doesn’t feel American, though I’m not familiar enough with West African English use to say that it is that. Underneath the simple words and revenge-oriented action are big ideas with lots of room for thinking. Front and center is Onyesonwu, a young woman who refuses to give up no matter the odds. It’s currently being adapted for television, so read it now and avoid the rush.