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Who Fears Death

by Nnedi Okorafor
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Product Details

  • Publisher: DAW Hardcover
  • Publishing date: 01/06/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780756406172
  • ISBN: 075640617X


An Origin Story

Nnedi Okorafor is a writer of Nigerian descent known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. She is know for her young adult novels, including The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker.

“My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died.”

Those are the opening lines of Who Fears Death. I remember when I wrote them. I was thinking of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I was thinking of change, cultural shift, chaos. Okonkwo’s death. And my own father’s very recent death. Yeah, all that in those two lines.

In more ways than one, the opening scene of Who Fears Death, titled “My Father’s Face”, was the beginning of it all. Originally, it was not the beginning of the novel. This scene takes place well into the story when my main character Onyesonwu is sixteen and has been through so much. The original beginning was when Onyesonwu was five years old and happy, living with her mother in the desert. Nevertheless, “My Father’s Face” was the first scene I wrote.

Though my stories tend to be mostly linear, I’m a non-linear writer. I’ll write the middle, then the ending, then the beginning and kind of jump around until I’m done. Then I’ll tie all the scenes together and neaten it up. Nevertheless, when Who Fears Death was all said and done, I wasn’t surprised that “My Father’s Face” turned out to be the beginning of the actual book.

I started writing Who Fears Death just after my father passed in 2004. I was very very close to my father and writing was my way of staying sane. I based “My Father’s Face” on a moment I experienced at my father’s wake when everyone had cleared out of the room and I found myself alone with his body.

I was kneeling there looking at his face, thinking how much it no longer looked like him and how terrible that was. My morbid thoughts were driving me into deeper despair. Then suddenly I felt an energy move though me. This energy felt highly destructive, as if it could bring down the entire building. Almost all the details in the scene I went on to write were true, I felt them…well, up to the part where Onyesonwu makes her father’s body breath.

As soon as I wrote that scene, everything else rushed at me. My father’s passing caused me to think about death, fear, the unknown, sacrifice, destiny and cosmic trickery. Only a week or so after my father’s passing, I read the Washington Post article, We Want to Make a Light Baby: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing by Emily Wax. I was absolutely infuriated. The storytelling spider in my head started weaving faster. I realized that this article was showing me why the people in my story’s town disliked Onyesonwu and why she was so troubled.

My mother, my sister Ifeoma and my brother Emezie flew with my father’s body back to Nigeria for his burial. When they returned, I learned through my siblings about the way widows were treated within Igbo custom, even the ones with PhDs…like my mother. I was again infuriated. And I was reminded yet again of why I was a feminist.

A year later, I went to Nigeria for the one-year memorial where I met my cousin Chinyere’s fiancé Chidi. His last name was Onyesonwu. I was intrigued. I knew “onye” meant “who” and “onwu” meant death. I wondered if it was an ogbanje name (these named often have the word “death” in them). I’d always been interested in the concept of the ogbanje. Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.

I asked my cousin’s fiancé what his name meant (I thought it would be rude to ask if it was an ogbanje name. Plus it was his last name, not his first.). He said it meant, “Who fears death.” That night, I changed my character’s name and the title of the story. When I did that, it was as if the novel snapped into focus.

During that trip, I touched my father’s grave. I heard stories about the Biafran War and arguments about how what happened during this civil war was indeed the genocide of the Igbo people. I saw death on the highway and thanked the Powers That Be that my daughter (who was some months over one year old) was asleep. I got to watch the women in my father’s village sing all night in remembrance of my father. My maternal grandmother, mother, daughter and I were all in the same room at the same time- four generations. My sister Ngozi and I visited the lagoon that seemed so huge when we were kids but was really quite small. It was populated by hundreds and hundreds of colorful butterflies.

I wrote, conceived and incubated parts of Who Fears Death while in my father’s village, sometimes scribbling notes while sitting in the shade on the steps outside or by flashlight when the lights went out. I wrote notes on the plane ride home, too. When I think back to those times, I was in such a strange state of mind. My default demeanor is happy. I think during those times I was as close to sad as I could get.

When I got back to the States, I kept right on writing. Who Fears Death was a tidal wave and hurricane combined. It consumed all of my creativity and sucked in all the issues I was dealing with and dwelling on. It mixed with my rage and grief and my natural furious optimism. Yet when it came to writing the story, I was more the recorder than the writer. I never knew what was going to happen until my character told me and my hands typed it. When I finished Who Fears Death, it was seven hundred pages long. A Book 1 and a Book 2. Don Maass (my agent) felt this size was too great and suggested that I pare it down. This process took me another two years.

One of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria’s great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces.” This tiger of a story definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I’m glad I was ready for it.

--Nnedi Okorafor

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  • unique, refreshing, exciting!
    From Amazon

    Who Fears Death takes the reader on a journey to post-apocalyptic Africa, and it is no surprise to find that the author was inspired to read this after reading about Sudan. The book touches on pertinent African issues such as slavery, conflict between different races and ethnicities. It also has an African perspective on magic, or "juju" as it is called in the book. The lead characters are in fact powerful sorcerers, but not in the usual sense. It all feels completely new and fresh, particularly to someone who reads more traditional science fiction and fantasy and rarely has read African literature. It often seems timeless, as if it could have taken place in a completely new fantasy world, but then devices from our own world are mentioned - "portables", computers, monitors. In this book, these items are either old technology from the bad old days, or they are new technology, required by the world's new order. For example, most of the world is a desert, so water capture stations are required. Because it was all so different from Western fantasy and sci fi, I didn't know what to expect - particularly from the magic - and it was more interesting. At the same time, it was grounded in real world technology and events, so I didn't feel lost. The book's main character is the product of rape, a mixed-race woman of both Okeke and Nuru parentage. In this world, the Nuru look somewhat Asian and represent the ruling class. The Okeke are the original inhabitants of the land, dark-skinned, and they are either enslaved or killed by the Nuru. The exception is the peaceful city in the east where the characters grow up. However, the dark events happening in the West - the genocide happening to the Okeke - keeps sending reminders in the form of storytellers and prophets. The main character, Onye, and her friends are driven to return to the East to stop it, however they can. The novel begins with her origin story, proceeds to a coming-of-age, and even has a bit of romance before it turns into straight-up adventure story and quest narrative. I suppose those are all the key parts to a good story, if you think of something comparable like Star Wars. I loved this book and couldn't stop reading it. Beyond the story and setting itself, which were fascinating, the book was appealing because the chapters were short, and also the whole story stuck with the same main character for the entire time. So it was easy to pick up and put down whenever you got the chance to get a few pages in. That said, if I ever had the chance to read for a longer period, I couldn't put it down. The world was so different and interesting that I am personally hoping this author comes out with more books. She has a great way of describing it so that you can visualize it, but without over-describing. In other words, it is vivid. Other reviewers mentioned the level of violence. While the book has violence, I do not think it is any worse than other books in this genre. In fact, it is handled quite sensitively. The rape scenes, for example, are not over-described to the point of gratuitousness. No, they get the point across without explicit explanations. Many times, the violent acts are glossed over. Also, I do not think we should steer our eyes away from these stories of militarized rape, children turned into soldiers, slavery, genocide, or even female genital mutilation. These things are happening in our world right now, not just in this novel. Perhaps it is because I do read the news that I didn't find it shocking at all when I found it in the book. Many of the things that happen to people in the book happen in the real Africa. It seemed to me that the author was subtly raising our consciousness level, but without hitting us over the head.

  • Should be A Finalist for the Pulitizer!
    From Amazon

    Become familiar with the name of writer Nnedi Okorafor. She is sure to be a finalist for the Pulitzer if not the winner. The main character's name Onyesonwu means "Who Fears Death" and this woman was born as the result of a crime. Her life is a combination of mysticism, mystery and faith and Onyesonwu's story is one that will stay with reader for a long time.

  • Unfulfilled Promise
    From Amazon

    Nnedi Okorafor unites the best of Achebe's Things Fall Apart with The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings in a post-apocalyptic fantasy that sadly just thuds. Her story begins pregnant with possibility and rich with the kind of language and imagery that has long drawn me to post-colonial African literature, and I knew I'd love it. But then it bogs down in extraneous content and never achieves real traction. Conceived in violence and born in war, Onyesonwu has fought for everything all her life. But she becomes apprenticed to a great wizard and finally finds her place in society. That is, until one rash choice draws the attention of the brutal biological father she has never met. Suddenly Onyesonwu must leave the only life she's ever known to confront her father before his dark wizardry consumes her people. The first third of this novel really sings. Growing up an outcast in a world that denies its violent heritage, Onyesonwu must uncover her destiny as a stranger. Her evocative descriptions create a lively society built on the mysterious foundations of a dead world. Living on the outside, Onyesonwu sees truths her peers reject, and she describes them in such incisive detail that I believe I could travel to this place. But then the story shifts to a conventional quest fantasy as Onyesonwu and her friends seek her father. And the quest drags in an episodic fashion. The team has encounters, sometimes proves its mettle, but most often talks interminably. They have soap-operatic personal encounters, and unbelievably long passages occur in which nothing happens to advance the plot. I soldiered on, hoping the story would redeem itself at the end. No such luck. Important events flash past, and if your mind wanders at key moments, too bad. One principal character dies so suddenly, with so little fanfare, that our narrator has to remind us the death has happened. Even the confrontation with the ultimate evil happens very fleetingly, just one more episode in a string like beads. This book starts so well, and then I found myself praying for the end. After three acclaimed YA novels in a similar African dreamscape, this is Okorafor's first novel featuring an adult heroine. Perhaps Okorafor is maturing as a writer herself. If so, well done, but she has far to go. Her menacing evil should be less abstract, her quest should be more tightly constructed, and she must hold her characters' feet to the fire. This book never quite fulfills its exquisite promise.

  • Beautifully written
    From Amazon

    A beautifully written and emotionally overwhelming novel. It's impact has stayed with me for days infusing my thoughts and challenging me. There is a depth to this work that is truly magnificent.

  • Great book!
    From Amazon

    I read this upon a recommendation by Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy author whose work I greatly admire. This book was exceedingly well written, interesting, and did not follow the normal plot of a western-archetype fantasy. I'm glad I bought it, and will be sending it to my brother for him to read.

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