Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Gender · Whiteness & racism

Rewriting fate

Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read my first Octavia Butler novel, Dawn, late last year, and late in my life! Reading it I was like oh no black women authored speculative fiction, where have you been all my life? (right there on the shelf being read by millions of folk in the know while I wasted my time, obviously) This is my favourite kind of thing to read, hands down, it hits my reading spot mmmm. This isn’t a book of sublimely polished prose where the writer has clearly agonised over every adverb, but the ease and directness of the style serves the narrative and themes well.

The novel is set in an apparently post-apocalyptic Africa, where two clearly distinguishable ethnic groups are in conflict. The dark-skinned Okeke (rich brown skin, woolly black hair) are, according to The Great Book, suffering punishment by the goddess Ani for their exuberant creativity in producing technology like computers, by being forced to become the slaves of the light-skinned Nuru (yellow-brown skin, straight dark hair). Uprisings on the part of the Okeke are currently being met with bloody mass slaughter by the Nuru.

Okorafor frees her narrative from significant obstacles by solving the need for water, inventing an apparently inexpensive and highly reliable portable device that draws water from the sky as quick as a conjuring trick, enabling hardy nomads and travellers to roam the desert independent of oases or settlements. Since people are evidently conscious of the need for hygiene and enjoy being clean (personal thanks to Okorafor and other authors who think of these things. As a clean freak I often have to suppress foolish anxious thoughts in my reading: ‘why hasn’t he washed his hands?’ ‘surely she needs to shower now?’) Almost equally importantly, the nightly chill can be warded off by a ‘rock fire’. Simply gather a few stones (fully recyclable for this purpose) and coax them by means of simple juju to become hot, and hey presto! However, most townsfolk are too superstitious to make use of such practical magic.

I always like it when writers envision a time when basic resource needs are not really a problem, but Okorafor not only does so unobtrusively and in a way that delightfully synthesises hi-tech and magical skills rooted (presumably) in ancient folk tradition, she also does so in a non-utopian social organisation to focus on other sources of conflict.

Many of the factors that entrench and replenish white supremacy in contexts like the UK and US, like the myth of meritocracy and hierarchical individualism (aspects of the neoliberal ideology) are not evident in Okeke or Nuru culture. Here the controlling mythology is the scriptural story of racial domination-by-divine-decree. This is certainly not without its analogues in European scientific racism and even more so in white supremacist interpretations of the Bible, but the difference is actually very striking. Most Okeke accept their fate, but they do not believe in the inherent superiority of the Nuru, and mixed-race children are shunned and deemed ugly by them. Moreover, it appears that both groups exihibit communitarian values. The Okeke build their lives around family and community institutions, participating in seemingly highly democratic local governance. However, they can be hostile to the point of extreme violence to strangers, socially conservative and patriarchal.

I really appreciated Okorafor’s exploration of female circumcision. I don’t want my review to be all about this, but this is definitely the best fictional treatment of the issue I have read and I want to elaborate on this.

It’s really significant that Onyesonwu isn’t pushed into having the procedure done by her family; her mother is a migrant in the town and comes from an area where girls are not cut, so she sees it as ‘backward and barbaric’. Onyesonwu goes to the ceremony in secret and tries to hide the fact from her mother, although she believes she is acting for her family’s sake. The compromised ‘consent’ of an eleven year old intended to justify the custom makes it appear even more dubious. Obviously, the girls are eager to undergo a rite of passage that is necessary to avoid ostracism and to mark their entry into adulthood. After the ‘Eleventh Rite’ they must abstain from intercourse until marriage. At the ceremony, the three other girls who were cut alongside Onyesonwu confessed that they had all been very sexually active up to that point.

The context of the confession and the cutting itself is the house of the ‘Ada’, a kind of priestess. Okorafor makes this woman highly sympathetic, by having her house beautifully decorated with a fantasy water-themed mural she has painted herself (in a country far from the sea, where rivers are a rumour). The ceremony is also attended by other female elders, including the town healer (who uses both allopathic and traditional styles of medicine) who performs the surgical cut with a sterilized razor blade. These women are present to hold the girls down, but also to create an atmosphere of safety and reassurance. In the ceremony the girls confess their sexual histories (they are assured that it is safe to do so and bound to mutual secrecy), discard their clothes and are given new robes, a belly chain and a diamond to carry in their mouths. Afterwards, girls circumcised together become solid friendship groups. Really, it’s all very pleasant apart from the cut, which causes acute agony and chronic pain, as well as disability when it comes to sexual activity.

(view spoiler) Okorafor’s careful work here offers, I think, numerous teaching points to feminist campaigners. The ceremony as rite of passage is treated with respect as an important and pleasant event for the girls, resulting in their loving acceptance into the adult community. The social pressures that coerce consent from pre-teen girls require some sensitive redirection, and the extreme sexism involved, here highlighted by an element of male control and deception, has to be addressed to make abolition possible. Finally, the need for spirituality to inform and balance this battle fought on the terrain of the body, is repeated in the event of Onyesonwu’s healing: physical and temporal considerations are not enough.

The central love relationship in the book is strong, supportive and passionate, but Onyesonwu has to manage her lover’s sexist views and related envy of her abilities (just as he has to cope with and soothe her temper). Other relationships also have realistic problems. The culture seems quite heteronormative, and only once is a very brief and peripheral reference made to a lesbian relationship. Passion is one of the energies Onyesonwu draws on for her sorcery. This is such an intuitive detail for me, I love it. The both-and approach that takes in anything of use and finds value in multiple ways of knowing, rather than putting them in exclusive competition, was part of what made this read so inspiring.

My favourite section of the book is Onyesonwu’s sojourn with the Red People, who live in a protective dust storm and embrace the social pleasures available to them without proprietorial, materialistic or hierarchical concerns. I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Thomas King: “we tell our children life is hard, when we could just as easily tell them it is sweet”. Since the red people believe the latter, it is true for them, aided by their ability to access sufficient basic resources.

Like Onyesonwu, the nomads are kind and respectful to animals until it comes to eating them, and one of Onyesonwu’s hosts shows a clear awareness of vegetarianism, though neither she nor Onyesonwu practice it. Still, I found her friendship with the intelligent and empathic wild camels touching. Her ability to take the shape of animals and to commune with the desert, singing its songs, was the most thrillingly and captivatingly written aspect of her gift for me.

My preference for the Red People’s appealing culture may be ironic and point to layers of sophistication in the text. The only ‘white’ person in the novel, another sexist male sorcerer, also prefers the Red People to the Okeke and Nuru, and seems rather to lament that he isn’t in control of who owns what about the place. This almost seems to anticipate and critique the judgements of white readers and critics, just as male attempts to block Onyesonwu from developing her abilities sound an echo to me of ‘women can’t write’ in Mrs Dalloway. The theme of ‘rewriting’ that Okorafor develops in later chapters felt like righteous, delicious defiance. Fist-pumpingly good.

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2 thoughts on “Rewriting fate

  1. I can relate to the Butler awakening, I had a similar experience myself last year (I read Kindred & Wildseed. I highly recommend). Thanks for this review, Okorafor has been on my radar for a little while so I’ve been wondering where to start.

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