Thursday, 4 February 2016

Who Fears Death

Just finished reading a fabulous work of Science Fiction.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (Blog/Twitter).

I picked this up after a discussion with friends about African Sci-fi. I was curious to know whether there was any. I'm considering setting up courses in creative writing this year in Rwanda, and can't help feeling that it'd be easier to get people interested in strong, well-written, contemporary African writers than the type of good-but-usually-deceased 'classics' we covet in The West (tm). Austen, Shakespeare, the Bront√ęs - all good, but all very dead. 

Plus, I wanted to broaden my own reading. I very rarely read Sci-fi, and I wondered how it would look from an African perspective. Generalising, most Sci-fi is quite futuristic, focuses on gadgets and science, and often outer space. Many countries in Africa are not on the cutting-edge of technology. It often exists in the peripheries of daily life rather than at the forefront. Out of sheer curiosity, I wanted to know which themes would come up in Sci-fi written by a Nigerian-American author.

That's why we read, right? To see the world from a different perspective.

Who Fears Death had me from the outset, as it focuses strongly on genocide. Living in Rwanda, that's your starter for ten. I know genocide to be a very factual thing in literature, there is a lot of non-fiction about it. The idea that someone might fictionalise genocide and explore it from a fantasy angle piqued my curiosity.

I really enjoyed Okorafor's style. She's gritty. A female-centred story not afraid to incorporate really strong issues: genocide, female genital mutilation, rape, misogyny, child soldiers, slavery - it was an intense ride, full of masquerade spirits and fire-spitting Kponyungo.

I remember giving my clothes to Mwita and then changing and shifting into things, growing claws and tiger's teeth. I remember weaving between the physical world and the wilderness as if they were land and water. I knocked men off women, their penises still erect and slick with blood and wetness. I fought men with knives and guns. There were many Nuru soldiers and few Okeke ones, I fought both, helping whoever was unarmed. I took bullets into myself, expelled them, and moved on. I closed up my own stab and bite wounds. I smelled blood, sweat, semen, saliva, tears, urine, feces, sand, and smoke with the nostrils of various beasts.
We cried and sobbed and wept and bled tears. But when we were finished, all we could do was continue living.

And moments of true beauty:

They're ancient words. They don't exist among any other group of people. There is no direct translation in Nuru, English, Sipo, or Vah. This word only has meaning when spoken by a man to the one he loves. A woman can't use the word unless she is barren. It is not juju. Not in the way that I know it. But the word has strength. It's wholly binding if it is true and the emotion reciprocated. This is not like the word "love". A man can tell a woman that he loves her every day. Ifunanya is spoken only once in a man's life. Ifu means to "look into", "n" means "the" and anya means "eyes". The eyes are the windows to the soul.

The schism in the story derives from two races:

The Okeke people have skin the colour of night because they were created before the day. They were the first. Later, after much had happened, the Nuru arrived. They came from the stars and that's why their skin is the colour of the sun.

There's a strong nod to colonialism both in the sense of skin colour causing divides, and also The Great Book, which people take as gospel, and which preaches one race is superior to another.

Before the Nuru arrived, the Okeke are said to have been technologically advanced people, more similar to the city of Atlantis than the Kingdom of Dahomey. The Nuru not only enslaved the Okeke, but destroyed their computers.

The world is intertwined with juju (magic) and powerful sorcery, as well as the Red People who live inside a sandstorm.

I really enjoyed the use of language in this book. I'm not someone who needs to understand every word I read (though I look up most of them). I enjoy the mystery of mixing English with other languages.

There were a few other quotes I wanted to mention. This one, because it's the story of a travelling storyteller. Although fiction, it strongly resonates with the stories of people I know. I wonder very much how this book would be received in Rwanda, so I'll leave my copy at the library in town:

"They killed my papa and brothers with machetes. I managed to hide in a closet for three days," she said, her voice dropping. "As I hid, in that room, Nuru men raped my mother repeatedly. They wanted to make an Ewu child... As it happened, my mother's mind cracked and the stories she carried spilled out. As I coward in the closet, I listened to her tell all the tales that had comforted me as a child. Tales that shook to the rhythm of the men repeatedly entering her. When they finished, they took my mother. I never saw her again. I don't remember gathering my things and running, but I did. Eventually, I met others. They took me with them. That was many years ago. I have no children. My storyteller lineage will die with me."

In Who Fears Death the children of rape are called Ewu, and they have skin the colour of sand, so everybody can see who they are. It is said that because they are born of rage, they carry rage inside them. The lead character Onyesonwu (who fears death), is an Ewu child. She sets off across the desert with her friends to take revenge on her biological father.

I also like this section, which reminded me of a mushroom trip - that complete sense of visual and sensory exactness:

I'd be washed with a terrible hyperawareness. I'd be able to hear a fly breathe or see a grain of sand tumble to the ground like a boulder. I'd suddenly have hawklike strength, vision or I could nearly smell everyone's mortality. Mortality smelled muddy and wet and I reeked of it.

There are some recognisable parts borrowed and changed from true life. Close to the beginning, Ogun is referred to as the goddess of metal (the god of metal in Yoruba religion), and the city in which the story comes to its climax:

Durfa was diseased and I had caused its disease to rise up like a cobra.

May be directly related to Darfur, as this story is set in post-apocalyptic Sudan.

As The Washington Post said: 

Both wondrously magical and terribly realistic.

It is dystopian and fantastical in equal measure.

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