In this future African country, the (white) Nurus believe that they have been given the divine right to enslave or even exterminate the (dark skinned) Okeke for sins they committed in the past. These sins ostensibly revolved around the technological advances made by the Okeke that angered their God, and caused him to sentence the Okeke to live as slaves to the Neru, as dictated by their bible, the Great Book.
Onyesonwu is a young woman conceived during a mass rape performed by Neru men against Okeke women – an act of war in the escalating genocide. As one of the mixed race children, called Ewu, with their sandy skin and freckles, Onyesonwu is considered an abomination, inherently violent and unteachable.
Rejected by her husband after the rape, Onyesonwu’s mother flees into the desert and travels with her child for many years before finding a village where they will not be hounded out of town or stoned to death. When her mother marries a blacksmith who loves Onyesonwu as she is, they begin to build a normal life at last. But Onyesonwu still encounters prejudice both as an Ewu and as a woman. She even goes so far as to voluntarily submit to the female circumcision ritual so that she will better fit in (a decision she comes to regret).
As she approaches maturity, Onyesonwu befriends and later falls in love with another Ewu named Mwita, discovers that she has the shamanic abilities to heal and shape shift, and begins to hound the local sorcerer (eventually attacking him in fury) until he finally agrees to take on as an apprentice. Onyesonwu is desperate to learn, not only due to natural inclination, but also because her biological father, the man who raped her mother is a powerful and destructive sorcerer as well, bent on killing not only her, but all of the Okeke.
This is a complicated novel, and I admire the finesse Okorafor brings to the plot and characterizations. The culture still harbors a few technological remnants, such as unused computers, motorcycles and water capture devices, but by and large the people have lost or renounced their technological abilities. These elements are left in the background, and woven in so subtly that I was deep into the book before I fully realized that the action is taking place in either the future or in an alternate reality. Some reviewers have cited this as a flaw, but I disagree. This is a first person narration, and as such we are only able to know as much as the characters know themselves. Think of how much of our own history is shrouded in myth or forgotten entirely. Civilizations rise and fall. It is human to live where you are and leave the past in the past.
Although Who Fears Death might seem at first blush to be a standard messianic quest and revenge plot, the focus turns out to be equally on Onyesonwu’s relationships to other people, her family and friends, and her struggle to learn who and what she is and to find her place in a society that sees her has inherently evil.
There are many things to like about this book: the strong, complex female main character, lush attention to detail in the exploration of the nuanced relationships between those of different races, between men and women, between young women and their girlfriends, and the unflinching portrait of the way that religion is used to excuse and implement persecution and enslavement—not only in the minds of the persecutors, but in the minds of those whom they subjugate.
Lastly, perhaps most importantly, this novel presents an exploration of shamanism (they call it sorcery), which I submit is not an entirely fantastical element, western rationalist views notwithstanding.
This novel does a good job of depicting the ways and means of this ancient mode of knowledge. Onyesonwu’s teacher calls her a “bricoleur, one who uses all that he has to do what he has to do… we all have our own tools. One of your is energy, that’s why you anger so easily. A tool always begs to be used. The trick is to learn how to use it.” He teaches her to have more control in accessing the other world, called the wilderness. The details are too complicated to properly summarize, but those interested in shamanism will most likely read with interest the story of Onyesonwu’s apprenticeship and growth as a sorcerer.
Who Fears Death does not shy away from the dangers and sacrifices inherent in the shaman’s path. Those who employ it are transformed, even as they attempt to transform the world in which they live. The story demonstrates that knowledge comes at a price, and the use of power can create problems as well as solve them. To its credit, this novel presents no false easy solutions or tidy resolutions.