Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Who Fears Death, is an adventure story set in a space and time where the computer age has come and gone and mysticism and magic are once again at the fore. Its heroine Onyesonwu and her friends embark on a journey towards their destinies in an environment bubbling with genocide and enchantment. Who Fears Death is winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel and a 2010 Locus Award finalist for Best Fantasy Novel. Below are the first two chapters of the book for your reading pleasure.
My Father’s Face
My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart. Yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? It’s true that nothing could take him from his work, his art. He loved to make the metal bend and obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can’t be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.
Immediately after he died, my mother came running out of their bedroom sobbing and throwing herself against the wall. I knew then that I would be different. I knew in that moment that I would never again be able to fully control the fire inside me. I became a different creature that day, not so human. Everything that happened later, I now understand started then.
The ceremony was held on the outskirt of town, before the sand dunes. It was the middle of the day and terribly hot. His body lay on thick white cloth, surrounded by a garland of braided palm fronds. I knelt there in the sand before his body, saying my last goodbye. I’ll never forget his face. It didn’t look like Papa’s anymore. Papa’s skin was dark brown, his lips were full. This face had sunken cheeks, deflated lips and skin like grey brown paper. Papa’s spirit had gone elsewhere.
The back of my neck prickled. My white veil was a poor protection from people’s ignorant and fearful eyes. By this time, everyone was always watching me. I clenched my jaw. Around me, women were on their knees weeping and wailing. Papa was dearly loved, despite the fact that he’d married my mother, a woman with a daughter like me- an Ewu daughter. That had long been excused as one of those mistakes even the greatest man can make. Over the wailing, I heard my mother’s soft whimper. She had suffered the greatest loss.
It was her turn to have her last moment. Afterwards, they’d take him for cremation. I looked down at his face one last time. I’ll never see you again, I thought. I wasn’t ready. I blinked and touched my chest. That’s when it happened…when I touched my chest. At first, it felt like an itchy tingle. It quickly swelled into something more.
The more I tried to get up, the more intense it got and the more my grief expanded. They can’t take him, I thought frantically. There is still so much metal left in his shop. He hasn’t finished his work! The sensation spread through my chest and radiated out to the rest of my body. I rounded my shoulders to hold it in. Then I started pulling it from the people around me. I shuddered and gnashed my teeth. I was filling with rage. Oh not here! I thought. Not at Papa’s ceremony! Life wouldn’t leave me alone long enough to even mourn my dead father.
Behind me, the wailing stopped. All I heard was the gentle breeze. It was utterly eerie. Something was beneath me, in the ground, or maybe somewhere else. Suddenly, I was slammed with the pained emotions of everyone around me- for Papa.
On instinct, I laid my hand on his arm. People started screaming. I didn’t turn around. I was too focused on what I had to do. Nobody tried to pull me away. No one touched me. My friend Luyu’s uncle was once struck by lightning during a rare dry season Ungwa storm. He survived but he couldn’t stop talking about how it felt like being violently shaken from the inside out. That’s how I felt now.
I gasped with horror. I couldn’t take my hand from Papa’s arm. It was fused to him. My sand colored skin tapered to his grey brown skin from my palm. A mound of mingled flesh.
I started screaming.
It caught in my throat and I coughed. Then I stared. Papa’s chest was slowly moving up and down, up and down… he was breathing! I was both repulsed and desperately hopeful. I took a deep breath and cried, “Live, Papa! Live!”
A pair of hands settled on my wrists. I knew exactly whose they were. One of his fingers was broken and bandaged. If he didn’t get his hands off me, I’d hurt him far worse than I had five days prior.
“Onyesonwu,” Aro said into my ear, quickly taking his hands from my wrists. Oh, how I hated him. But I listened. “He’s gone,” he said. “Let go, so we can all be free of it.”
Somehow…I did. I let go of Papa.
Everything went dead silent, again.
As if the world, for a moment, were submerged in water.
Then the power that had built up inside of me burst. My veil was blown off my head and my freed braids whipped back. Everyone and everything was thrown back – Aro, my mother, family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, the table of food, the fifty yams, the thirteen large monkeybread fruits, the five cows, the ten goats, the thirty hens, and much sand. Back in town the power went off for thirty seconds, houses would need to be swept of sand, and computers would be taken in for dust damage.
That underwater-like silence, again.
I looked down at my hand. When I tried to remove it from my Papa’s cold, still dead arm, there was the sound of peeling, like weak glue flaking off. My hand left a silhouette of dried mucus on Papa’s arm. I rubbed my fingers together. More of the stuff crackled and peeled from between them. I took one more look at Papa. Then I fell over to the side and passed out.
* * *
That was four years ago. Now see me. People here know that I caused it all. They want to see my blood, they want to make me suffer, and then they want to kill me. Whatever happens after this…let me stop.
Tonight, you want to know how I came to be what I am. You want to know how I got here… It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you…I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies. Thankfully, even my long story will fit on that laptop of yours.
I have two days. I hope it’s enough time. It will all catch up to me soon.
My mother named me Onyesonwu. It means, “Who fears death?” She named me well. I was born twenty years ago, during troubled times. Ironically I grew up far from all the killing…
Just by looking at me, everyone can see that I am a child of rape. But when Papa first saw me, he looked right past this. He’s the only person other than my mother who I can say loved me at first sight. That was part of why I found it so hard to let go of him when he died.
I was the one who chose my Papa for my mother. I was six years old.
My mother and I had recently arrived in Jwahir. Before that, we were desert nomads. One day, as we’d roamed the desert, she stopped as if hearing another voice. She was often strange like that, seeming to converse with someone other than me. Then she said, “It’s time for you to go to school.” I was far too young to understand her real reasons. I was quite happy in the desert but after we arrived in the town of Jwahir, the market quickly became my playground.
Those first few days, to make some fast money, my mother sold most of the cactus candy she had. Cactus candy was more valuable than currency in Jwahir. It was a delicious delicacy. My mother had taught herself how to cultivate it. She must always have had the intention of returning to civilization.
Over the weeks, she planted the cactus cutlets she’d kept and set up a booth. I helped out the best I could. I carried and arranged things and called over customers. In turn, she allowed me an hour of free time each day to roam. In the desert, I used to venture over a mile away from my mother on clear days. I never got lost. So the market was small to me. Nonetheless, there was much to see and the potential for trouble was around every corner.
I was a happy child. People sucked their teeth, grumbled and shifted their eyes when I passed. But I didn’t care. There were chickens and pet foxes to chase, other children to glare back at, arguments to watch. The sand on the ground was sometimes damp with spilled camel milk, other times oily and fragrant from overflowing perfumed-oil bottles, mixed with incense ashes, often stuck to camel, cow or fox dung. The sand here was so affected, whereas back in the desert the sand was untouched.
We’d been in Jwahir only a few months when I found Papa. That fateful day was hot and sunny. When I left my mother, I took a cup of water with me. My first impulse was to go to the strangest structure in Jwahir: The House of Osugbo. Something always drew me to this large square-shaped building. Decorated with odd shapes and symbols, it was Jwahir’s tallest building and the only one made entirely of stone.
“One day I’ll go in there,” I said, as I stood staring at it. “But not today.”
I ventured farther from the market into an area that I hadn’t explored. An electronics shop was selling ugly refurbished computers. They were small black and grey things with exposed motherboards and cracked cases. I wondered if they felt as ugly as they looked. I’d never touched a computer. I reached out to touch one.
“Ta!” the owner said from behind his counter. “Don’t touch!”
I sipped my water and moved on.
My legs eventually brought me to a cave full of fire and noise. The white adobe building was open at the front. The room inside was dark with the occasional blast of fiery light. Heat hotter than the breeze wafted out like the breath of a monster’s open mouth. On the front of the building a large sign read: Ogundimu Blacksmithing- White Ants Never Devour Bronze, Worms Do Not Eat Iron.
I squinted, making out a tall muscle-bound man inside. His dark glistening skin was darkened with soot. Like one of the heroes in the Great Book, I thought. He wore gloves woven from fine threads of metal and black goggles tightly strapped to his face. His nostrils were wide as he pounded on fire with a great hammer. His huge arms flexed with each pound. He could have been the son of Ogun, the goddess of metal. There was such joy in his motions. But he seems so thirsty, I thought. I imagined his throat burning and full of ash. I still had my cup of water. It was half-full. I entered his shop.
It was even hotter inside. However, I’d grown up in the desert. I was used to extreme hot and cold. I cautiously watched the sparks burst from the metal he pounded. Then as respectfully as I could, I said, “Oga, I have water for you.”
RAVE REVIEWS FOR Who Fears Death
A fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling.
Beautifully written, this is dystopian fantasy at its very best.
-The Library Journal Review
Both wondrously magical and terribly realistic.
-The Washington Post
The book is an untraditional fantasy novel; it actually features Black people in an alternate reality that is set in the Motherland. It also skews more toward the Octavia Butler end of the fantastical spectrum with believable, nuanced characters of color and an unbiased view of an Africa full of technology, mysticism, culture clashes and true love.
Her pacing is tight. Her expository sections sing like poetry. Descriptions of paranormal people and battles are disturbingly vivid and palpable. But most crucial to the book’s success is how the author slowly transforms Onye’s pursuit of her rapist father from a personal vendetta to a struggle to transform the social systems that created him.
-The Village Voice
The subject matter of this haunting tale is brutal, yet its words inspire hope…It is a story that begs to be read in one sitting.
-The Christian Science Monitor
WHO FEARS DEATH is unlike anything this reviewer has ever read…Okorafor is a master storyteller who combines recent history, fantasy, tradition, advanced technology and culture into something wonderful and new that should not be missed.
Written in a direct and uncompromising prose and driven by a passion and anger only hinted at in the earlier novels, Okorafor’s first adult novel is easily her best.
Okorafor’s science fiction writing may have been strongly influenced by Octavia Butler, but her writing style and dark thematic approach are comparable to horror master Stephen King.
-The Lansing City Pulse
The clear and sometimes lyrical prose pulls the reader along and compels the reading of page after page. To compare author Nnedi Okorafor to the late Octavia E. Butler would be easy to do, but this simple comparison should not detract from Okorafor’s unique storytelling gift.
-The New York Journal of Books