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REVIEW – Who Fears Death (2010) By Nnedi Okorafor

December 30, 2010

THE ZONE have my review of Nnedi Okorafor’s debut non-Young Adult novel Who Fears Death.

Set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic and/or fantastical version of Sudan, the novel has attracted a good deal of praise in genre circles.  In fact, its critical coverage has been so overwhelmingly positive that it has even started to attract the kind of hype and word-of-mouth buzz that frequently serves to foreshadow a serious run at the various awards offered by the genre community. The word on the street is that Who Fears Death is a serious and weighty novel by a serious and weighty writer with interesting and important things to say.  However, as I try to explain in my review, I humbly disagree.  In fact, Who Fears Death provided me with what was easily the most singularly unpleasant reading experience I had this year.

Some books are unpleasant to read because they are poorly written.  Some books are unpleasant to read because they are entirely wrong-headed.  These are relatively minor forms of unpleasantness that are easily negotiated thanks to a liberal sprinkling of cynicism and the knowledge that your horror at their awfulness will inspire you to write something interesting.  Who Fears Death is not unpleasant because it is technically flawed or conceptually misguided (though I would suggest that it is both of those things at different points), it is unpleasant because it demands your attention whilst offering nothing in return.

 

 

 

11 Comments
  1. December 30, 2010 4:18 pm

    I liked Who Fears Death a great deal, but I don’t disagree with most of your review. The difference is I didn’t find Onyesonwu and her friends unlikeable, and that made a tremendous difference in terms of what the novel had to offer me as a reader compared to your feeling that it gave you nothing.

    I am curious to hear more of your thoughts on one aspect that you touched on briefly, the way the novel juxtaposes real word Serious Problems with the fantastic. For example, in the novel there is a magical addition to the undesirable effects of female circumcision, and then whole procedure ends up having a magical cure. The whole issue of prejudice is answered not with anything that might work in the real world but with world-altering sorcery (fantasy’s way of dressing up authorial fiat). I guess I’m more familiar with critical thought on the uses of science fiction than I am of fantasy, but the thing that bothered me about the book is I thought it might be more effective if it was a mundane fiction novel about Sudan rather than a fantasy novel about the Kingdom of Seven Rivers.

  2. December 30, 2010 4:53 pm

    Hi Matt :-)

    I struggle to understand how you could see Onyesonwu as sympathetic. She is not only a hypocrite but a hypocrite who is sadistic, self-righteous and vindictive. I spent large chunks of the book hoping that her dad would turn up and feed her into a mincer.

    I generally quite like books with unsympathetic characters and I’m definitely not the type of reader who demands only ‘strong characters I can empathise with’ but I found Onyesonwu’s unpleasantness combined with the book’s clear desire to present her as sympathetic and worth rooting for to be quite difficult. At one point I even thought that Onyesonwu was a satirical character used to mock the traditional moral righteousness of fantasy fiction.

    ‘What if Gandalf had used his powers to rape people?’ if you will.

    The issue of political engagement is slightly more tricky but I’m not at all convinced. I agree that Okorafor RAISES the issues of genocide and female circumcision and tries to present them in a way that acknowledges their complexity but I’m not convinced that she provides any more insight than simply acknowledging the problems. For example, what exactly is gained from the use of magic in the circumcision ritual? Okorafor states the problem and explains why some African women agree to be circumcised but she never explains why older women support the system and when she starts to play around with the question of what might happen if you could magically restore a clitoris, Okorafor becomes so vague and evasive that no real light is shed on anything. Similarly, when Okorafor asks the question ‘what would it mean if tribal mythologies were true and there really were messianic magical figures who could lead one side to decisive victory over the other?’ the answer is dodged and spread around and the train of thought is allowed to disperse.

    I think there’s an intellectual big fish/small pond issue here. By the standards of your average fantasy novel, Who Fears Death is complex and intelligent: it acknowledges real world problems and it presents them in an intelligent and informed manner. But when asked to comment on those issues using a genre toolbox, Okorafor simply has nothing to say.

    The entire book lacks intellectual depth, as evidenced by the crossing of the desert: quest as initiatic journey but nothing is actually learned from it.

  3. December 30, 2010 5:52 pm

    This is the most thoughtful and intelligent negative review of Who Fears Death that I’ve seen, though obviously as somebody who found the novel an engaging and powerful read, I barely recognize the book I read in the description of the one you read.

    But I’m struck by a problem that has nagged at me sometimes myself when reviewing books, especially ones I didn’t like reading — what to make, really, of vastly different reading experiences. For instance, when you write, “Okorafor marches us across a desert of meaning and style and offers us nothing in return. No beauty. No truth. No insight. No tragedy. No comedy. Nothing…”, my immediate reaction as someone who did find meaning, style, and substance, occasional beauty, definite truth, some insight, tragedy definitely — as someone like that, your statement leaves me two options: Either I am a fool who was suckered by a bad book, or you have completely missed everything of value in the book. I do think you’ve missed everything of value in the book, but so it goes — books hit us all in different ways, and there are plenty of books lots of people love that I see no value in. But where does that leave the reader who really connected with the novel? Isn’t there a difference between saying “I see no value in this book,” and “There is no value in this book”? One is a statement of preference and individual experience, the other a claim to absolute knowledge.

    To some extent, perhaps, reviews have to pretend to be able to claim absolute knowledge or some sort of objectivity, and so they set up a kind of opposition of reviewer vs. implied disagree-er, with the reviewer privileged by the fact of being the writer of the review, and thus controlling the perspective offered. But I wonder what it means to say “there is nothing here” — does it mean only “this has no meaning for me” … or does it mean, “This has no meaning for me, and it should not have any meaning for you,” which seems … well, a little presumptuous, if not bullying. (And I say this as somebody who’s written pretty much the same thing at times, usually to my regret. There’s an intoxication I find with the performance that is a negative review, an intoxication that leads me to sound, if I’m not careful, like I want to be the emperor of everybody’s reading experiences.)

    In the case of a book like Who Fears Death, which has been on various best-of-the-year lists, and attracted passionately positive responses from some readers, the implication is that everybody else is … well, what, exactly?

    Maybe it’s Stuart Hall I hear echoing in the back of my brain — a writer encodes meaning-structures in a text, then readers decode the text into meaning-structures for themselves … and while in a review we can certainly say: “These are the meaning-structures I decode from the text,” I’m not sure it’s justified to say that other readers’ decodings are absolutely illegitmate, which is the only implication I can see allowed within a statement like “Okorafor marches us across a desert of meaning and style and offers us nothing in return…” There’s a lot else in your review that I, someone to whom the book provided a valuable reading experience, can find interesting — that provokes thought and reflection — but I get tripped up on the more absolutist statements.

  4. December 30, 2010 7:45 pm

    Jonathan: ‘What if Gandalf had used his powers to rape people?’ if you will.

    The key for me was that while she may have Gandalf’s powers, she doesn’t have Gandalf’s nature (i.e. an angel) nor does she claim to. I’m not sure about sadistic, but I’ll agree she’s often self-righteous and vindictive. And further I don’t really see her as a hypocrite. She seems to agree in theory with Mwita’s proposal that they reject Ewu stereotypes and present themselves as peaceful, non-violent Ghandi analogues, but when actually facing injustice her outrage gets the better of her. The results are regrettable, and get increasingly so as the novel goes on. So to me the question is more, “What if a human had Gandalf’s powers?” It’s not too different from how everyone’s first idea for using a time machine is cold-blooded murder (of Hitler).

    Perhaps the novel can be seen as using its genre toolbox to show how even a relatively good person (I guess you’d disagree with that assessment) can be caught up in the cycle of outrages. Admittedly that doesn’t seem to be the reading the author intends for the ending but the brutality of it is made so clear and the positive effects are so vague it’s hard to read it any other way.

    Matt Chaney: I agree that absolute statements can be indirectly insulting and therefore should probably be avoided. That said, to me the following two statements are not equivalent:

    “Okorafor marches us across a desert of meaning and style and offers us nothing in return.”

    and

    “Okorafor marches us across a desert of meaning and style but I felt she offered me nothing in return.”

    Sometimes I read a book, it doesn’t work, but I can see that as being a personal reaction (I felt that way about The City & the City). Other times I read a book, can’t stand it, and can’t imagine how anyone else could either. Iain Banks’ Transition was like that for me. That doesn’t mean people who liked Transition are idiots, but the very fact I have to fight the urge to think so shows how strongly I feel about it.

    I guess there are other ways to demonstrate this strength of feeling, but they seem like they would be more elliptical and clumsy. “Other people I respect seem to have been adequately compensated by Okorafor for their jounrey across this desert of meaning and style, but I was not.” I guess I feel like reviews have a sort of implicit “IMO” before everything. There’s not always an H before that O, mind you…

  5. December 30, 2010 10:16 pm

    I agree with you, Matt (behold! a plague of Matts!), regarding the passion signified by broad, sweeping statements — it’s clear that Jonathan hated the book and loathed just about every minute of reading it. I get that, and I’m glad he wrote about the novel because of that — he’s able to express ideas that a more moderate reviewer, who sort of enjoyed some of it and sort of didn’t enjoy other parts of it but was basically neutral to the whole thing would not be able to express. I’m all for writing from passion!

    And I agree with you that by their nature reviews are an expression of a personal opinion. To pretend otherwise is grandiose. Except I think someone might then say what you don’t, which is that they’re “merely” opinion, when a thoughtful review, as I expect we all agree, offers not only opinion, but perspective and perception — a way of reading a text, a way of engaging with it. I guess what I’m advocating for, if I’m advocating for anything, is an embrace of the personal perspective in place of a pose of objectivity — what I like about Jonathan’s review are the spots where he’s able to articulate what prevents him from engaging with the novel, what fuels his loathing for its characters and situations. I don’t think you have to deny the possibility of other readings to do that.

  6. December 31, 2010 8:14 am

    Matt C —

    I was planning on writing a much longer post speculating as to why I didn’t enjoy reading Who Fears Death but while I didn’t get round to doing it, I fully acknowledge the fact that the negative review is mostly about why the book didn’t work for me. Partly this is a question of having different standards and interests but I also think there’s an issue with the form that Okorafor uses.

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that my reaction to Who Fears Death was very similar to my reaction to Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. My review of the first book of the series displays a similar sense of frustration at the book’s lack of traction with anything recognisably psychological or even human :

    http://ruthlessculture.com/2010/03/19/the-shadow-of-the-torturer-1980-the-eye-of-art-turned-inwards/

    I’d be interested to know what you did get out of the passage in the desert as it really did strike me as a crude parody of either Wolfe or initatic and/or allegorical literature such as Dark Night of the Soul or Gawain and the Green Knight. I’ve read both of those works and got something out of them but I have struggled with both Wolfe (though I appreciate him on a purely aesthetic level) and now Okorafor who use a similar form but without their symbolism really connecting with anything real.

    Also, as other Matt points out, I have a very real aversion to the ‘people wander around a magical dreamland and somehow everything works out’ trope that pops up so frequently in fantasy. Pratchett uses it all the time and I never see it as anything other than an entirely sickening and lazy use of authorial fiat.

    As a writer, I am starting to find evaluative reviews more and more problematic for precisely the reasons you raise. I don’t know what people like, so who am I to tell them whether or not they will like something? I can give my opinion and maybe it will be of some use to you but I in no way assume my reviews to be the last word on a particular text. That would be monstrous and insane. I see my review as just another (admittedly dischordant) note in a chorus of opinion but I am increasingly uncomfortable reviewing for precisely the reasons you raise.

  7. December 31, 2010 8:22 am

    Matt H —

    The sadism comes from Onyesonwu’s use of collective punishment. She’ll subject entire towns to the experience of rape, strike not just entire towns blind but entire generations of people from that town blind. She also ends the book by magically raping and impregnating the entire female Nuru population thereby putting herself on the exact same level as her supposedly evil father. At least her father only raped and impregnated a few hundred Okeke women… Onyesonwu does it to thousands and thousands.

    Onyesonwu does provide an answer to the question “what would happen if Hitler had had magical powers?” and as a result, I am really uncomfortable with the idea that anyone could find her sympathetic. I can empathise with her completely… she has a shitty lot in life and I can understand her fear, her anger and her desire to lash out. But the fact that she does lash out and does so both so frequently and with such devastating consequences makes it impossible for me to sympathise with her.

    Your suggestion that Who Fears Death is a kind of genre moral toolbox is, I feel, the right one and that is a reading I tried to tease out of the text but I find the book’s sympathies really quite problematic as is the fact that so much of the moral donkeywork is left to the reader. Having read the book and re-read the ending maybe 3 or 4 times, I still have no idea what I am supposed to take away from it and that strikes me as a failing.

  8. January 2, 2011 3:36 pm

    Thanks for the response, Jonathan — I think any reviewer who’s not a megalomaniac struggles with evaluation; it’s so full of temptations that may or may not be useful. There’s no simple answer, and for me it’s ultimately about each book. When my response to something is really passionately negative and negating — as in, how the hell could anybody find any value in a single sentence of this hideous thing?! — then I tend to assume it’s as much about me as it is the book … which can lead to great writing, but also a blindness to other ways of seeing. Awareness, I’d say these days, is the key. There’s no need to hide an evaluation, but there is some responsibility, I think, to contextualize it if it’s particularly strong.

    I read Who Fears Death as an extremely metatextual novel, probably more so than Okorafor intended, but I’m not much interested in limiting my reading by a writer’s intentions. I haven’t read much Wolfe beyond Fifth Head of Cerberus and a few short stories (I don’t tend to read series books, and so the amount of Suns novels has intimidated me in the same way Proust has), so I don’t have access to that comparison, and I can certainly believe that if I had read Wolfe, then I might not have experienced Okorafor in the same way. I, too, don’t have much use for the sort of quest story you saw the book as being, but for whatever reason I read it all as against that type of story, and saw it as a kind of warning about the sorts of stories we tell and the ways we tell them about the world. I’m very interested in African literatures and the representations of Africa (I just taught a whole course on the topic), so that’s a context I brought to the novel, reading in my own sense that how stories of Africa are told has a tremendous effect on ideas and behaviors that then create the idea of “Africa” and “Africans”, for better or worse. I read the character of Onyesonwu very ironically, and also partially as one of corruption — in so many stories we get a character to whom terrible acts are committed, and their primary purpose is to evoke sympathy from the reader, to make us feel the terror of the acts, and Onyesonwu starts out as that (for me, at least), but then the further we go into the story, the more and more she seems just to have been turned into a nasty, destructive person because of things that were done to her — and so I read the book as warning that suffering is not always enobling, that oftentimes it just makes us into terrible, vindictive people bent on spreading more destruction.

    Similarly, we’re all familiar with stories of people who discover they have great powers and are destined to be the saviors of the world. Sometimes those stories can be fun, but they’re fundamentally power fantasies. Hey, if only I wasn’t this schlub I feel myself to be — if only everybody who thinks I’m such a failure could discover that, in actuality, I’m Harry Potter — whoa, wouldn’t that be the best?! Well, there are all sorts of things that should be taken apart in such a fantasy, and I saw Who Fears Death as doing at least a bit of that.

    Power coupled with unhealed wounds can be a terrible thing. That’s a different story than many I’ve seen, and that’s where the core of my excitement in Who Fears Death came from. Similarly, I read the book as constantly striving for a form, trying to find the right kind of story to contain itself, and failing — it falls apart as a bildungsroman, it self-destructs as a quest, it fizzles as an archetypal good vs. evil tale. The story forms aren’t adequate, and they hide as much as they reveal, softening what should be objectionable within conventions. And then we see that history and tradition are as much interested in sanctifying the conventions as anything else. In the end, the impression the book left on me was one I really didn’t expect: an idea that we need stories to make sense of living, but that all the stories we have are inadequate to the lives we lead.

    That’s probably a more nihilistic reading of the book than a lot of readers would make … but it made the whole very exciting for me! And given the choice between a reading that makes a book shallow or failed versus one that makes it fascinating and full of clues and traces and levels of meaning, I’ll go with the latter. (I probably explained all this better in my Rain Taxi review, because I wasn’t 6+ months away from the book then.) Or maybe “nihilistic” isn’t the right word — maybe my (mis)reading is just really Brechtian.

  9. January 3, 2011 8:17 am

    Matt — That’s pretty much, word for word, what I took from the book. It’s meta-textual, it’s about an attempt to define oneself through story, it’s about the moral simplicity and political fallout that comes from trying to force the world into those kinds of narratives and it’s about the fact that none of these stories really work because they are invariably simplistic and reductive.

    I agree that the book is all of these things but I am still largely unimpressed. I’m unimpressed because I have seen other works make precisely this point (it’s hardly an original insight after-all) with greater style in much less space. I also think that there’s a desire by Okorafor to have her cake and eat it by commenting upon various moral ‘issues': But what is morality if not a story that we tell about ourselves? Admittedly, the morality of circumcision and genocide descend into equivocation and lack of clarity and this would certainly support your reading of the book as nihilistic but I can’t help feeling that this is a complete cop out. “Oh I didn’t mean it to make any sense” is not a defence, it’s a waste of the reader’s time.

  10. January 3, 2011 8:24 am

    I’m also reminded of Sauvaire’s film about Child Soldiers Johnny Mad Dog : http://ruthlessculture.com/2009/11/01/johnny-mad-dog-2008-random-acts-of-narrative/

    Covers very similar territory in a very similar landscape.

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