Author Nnedi Okorafor discusses the way this novel grabbed her imagination and refused to let go...
So, I’ve written this novel titled Who Fears Death. A woman named Onyesonwu (which means "Who Fears Death" in the Nigerian language of Igbo) materialized in my head and she started telling me a most incredible story. Any writer who hears a good story will write it down. I’m no different.
When I consider Who Fears Death, I realize this woman’s voice rose from an unheard collective voice shouting at me from the “Dark Continent”. That is why I feel this post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy/magical realist novel is as much a piece of African Literature as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Who Fears Death is about how a woman named Onyesonwu becomes infamous enough to have to tell her story from a jail cell two days before her scheduled execution. Onyesonwu dictated her story to me with urgency; she spoke in short sentences, was unafraid of honesty, and sometimes she scared me. However, I was just the writer; thankfully, she never aimed her anger at me.
Inevitably, Onyesonwu’s narrative is about African women. You see, I reside between both American and Nigerian cultures. I was born in the United States to Igbo immigrant parents who maintained a close connection to Nigeria. I am an outsider. I am observant. I listen. Then I process.
It was by listening to and processing the stories of relatives, researching news from The Continent, consuming African literature, taking trips to Nigeria (these trips showed me horrors and wonders) … it was all this that opened the door for me to hear Onyesonwu’s tale. And hers is not a story for the faint of heart. The plight of African women is often difficult … even in the future.
In this part of future Africa, many of the past and present problems remain. There is genocide in the West, like the genocide of today in the Sudan. Onyesonwu is Ewu, a product of this war, the result of “weaponized rape”.
In this world, familiar issues are further complicated by technology. There are old paper-thin computers that are durable enough to last centuries and tiny digital devices that hold e-maps, e-books, and … can record. There is the capture station, a portable device that pulls condensation from the clouds to produce fresh water, the perfect tool to help Onyesonwu’s mother survive alone in the desert … after her brutal rape.
There is the ancient practice of the eleventh rite, where eleven-year-old girls are still clitoridectomized with a primitive scalpel instead of a laser-knife. But this rite is a girl’s choice and there are plenty of books where one can learn about the procedure. But is it really choice when marriage is contingent upon having it done? It is all complicated.
Onyesonwu lives in a world that is complicated by the push and pull between culture/tradition and a woman's right to her individuality and destiny. Her story is about an embittered battle that I have witnessed African women endure both on The Continent and in the Diaspora. A battle of many women. Voices heard, voices silenced, but ultimately told through the voice of one — Onyesonwu.
- Nnedi Okorafor