Who Fears Death
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An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post-apocalyptic Africa.
In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue. Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.
Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Nigerian immigrant parents. She holds a Ph.D. in English and is a professor at Chicago State University. She has been the winner of and finalist for many awards.
- In Who Fears Death, actual African traditions and spirituality are blended with the fantastical. In Nigerian culture, one can see masquerades dancing, joking, threatening at weddings, funerals, and on other special days. How do your definitions of fantasy and spirituality affect your reading of Who Fears Death?
- Consider the genres of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and literary fiction. Which of these does Who Fears Death touch on? Discuss how you would categorize this novel and why.
- In Who Fears Death, there are traditional villages and towns that also have advanced technology including computers, portable devices, capture stations, etc. In this world, the traditional and the modern are fluid and quite compatible. How does this reflect parts of Africa today? How does this complicate common stereotypes of Africa?
- In Who Fears Death, the Ada is an empowered woman, educated and married, yet living in her own house. She is highly respected in the community, but is also the central guardian of the town's clitoridectomy tradition, the Eleventh Rite. What does the Ada's character say about the complexity or simplicity of female empowerment and even the concept of feminism?
- In many cultures, women view the clitoridectomy as a bonding experience. They share pain, fear, risk infection and heal together. Consider Onyesonwu's friendship with Luyu, Binta and Diti. How did their clitoridectomys play a role in the creation of their friendship? How would Onyesonwu's story have been different if she did not have a clitoridectomy? What does this say about life?
- Consider Alice Walker's book about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Warrior Marks. Does Who Fears Death's approach of this topic differ from Walker's?
- A large part of the violence in Darfur, Sudan (the United States has defined the Darfur conflict as genocide), has been attributed to militias known as the Janjaweed. In Arabic, the word "Janjaweed" literally means, "A man with a gun on a horse." In Who Fears Death, Daib and the men who rape the Okeke women Holding Conversation in the desert were modeled after these Janjaweed and the ethnic-cleansing in the West was modeled after the genocide in the Sudan. How is the novel using a future setting to address these devastating problems of the present?
- Onyesonwu's biological father is a rapist and the main instigator of the last push to completely annihilate the Okeke from the West. As a child he was taught by the mysterious sorcerer Sola and raised by a mother who was one of the few Nuru who took the chance to help Okeke escape slavery. What does Daib's character say about the nature of good and evil and the idea of "nature vs. nurture"?
- Onyesonwu never gives up on becoming a sorceress. She tries asking, having others ask for her, begging, pleading, using persistence and finally using force. What was her main driving ambition?
- Consider the bits of history and storytelling in the novel that give glimpses of the distant past. Who are the Okeke really descendants of? The storyteller says that the goddess Ani pulled the sun to the land and from this sun she plucked the Nuru people. What could this "sun" represent? What part of the origin tale of the Okeke and Nuru in the Great Book is story and what part is actual history?
- Discuss the role of friendship in Onyesonwu's journey and the role of mentorship in Onyesonwu's path to becoming a sorceress.
- Compare and contrast the relationships between Onyesonwu and Diti to their lovers Mwita and Fanasi. How have their upbringings contributed to these relationships?
- Just after Binta's death, Onyesonwu retells the story of Zoubeir the Great. How does her angry retelling differ from the likely original version of the story? Why does she tell this story?
- In the Igbo language (the Igbo are a Nigerian ethnic group), the word ifunanya is used to denote love. A more literal translation of the word is "to look into one's eyes" or "I'm seeing you with great affection." In the traditional context, long ago, romantic love grew on a couple, and was not necessarily the initial reason for the coupling. In Who Fears Death, this word takes on a more magical meaning. It is a word spoken only once in a man's life (or a barren woman's) to the one that is his (or her) true spiritual companion. Discuss the relationship of Onyesonwu and Mwita and the significance of ifunanya.
- Onyesonwu's being female, a sorceress, pregnant and overcome with emotion causes an entire town of men to die. Do you think Aro was right to discriminate against the training of a young woman as sorcerers?
- In the West, the Nuru are inflicting genocide on the Okeke people. However, as with all evil things, the issue is complicated. Mwita's journey is a perfect example of this. His parents were in love when they made him. He was raised by loving Nurus who were murdered by angry Okeke fighting for their freedom. He was forced to be a child soldier by Okeke, the very people who were being exterminated. As a child soldier, he witnessed rape and murder amongst the Okeke. Consider the genocide in the Sudan, which is based on history, religion, land dispute, ethnicity (real and imagined), and skin tone. How are things there more complicated than they seem?
- Onyesonwu is the one prophesized, not a man. Onyesonwu's adoptive father is the one who raises her and it is her biological father who tries to kill her. For years, Aro rejects Onyesonwu because she is female. Comment on the roles of men and women in the novel.
- In Who Fears Death, the written word and language are very powerful. For example, Onyesonwu "rewrites" the Great Book, and the mysterious House of Osugbo is engraved with Nsibidi (a magical script), as is Daib's office building. Discuss the various ways that words drive Onyesonwu's story.