To be honest I’m ambivalent about Who Fears Death?, a novel I’ve read three times now and which at the last reading began to grate. Let’s consider gut reactions to fiction: I find Onyesonwu narcissistic as a character; some of WFD?‘s dialog seems superfluous and vapid; and, as Paul Di Filippo has noted, the novel itself is lopsided– heavy on Onye’s bildung and short on resolution. On the other hand WFD? solicits an allegorical reading even if, in Okorafor’s own words “the novel wrote itself,” a statement that comes dangerously close to preciousness.
The temptation to read allegorically might be a function of the novel’s omissions and gaps. What apocalyptic event or singularity created the world Onye inhabits? Nuclear warfare? Global warming? A pandemic disease? We don’t know. Can we read WFD? as a commentary on postcolonial Africa, a continent still gripped by intractable contradictions even though the colonizers of the 19th and early 20th centuries are long gone? What then about the phenomenon of neocolonialism, of the prison of debt and “structural adjustment” that continues to cage so-called developing African nations? Are Okorafor’s references to female genital mutilation, patriarchy, ethnic cleansing and the exploitation of children as combatants simply gestures of liberal (rather than radical) critique with which US American readers are comfortably familiar?
By way of experiment compare WFD? with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. Both novels invoke radical political figures paratextually. Nervous Conditions‘s title is taken from a preface to Frantz Fanon‘s Wretched of the Earth (a core text of African decolonization) written by the Marxist existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In his preface Sartre argues that “the status of ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent”— an assertion which encapsulates Fanon’s view that colonialism exacts a terrible psychic toll on its victims. This basic insight is dramatized harrowingly in Dangarembga’s novel. By contrast, Okorafor quotes another great figure of African decolonization, Patrice Lumumba, though crucially her purpose in doing so is not immediately clear. How does WFD?‘s epigraph relate to the narrative that follows? Is Onye like Lumumba, a rebellious, generative avatar destroyed by the inexorable violence of the oppressors? What of the most oppressive of all of WFD?‘s characters, Daib, Onye’s father and nemesis? Does his status as her father suggest that the novel, which possesses some sort of political valence, is more appropriately viewed as a kind of Freudian “family romance”– a psychological drama with which Okorafor’s younger readers might be inclined to identify?