Who Fears Death? Not Nnedi Okorafor’s heroine!

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Nnedi Okorafor has stolen an irreducible march in the Best Title Ever contest. Who can beat “Who Fears Death” as a title? But more than that, much more, is that Okorafor has shown the way to write fantasy/dystopia that is more than ever a reminder that Truth is way, way stranger than Fiction. If the dystopic Africa of Who Fears Death seems to anyone to be just an imagined, overheated, disjointed, violent and unbalanced society (haha count those modifiers), try reading Emily Wax’s Washington Post article about Sudan and the weaponization of rape. From 2004 on, when we were sitting in our homes and decrying world apathy toward the Sudanese genocide, thousands and thousands of women suffered fates in Sudan equal to if not worse than EVERY scenario of rape and torture that Okorafor evokes in Who Fears Death — I would say creates but then, again, truth is stranger than fiction — in her unforgettable novel Who Fears Death. Onyesonwu, the eponymous protagonist, doesn’t fear death because who fears death after what life shows to be possible in the everyday?

Okorafor was impelled to write this novel after she read that article, but here’s not a case of art imitating life either. The overall effect of the writing transcends its supposed origin story because Okorafor foregrounds the realization that the fictional recounting of horrific gender violence on the scale of atrocities that are globally common enough to seem banal is terrifying at least to a large extent because representation demonstrates the impossibility of itself. Language fails before the scale of the violence and the atrocity so that the witness must shapeshift in order to make sense of a reality that is truly protean in its torments and terrors. The novel was long and at times too richly worked to not become confusing, but that was my failure as a reader. I expected linearity and accessibility in a world that is a minefield of mortal danger for women.


Review of Jeffery Colvin’s Africaville

Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin

Africaville is, to put it briefly, stunning. It took me some time to grasp the reasons for the diffuseness of the book’s events, characters, and topography. Frankly, names and places seemed to be jostling, crowding one another too closely, sending things out of focus.

After reading more, though, and noting the peripatetic lives of so many characters in the community — living or dead — I began to realize that the mode is the matter. The diffuseness of the telling gestures at the displacement and movements of the African diaspora, with corners and nooks of the world of Africaville and its residents left in gray shadows such as those an incomplete and un-sutured people’s history and memory create. How else does one talk about what happened to the African diaspora, and what continues to happen today in penitentiaries and purgatories in North America? Last but not least, the delineation of women characters in the book was outstanding, and Zera Platt was someone I got to know and like as if she were a foremother I hope I’ve had.

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Frank Chin, playwright, said in 1974 something that might still apply today: “Whites love us because we’re not black.”

There’s only one way to confront the term “Model Minority” in the United States, generally applied to Asians, including South Asians. That way is to understand it as the intentional and painstaking act of ‘modeling’ a minority in the image of the majority. That, Chin was saying, was what some Asians do or feel they must: stay as far away from blacks and hispanics as possible because then the white majority won’t get “spooked” by them. By the way, since the 1940s the word “spook” which originally meant difficult to see, has been used derogatorily toward black people.

Honestly, this is sort of like the terrible, very bad race and color problem in William Blake’s 1789 poem “The Little Black Boy.” There, the African boy twists himself into quite a knot trying to tackle and somehow conciliate the violent mysteries of race and color. He says, poor boy, of his English counterpart:

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear, 

To lean in joy upon our father’s knee. 

And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,

And be like him and he will then love me.


But how can this one little black boy reconcile the problems of inside and outside, black and white? It’s difficult, he admits.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,

And I am black, but O! my soul is white;

White as an angel is the English child: 

But I am black as if bereav’d of light

I’m black, I’m white. Now black, now white, now black outside, now white inside. It’s a maze. And a chiasmus. (And I’m fairly sure that Blake, one of the smartest men in history, meant us to feel a-mazed)

That’s what we’re still doing as “model minorities,” twisting ourselves inside and outside into shapes of the right color and phenotype so that we’re not mistaken as black or Hispanics. In 1923, in The United States vs. Bhagat Singh, Bhagat Singh Thind demanded naturalization from  the US Supreme Court because as an Indian man, he said, he was a “high-caste Aryan.’ Indians were Aryans, so almost white.

Listen, I once had a colleague comfort me during some form-filling bonanza — where of course I filled every demographic category as ‘other’ — that I was really Caucasian. Being Indo-Aryan. It was unfortunate the institution didn’t take that point of view, but she herself fully endorsed my racial superiority as racial distance from blacks or hispanics and proximity to the Caucasus. I think she meant well. Because she didn’t know what she meant meant. I didn’t want to be Caucasian, like her, so that she’d love me. I didn’t want to be liked by her because I wasn’t black. I wasn’t going to emerge from that form-filling room schizophrenic like Blake’s poor little black boy. Sorry Michael Jackson, it still do matter if you’re black or white.

For more on the ‘model minority’ see

Also, in my novel in the works, Homeland Blues, a good bit of this issue forms the core of the story. Wish me luck, folks.