Excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor's WHO FEARS DEATH

I've been reading Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, and it's a pretty interesting read thus far. So I invited the author to send me an extract to post on the Hotlist for your reading pleasure. And voilà! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks.

To learn more about the novel, the author, and a panoply of other details, check out Okorafor's website.


Part I

Chapter 1
My Father’s Face

My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart. Yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? It’s true that nothing could take him from his work, his art. He loved to make the metal bend and obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can’t be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.

Immediately after he died, my mother came running out of their bedroom sobbing and throwing herself against the wall. I knew then that I would be different. I knew in that moment that I would never again be able to fully control the fire inside me. I became a different creature that day, not so human. Everything that happened later, I now understand started then.

The ceremony was held on the outskirt of town, before the sand dunes. It was the middle of the day and terribly hot. His body lay on thick white cloth, surrounded by a garland of braided palm fronds. I knelt there in the sand before his body, saying my last goodbye. I’ll never forget his face. It didn’t look like Papa’s anymore. Papa’s skin was dark brown, his lips were full. This face had sunken cheeks, deflated lips and skin like grey brown paper. Papa’s spirit had gone elsewhere.

The back of my neck prickled. My white veil was a poor protection from people’s ignorant and fearful eyes. By this time, everyone was always watching me. I clenched my jaw. Around me, women were on their knees weeping and wailing. Papa was dearly loved, despite the fact that he’d married my mother, a woman with a daughter like me- an Ewu daughter. That had long been excused as one of those mistakes even the greatest man can make. Over the wailing, I heard my mother’s soft whimper. She had suffered the greatest loss.

It was her turn to have her last moment. Afterwards, they’d take him for cremation. I looked down at his face one last time. I’ll never see you again, I thought. I wasn’t ready. I blinked and touched my chest. That’s when it happened…when I touched my chest. At first, it felt like an itchy tingle. It quickly swelled into something more.

The more I tried to get up, the more intense it got and the more my grief expanded. They can’t take him, I thought frantically. There is still so much metal left in his shop. He hasn’t finished his work! The sensation spread through my chest and radiated out to the rest of my body. I rounded my shoulders to hold it in. Then I started pulling it from the people around me. I shuddered and gnashed my teeth. I was filling with rage. Oh not here! I thought. Not at Papa’s ceremony! Life wouldn’t leave me alone long enough to even mourn my dead father.

Behind me, the wailing stopped. All I heard was the gentle breeze. It was utterly eerie. Something was beneath me, in the ground, or maybe somewhere else. Suddenly, I was slammed with the pained emotions of everyone around me- for Papa.

On instinct, I laid my hand on his arm. People started screaming. I didn’t turn around. I was too focused on what I had to do. Nobody tried to pull me away. No one touched me. My friend Luyu’s uncle was once struck by lightning during a rare dry season Ungwa storm. He survived but he couldn’t stop talking about how it felt like being violently shaken from the inside out. That’s how I felt now.

I gasped with horror. I couldn’t take my hand from Papa’s arm. It was fused to him. My sand colored skin tapered to his grey brown skin from my palm. A mound of mingled flesh.

I started screaming.

It caught in my throat and I coughed. Then I stared. Papa’s chest was slowly moving up and down, up and down… he was breathing! I was both repulsed and desperately hopeful. I took a deep breath and cried, “Live, Papa! Live!”

A pair of hands settled on my wrists. I knew exactly whose they were. One of his fingers was broken and bandaged. If he didn’t get his hands off me, I’d hurt him far worse than I had five days prior.

“Onyesonwu,” Aro said into my ear, quickly taking his hands from my wrists. Oh, how I hated him. But I listened. “He’s gone,” he said. “Let go, so we can all be free of it.”

Somehow…I did. I let go of Papa.

Everything went dead silent, again.

As if the world, for a moment, were submerged in water.

Then the power that had built up inside of me burst. My veil was blown off my head and my freed braids whipped back. Everyone and everything was thrown back - Aro, my mother, family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, the table of food, the fifty yams, the thirteen large monkeybread fruits, the five cows, the ten goats, the thirty hens, and much sand. Back in town the power went off for thirty seconds, houses would need to be swept of sand, and computers would be taken in for dust damage.

That underwater-like silence, again.

I looked down at my hand. When I tried to remove it from my Papa’s cold, still dead arm, there was the sound of peeling, like weak glue flaking off. My hand left a silhouette of dried mucus on Papa’s arm. I rubbed my fingers together. More of the stuff crackled and peeled from between them. I took one more look at Papa. Then I fell over to the side and passed out.

* * *

That was four years ago. Now see me. People here know that I caused it all. They want to see my blood, they want to make me suffer, and then they want to kill me. Whatever happens after this…let me stop.

Tonight, you want to know how I came to be what I am. You want to know how I got here… It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you…I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies. Thankfully, even my long story will fit on that laptop of yours.

I have two days. I hope it’s enough time. It will all catch up to me soon.

My mother named me Onyesonwu. It means, “Who fears death?” She named me well. I was born twenty years ago, during troubled times. Ironically I grew up far from all the killing

Chapter 2

Just by looking at me, everyone can see that I am a child of rape. But when Papa first saw me, he looked right past this. He’s the only person other than my mother who I can say loved me at first sight. That was part of why I found it so hard to let go of him when he died.

I was the one who chose my Papa for my mother. I was six years old.

My mother and I had recently arrived in Jwahir. Before that, we were desert nomads. One day, as we’d roamed the desert, she stopped as if hearing another voice. She was often strange like that, seeming to converse with someone other than me. Then she said, “It’s time for you to go to school.” I was far too young to understand her real reasons. I was quite happy in the desert but after we arrived in the town of Jwahir, the market quickly became my playground.

Those first few days, to make some fast money, my mother sold most of the cactus candy she had. Cactus candy was more valuable than currency in Jwahir. It was a delicious delicacy. My mother had taught herself how to cultivate it. She must always have had the intention of returning to civilization.

Over the weeks, she planted the cactus cutlets she’d kept and set up a booth. I helped out the best I could. I carried and arranged things and called over customers. In turn, she allowed me an hour of free time each day to roam. In the desert, I used to venture over a mile away from my mother on clear days. I never got lost. So the market was small to me. Nonetheless, there was much to see and the potential for trouble was around every corner.

I was a happy child. People sucked their teeth, grumbled and shifted their eyes when I passed. But I didn’t care. There were chickens and pet foxes to chase, other children to glare back at, arguments to watch. The sand on the ground was sometimes damp with spilled camel milk, other times oily and fragrant from overflowing perfumed-oil bottles, mixed with incense ashes, often stuck to camel, cow or fox dung. The sand here was so affected, whereas back in the desert the sand was untouched.

We’d been in Jwahir only a few months when I found Papa. That fateful day was hot and sunny. When I left my mother, I took a cup of water with me. My first impulse was to go to the strangest structure in Jwahir: The House of Osugbo. Something always drew me to this large square-shaped building. Decorated with odd shapes and symbols, it was Jwahir’s tallest building and the only one made entirely of stone.

“One day I’ll go in there,” I said, as I stood staring at it. “But not today.”

I ventured farther from the market into an area that I hadn’t explored. An electronics shop was selling ugly refurbished computers. They were small black and grey things with exposed motherboards and cracked cases. I wondered if they felt as ugly as they looked. I’d never touched a computer. I reached out to touch one.

Ta!” the owner said from behind his counter. “Don’t touch!”

I sipped my water and moved on.

My legs eventually brought me to a cave full of fire and noise. The white adobe building was open at the front. The room inside was dark with the occasional blast of fiery light. Heat hotter than the breeze wafted out like the breath of a monster’s open mouth. On the front of the building a large sign read: Ogundimu Blacksmithing- White Ants Never Devour Bronze, Worms Do Not Eat Iron.

I squinted, making out a tall muscle-bound man inside. His dark glistening skin was darkened with soot. Like one of the heroes in the Great Book, I thought. He wore gloves woven from fine threads of metal and black goggles tightly strapped to his face. His nostrils were wide as he pounded on fire with a great hammer. His huge arms flexed with each pound. He could have been the son of Ogun, the goddess of metal. There was such joy in his motions. But he seems so thirsty, I thought. I imagined his throat burning and full of ash. I still had my cup of water. It was half-full. I entered his shop.

It was even hotter inside. However, I’d grown up in the desert. I was used to extreme hot and cold. I cautiously watched the sparks burst from the metal he pounded. Then as respectfully as I could, I said, “Oga, I have water for you.”

My voice startled him. The sight of a lanky little girl who was what people called Ewu standing in his shop startled him more. He pushed his goggles up. The un-sooted area around his eyes was about my mother’s dark brown complexion. The white part of his eyes are so white for someone who stares at fire all day, I thought.

“Child, you shouldn’t be in here,” he said. I stepped back. His voice was sonorous. Full. This man could speak into the desert and animals from miles away would hear him.

“It’s not so hot,” I said. I held up the water. “Here.” I stepped closer, very conscious of what I was. I was wearing the green dress my mother had sewn for me. The material was light but it covered every inch of me all the way to my ankles and wrists. She’d have made me wear a veil over my face but she didn’t have the heart.

It was odd. Mostly, people shunned me because I was Ewu. But sometimes women crowded around me. “But her skin,” they would say to each other, never directly to me. “It’s so smooth and delicate. It looks almost like camel’s milk.”

“And her hair is oddly bushy, like a cloud of dried grass.”

“Her eyes are like a desert cat’s.”

“Ani makes strange beauty from ugliness.”

“She might be beautiful by the time she goes through her Eleventh Rite.”

“What’s the point of her going through it? No one will marry her.” Then laughter.

In the market, men had tried to grab me but I was always quicker and I knew how to scratch. I’d learned from the desert cats. All this confused my six-year-old mind. Now, as I stood before the blacksmith, I feared that he might find my ugly features strangely delightful, too.

I held the cup up to him. He took it and drank long and deep, pulling in every drop. I was tall for my age but he was tall for his. I had to tilt my head back to see the smile on his face. He let out a great sigh of relief and handed the cup back to me.

“Good water,” he said. He went back to his anvil. “You’re too tall and far too bold to be a water sprite.”

I smiled and said, “My name is Onyesonwu Ubaid. What’s yours, Oga?”

“Fadil Ogundimu,” he said. He looked at his gloved hands. “I would shake your hand, Onyesonwu, but my gloves are hot.”

“That’s ok, Oga,” I said. “You’re a blacksmith!”

He nodded. “As was my father and his father and his father and so on.”

“My mother and I just got here some months ago,” I blurted. I remembered that it was growing late. “Oh. I have to go, Oga Ogundimu!”

“Thanks for the water,” he said. “You were right. I was thirsty.”

After that, I visited him often. He became my best and only friend. If my mother had known I was hanging around a strange man, she’d have beaten me and taken away my free time for weeks. The blacksmith’s apprentice, a man named Ji, hated me and he let me know this by sneering with disgust whenever he saw me, as if I were a diseased wild animal.

“Ignore Ji,” the blacksmith said. “He’s good with metal but he lacks imagination. Forgive him. He is primitive.”

“Do you think I look evil?” I asked.

“You’re lovely,” he said smiling. “The way a child is conceived is not a child’s fault or burden.”

I didn’t know what “conceived” meant and I didn’t ask. He’d called me “lovely” and I didn’t want him to take his words back. Thankfully, Ji usually came late, during the cooler part of the day.
Soon I was telling the blacksmith about my life in the desert. I was too young to know to keep such sensitive things to myself. I didn’t understand that my past, my very existence was sensitive. In turn, he taught me a few things about metal, like which types yielded to heat most easily and which didn’t.

“What was your wife like?” I asked one day. I was really just running my mouth. I was more interested in the small stack of bread he’d bought me.

“Njeri. She was black-skinned,” he said. He put both his big hands around one of his thighs. “And had very strong legs. She was a camel racer.”

I swallowed the bread I was chewing. “Really?!” I exclaimed.

“People said that her legs were what kept her on the camels but I know better. She had some sort of gift, too.”

“Gift of what?” I asked, leaning forward. “Could she walk through walls? Fly? Eat glass? Change into a beetle?”

The blacksmith laughed. “You read a lot,” he said.

“I’ve read the Great Book twice!” I bragged.

“Impressive,” he said. “Well, my Njeri could speak to camels. Camel-talking is a man’s job, so she chose camel racing instead. And Njeri didn’t just race. She won races. We met when we were teenagers. We married when we were twenty.”

“What did her voice sound like?” I asked.

“Oh her voice was aggravating and beautiful,” he said.

I frowned at this, confused.

“She was very loud,” he explained, taking a piece of my bread. “She laughed a lot when she was happy, and shouted a lot when she was irritated. You see?”

I nodded.

“For a while, we were happy,” he said. He paused.

I waited for him to continue. I knew this was the bad part. When he just stared at his piece of bread, I said, “Well? What happened next? Did she do you wrong?”

He chuckled and I was glad, though I had asked the question in seriousness. “No, no,” he said. “The day she raced the fastest race of her life, something terrible happened. You should have seen it, Onyesonwu. It was the finals of the Rain Fest Races. She’d won this race before but this day, she was about to break the record for fastest half mile ever.”

He paused. “I was at the finish line. We all were. The ground was still slick from the heavy rain the night before. They should have given the race another day. Her camel approached, running its knock-kneed gait. It was running faster than any camel ever has.” He closed his eyes. “It took a wrong step and…tumbled.” His voice broke. “In the end, Njeri’s strong legs were her downfall. They held on and when the camel fell, she was crushed under its weight.”

I gasped, clapping my hands over my mouth.

“Had she tumbled off, she’d have lived. We’d only been married for three months.” He sighed. “The camel she was riding refused to leave her side. It went wherever her body went. Days after she was cremated, the camel died of grief. Camels all over were spitting and groaning for weeks.” He put his gloves back on and went back to his anvil. The conversation was over.

Months passed. I continued visiting him every few days. I knew I was pushing my luck with my mother. But I believed it was a risk worth taking. One day, he asked me how my day was going. “Ok,” I replied. “A lady was talking about you yesterday. She said that you were the greatest blacksmith ever and that someone named Osugbo pays you well. Does he own the House of Osugbo? I’ve always wanted to go in there.”

“Osugbo isn’t a man,” he replied as he examined a piece of wrought iron. “It’s the group of Jwahir elders who keep order, our government heads.”

“Oh,” I said, not knowing or caring what the word “government” meant.

“How’s your mother?” he asked.


“I want to meet her.”

I held my breath, frowning. If she found out about him, I’d get the worst beating of my life and then I’d lose my only friend. What’s he want to meet her for? I wondered, suddenly feeling extremely possessive of my mother. But how could I stop him from meeting her? I bit my lip and very reluctantly said, “Fine.”

To my dismay, he came to our tent that very night. Still, he did look striking in his long white flowing pants and white caftan. He wore a white veil over his head. To wear all white was to present oneself with great humbleness. Usually women did this. For a man to do it was very special. He knew to approach my mother with care.

At first, my mother was afraid and angry with him. When he told her about the friendship he had with me, she slapped my bottom so hard that I ran off and cried for hours. Still, within a month, Papa and my mother were married. The day after the wedding, my mother and I moved into his house. It should have all been perfect after that. It was good for five years. Then the weirdness started.

5 commentaires:

Rob Kuntz said...

Just got he book today and preparing for the long read in between by busy schedule. She's a very good writer.

Tree Frog said...

This is pretty good actually.

Unknown said...

This book is a must read for ME.. Nnedi's personification style is strong and dats why I love her books.

Unknown said...

Perfect personification style its a must READ for me well donr Nnedi.

Anonymous said...

This Book is great.It shows so much detail.It's just honestly An amazing story. It's a must read. Cherian, age 8