The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May 2016, here.
Earlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)
- A book you’ve had for more than a year.
- A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
- A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
- A book by a person of a faith.
- A book by an aboriginal author.
- A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
- A book by a Canadian person of colour.
- A book by a FOLD 2016 author.
I’ve already discussed the following: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983); N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms (2010); André Alexis’ Pastoral; David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007); Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015); and Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat. And I’ve chosen Nicola Harwood’s memoir, Flights for the Commitment Impaired (2016) as my selection for a Canadian LGBTQ author.
Today: a book bought at an indie bookstore, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, to finish the challenge, which I’ve done in about three months. It’s not too late for you to join: eight books is not so many! (Poetry counts. Graphic novels count. Picture books, too!)
Who Fears Death has been on my TBR for years, ever since I read The Shadow Speaker in 2010 (originally published 2007). But it was the #DiverseSFF bookclub‘s selection for September which yanked it off the shelf and onto my stack proper.
However, this novel begins with brutality and I was unprepared. Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is no-nonsense, almost bare bones, which is what allowed me to read on, taking some breaks in Onye’s (Onyesonwu’s) story, to recover from the potency of the losses.
Here, the emphasis is not on the setting (post-apocalytic Africa) or the language or even the characters (although considerable attention has been paid to them, for without them the story would falter), but on the story. On stories, in general.
To avoid discussing the specifics of the story, which unfold dramatically and relentlessly, here is a passage from rather late in the narrative which illustrates some of the author’s preoccupations.
“THERE’S A STORY IN THE GREAT BOOK about a boy destined to be Suntown’s greatest chief. You know the story well. It’s a Nuru favorite, no? You all tell it to your children when they’re too young to see how ugly the story is. You hope the girls will want to be like Tia the good young woman and the boys like Zoubeir the Great. In the Great Book, their story was one of triumph and sacrifice. It’s meant to make you feel safe. It’s supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness. This is all a lie. Here’s how the story really happened….”
Direct and conversational, subversive and sweeping: Onye’s story presents a narrative of devastation-rebirth which includes missteps alongside triumphs, violations alongside celebrations, and friendships alongside betrayals. But this novel is not so much about extremes, as it is about a place between: between darkness and light, between despair and hope. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is a novel which questions our understanding of polarized states.
At first, this seems simple: “Mortality smelled muddy and wet and I reeked of it.”
But that is not the case: “Just because something is not alive, does not mean it is dead. You have to be alive first to be dead.” I closed my eyes and lay back. “The wilderness is someplace else. Neither of flesh nor time.”
Who Fears Death takes readers to the wilderness. It isn’t comfortable. But it is vitally important. And, despite the losses, a vital story at its core.