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Who Fears Death

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Who Fears Death

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Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW Books, 2010
Series: Who Fears Death: Book 1

0. The Book of Phoenix
1. Who Fears Death
2. The Book of Phoenix

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
Alternate History (Fantasy)
Magical Realism
Avg Member Rating:
(128 reads / 68 ratings)


A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

This work is a selction from author Nisi Shawl's: A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction, an annotated list of 40+ black science fiction works that are important to your understanding of its history. Read more about this selection below.

International award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor enters the world of magic realist literature with a powerful story of genocide in the far future and of the woman who reshapes her world.

In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways, yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. After years of enslaving the Okeke people, the Nuru tribe has decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke tribe for good. An Okeke woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different--special--she names her child Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient tongue.

From a young age, stubborn, willful Onyesonwu is trouble. It doesn't take long for her to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her violent conception. She is Ewu--a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by both tribes.

But Onye is not the average Ewu. As a child, Onye's singing attracts owls. By the age of eleven, she can change into a vulture. But these amazing abilities are merely the first glimmers of a remarkable unique magic. As Onye grows, so do her abilities--soon she can manipulate matter and flesh, or travel beyond into the spiritual world. During an inadvertent visit to this other realm she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would-be murderer, and to understand her own nature, she seeks help from the magic practitioners of her village. But, even among her mother's people, she meets with frustrating prejudice because she is Ewu and female. Yet Onyesonwu persists.

Eventually her magical destiny and her rebellious nature will force her to leave home on a quest that will be perilous in ways that Onyesonwu can not possibly imagine. For this journey will cause her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately to learn why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death?


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, to 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 outskirts of town, near the sand dunes. It was the middle of the day and terribly hot. His body lay on a thick white cloth surrounded by a garland of braided palm fronds. I knelt there in the sand next to his body, saying my last good-bye. 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 gray-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. Afterward, 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 greater.

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 everyone around me had for Papa.

Instinctively, 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 flowed into to his gray-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 on my 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; at other times it was oily and fragrant from overflowing perfumed-oil bottles mixed with incense ashes and 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 gray 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 out 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 strapped tightly to his face. His nostrils were wide as he pounded on fire with a great hammer. His huge arms flexed with each blow. 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 area around his eyes where the soot had not fallen 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 in 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 okay, 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.

Copyright © 2010 by Nnedi Okorafor


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