In ‘Who Fears Death,’ Patriarchy Is Magic

I’ve been feeling like I need a bit of a shakeup in the fantasy that I read, so over the weekend, I finished Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, her rich novel about sorcery and sexual violence in a post-apocalyptic Sudan. It’s not a perfect book—it’s not always clear what’s going on in the interlocking plots, and some of the characters come across a bit flat. But Okorafor’s central innovation is a brilliant one, both for the purposes of the novel, and for conversations around her main subject: she treats misogynistic violence as a strain of magic, something that deeply permeates the world in which her main character, Onyesonwu, conceived in a rape that is part of a campaign of genocide, lives and learns sorcery, emerging in unpredictable ways, and governing deeply-held ideas about what is natural.

When Onyesonwu is conceived, her mother is on a meditation retreat with other women in the desert. The group of men who attack them mostly intend common domination. But Daib, the man who attacks her mother, has more specific intentions: he plans to father a magically influential son on her. When the result is a daughter, one who is marked as an outcast and a product of rape by hear freckled appearance, his plan is thwarted, and Onyesonwu grows up with her own magic, a product of her father’s hatred and her mother’s determination to live, and to raise an independent daughter.

As she grows up, and into the community where she and her mother settle, Onyesonwu’s development of her magic and of her sexual identity both are influenced by the magical norms of the area. She becomes friends with Mwita, another Ewu (a person presumed to be the result of a pregnancy that is caused by sexual assault), but their closeness is initially limited by his magical studies, which Onyesonwu is not allowed to join because she is a girl. “He won’t teach you because you’re a girl, a woman!” Mwita tells Onyesonwu of his teacher. “Because of what you carry here! You can bring life, and when you get old, that ability becomes something else even greater, more dangerous and unstable!” The idea that the capacity to create and sustain life is powerful proves to be true, but the sorcerers’ desire to control it has more to do with their own concerns than with the idea that women can’t handle the way pregnancy inflects magic.

And Onyesonwu also tries to integrate herself more deeply into the town where she is initially understood to be separate by going through a ritual 11-year-old girls perform, even though her mother disapproves. The ritual turns out to involve clitordectomy and giving the girls stones to hold under their tongues to slow their speech. And the surgeries performed on them are enhanced with magic: “The scalpel that they use is treated by Aro,” Mwita explains to Onyesonwu when she experiences agonizing pain when they’re first intimate. “There’s juju on it that makes it so that a woman feels pain whenever she is too aroused . . . until she’s married.” For some of the girls in Onyesonwu, that pain is a terrible curse, as it is for one of her friends who, when she grows older, is turned away by the man she loves because he cannot bear to cause her pain. “Soon we’ll be eighteen, fully fledged adults!” her friend rages. “Why wait until marriage to enjoy what Ani gave me! Whatever the curse, I wanted to break it. I’ve been trying . . . Today it felt like I was going to die. Calculus refused to continue.” But for another, Binta, who was being molested by her father before the ritual, the magical and surgical removal of her capacity for pleasure is something of an escape. “Ani protects me,” she explains to her friends of her father’s reaction. “He-he understands now…He won’t touch me anymore.”

Much of Onyesonwu’s education is learning that magic isn’t only about pain and control. An early sign of the extent of her magical power is her ability to regrow her damaged clitoris:”I concentrated. He began to move inside of me again and immediately, it felt like I had released my very being…From far off I could hear Mwita laughing, as I fell into sleep with a sigh. That tiny piece of flesh made all the difference. Growing it back hadn’t been hard and it pleased me that for once in my life obtaining something of importance was easy.” And she’s able to heal her friends, too, though all of them have to learn how to manage pleasure in their own lives after having it restored to them. Free from the decision-making of their elders, they experience sexual bliss, but also discover the power to cause each other great emotional pain.

As she becomes a legend, Onyesonwu’s example begins to reject the teachings of her father, a powerful general, and to look with greater compassion and respect upon women. “Those of us who pray five times a day, love the Great Book, and are pious people know this isn’t Ani’s wish,” a man she meets in her travels tells her. It’s one thing to be told that women or rape victims are a certain way, and another to encounter them and their goodness first hand. And in the climax of the novel, women on both sides of the genocidal conflict that has marked Onyesonwu’s life find themselves possessed of magical powers that allow them to do many other things that to control and dominate others. “All the women, Okeke and Nuru, found that something had changed about them. Some could turn wine to fresh sweet drinking water, others glowed in the dark at night, some could hear the dead. Others remembered the past, before the Great Book. Others could peruse the spirit world and still live in the physical. Thousands of abilities. All bestowed upon women. There it was,” Okorafor writes. “This place will never be the same. Slavery here is over.”

The idea of patriarchy as magical system is an effective one, and not just for the purposes of Who Fears Death. If systems sufficiently advanced as to be inexplicable by current science are magic, so are ones that persist in defiance of reason and set themselves up as impervious to question. Part of the tragedy of patriarchy in Who Fears Death is the way sexism leads Onyesonwu’s teacher to deny himself the opportunity to teach her, the way it leaders her father to concentrate his energies on domination and destruction in the maintenance of order rather than to creation and miracles, the way it denies the young men and women of her village the ability to grow up and negotiate sexual norms together. The power to bring new things into the world is destabilizing for both people who lose power in that transaction and people who gain it. But in Who Fears Death is a story where men have to gain from the world made whole, too, even if their bodies aren’t healed by the profound magical power of liberation.