Growing Up in Traditional Nigeria

Nigerian-born writer Akwaeke Emezi shot to fame with her highly-acclaimed debut novel Freshwater published in 2018. Their vivid and fascinating exploration of mental health and its representations and implications in the highly-traditional Nigerian society was equally scintillating and powerful. Their non-formulaic narrative earned them accolades across the world, and the admiration of many a devout book reader.

Two years after their successful debut, they return to the global literary stage with their third novel, The Death of Vivek Oji. Set in Emezi’s native Nigeria, their latest novel relates the story of a young man named Vivek. He was the only child of Indian-born Kavita and Nigerian-native Chika Oji. He was born on the day his paternal grandmother passed away and he bears a wound on his sole that is reminiscent to a scar of his recently deceased grandmother on the same spot.

Apart from the scar he seemingly inherited from his grandmother, there was something different about Vivek which begun manifested at a young age. He suffered unexplainable blackouts and when things get worse, he experiences a disconnection with his environment. Vivek also exhibited a softness in his character that was contrary to the expectations in a traditional Nigerian family. To straighten his character and toughen him up, Vivek was sent by his father to a reform school.

“I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. I didn’t have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt I needed to change. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them. It didn’t even exist to them. So: If nobody sees you, are you still there?”

~ Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji

Vivek’s eccentric characteristics made him the subject of everyone’s prejudice. His perceived condition was deduced by some of his family members to be caused by demons. As our quotidian existence has taught us, we fear things we don’t understand. This further created an abyss between Vivek and his family. For comfort and support, Vivek resorted to his cousin, Osita, and to their childhood friends. They all vowed to protect Vivek from the prejudices of the world. But even the most stringent measures don’t ensure protection from dangers that are ubiquitous in our world.

The title of the novel is very explicit as to the main subject it revolves on. It offers very little suspense. The opening pages of the novel also gave the reader a glimpse of the fabric upon which the narrative was sewn on. However, it was also an effective device in piquing the curiosity and interest of the readers. What events have transpired that ultimately led to Vivek Oji’s untimely demise? More importantly, what about Vivek’s death?

The Death of Vivek Oji is a multilayered narrative that covered a vast ground. It scratches the surface with the exploration of the various definitions of family, and friendship. Lighter themes such as loyalty, trust, and kinship were interwoven into the rich tapestry. As one digs deeper into the narrative, heavier and more difficult subjects rose above the lighter themes. A good part of the novel is anchored on death and on how to cope with loss and grief. Emezi painted an evocative picture of parents mourning the loss of their only child, of friends understanding the meaning of death

However, it wasn’t only death and grief that the novel was hinged on. The story dealt about homosexuality, gender, and finding one’s identity in a patriarchal and traditional society that continues to suppress issues on sexual identity. Emezi interwove these two elements to create a narrative that resonates to a universal scale. In a manner of speaking, Emezi, who identifies as nonbinary trans and plural person, was also relating their own experience growing up in the same conservative and traditional atmosphere.

“It was how he always did nowadays, pushing her aside gently, not listening to her. Sometimes it felt like he had stopped listening to her years ago, and she just hadn’t noticed. Live they were living in two separate worlds that happened to be under the same roof, pressed against each other, but never spilling, never overlapping.”

~ Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji

Nigeria, despite its rapid progress in the past few decades, remains a highly traditional society. As Emezi and fellow Nigerian writers have painted it, Nigerian society dealt with the unusual in a black and white manner. If there is anything that is suspicious or is out-of-the-ordinary, the general belief is that it was caused by a demon. There is only one way to drive the evil out of the human body – to whip it out. This resulted to the rise of ministers and pastors. Abi Dare, in her debut work The Girl With the Louding Voice, underlined the fact that Nigeria is home to some of the wealthiest ministers/priests/pastors in the world.

Compared to Freshwater, The Death of Vivek Oji was more straightforward, clearer in its resolve. It dealt with issues that were closer to home. While grief and acceptance were repeated all throughout the text, at its heart, The Death of Vivek Oji, was a coming-of-age story was built around heartwarming subjects like friendship, family, and the courage to be different. Whilst it has dark and bleak shades, it was pregnant with positive and hopeful messages.

Another facet of the novel that gave it a more distinct character is the presence of the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. In a way, this underscored how Nigeria has opened its borders. One of the Nigerwives is Maja, a Filipina nurse who was Kavita’s closest friend and confidant. This was another allusion to the author’s background as their mother is Malaysian.

The narrative continuously shifts from the present to the past, together with the shifts in the perspective of the characters. Transitions, however, were smooth and were rarely overwhelming. The novel underlined how breathtaking Emezi’s writing and storytelling is. They painted a picture of Nigeria and its society vividly with their equally descriptive and powerful prose. It might have lacked the urgency, freshness, and inventiveness of Freshwater but it was still a riveting story.

However, we learn a lot and yet a little about Vivek. His story was told chiefly through the perspectives of secondary characters. Vivek’s profile was built through them but the readers gain very little insight as to his real motivations. His voice both resonated and was silent all throughout the narrative. This undermined the connection between the reader and Vivek, who, by far, was the most interesting character in the story.

“I kept the book for the title, for how it was spelled. Beautyful. I had no idea why that spelling was chosen, but I liked it because it kept the beauty intact. It wasn’t swallowed, killed off with an i to make a whole new word. It was solid; it was still there, so much of it that it couldn’t fit into a new word, so much fullness. You got a better sense of exactly what was causing that fullness. Beauty. I wanted to be as whole as that word.”

~ Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji

The story also dragged during the first two-thirds of the book. Emezi took their time in creating context and subplots that they had to rush the last third of the narrative. The last third was the novel’s emotional highpoint. However, some of the needed conclusion, closure, and acceptance felt forced and rushed. The scene between Vivek’s parents could have been powerful and pivotal but the development of the scene was played too rapidly, a foregone conclusion even.

Despite some flaws in the execution, The Death of Vivek Oji was a promising and powerful narrative. Although it resonated with a universal voice, it was still anchored to a locality that is distinct. Emezi weaved their proverbial wand and weaved a compelling story about Vivek and a nation still in transition. There were some literary blunders and some graphic parts but it was still an engaging story that explored seminal subjects like identify and gender, family and friendship, life and grief.

Rating

68%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 17%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Earlier this year, Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi earned a fan in me when her debut novel, Freshwater, resonated on me on so many levels. In a year of good reads, it is one of my best. When I learned that Emezi was releasing a new work later in 2020, I was quick to add it to my TBR list and my cart. Thankfully, I managed to purchase a copy of the book as soon as it hit the stores.

It is safe to say that I liked Freshwater better because of the unique story and the nonformulaic storytelling. Nonetheless, I also liked the story of Vivek. He is a character that many can relate to. His struggles also represent everyone’s struggles. Whilst Emezi’s writing was straightforward and accessible, it provided limited access to Vivek’s real emotions. It was a blunder and it hampered what could have been potentially explosive scenes.

Book Specs

Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher:  Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 245
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Synopsis

What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?

One afternoon, in a Nigerian town, a mother opens her door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. In childhood, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As an adolescent, Vivek finds solace in friendship with the daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, a worldly, high-spirited cousin. As their relationship deepens – and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis – the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violencs in a moment of exhilarating freedom.

Compulsively readable, teemng with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a dramatic story of family and friendship, loss and transcendence, that will move every reader.

About the Author

To learn more about Akwaeke Emezi, click here.