Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi


Riverhead, 2020
256 pp


A terrific choice for Pride month, but The Death of Vivek Oji makes for good reading any time.  I've been struggling over how to write about this novel without giving too much away, and it's become an impossible task.  This story unfolds into something approaching the mystical, something tragic and yet something beautiful all at the same time, and to know ahead of time would just ruin the discovery.  What came out of this novel was wholly unexpected.  This will be a short post, because this is a book a person really needs to read and to experience and nothing I can say here will do it  justice.   

The first page in the book tells us that  "They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died."  There is no information as to how or why; all we know is that Vivek Oji's father Chika was left "shattered," his mother Kavita  "gone mad" and filled with 
"hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers." 

She is desperate, as any loving mother would be,  to know how Vivek ended up on her doorstep, naked,  covered in blood and missing the silver Ganesh charm he always wore around his neck.  What she doesn't understand is that there are no easy answers;  the questions surrounding how Vivek died must actually first yield to the questions surrounding how he lived.   The story unfolds via three different and interweaving points of view belonging to a third-person narrator,  Vivek's cousin Osita who probably knew Vivek better than anyone, and short but powerful interludes from the deceased Vivek speaking from beyond the grave,  one of which that cuts straight to the heart of this novel when he says

"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 exist to them."

He ends this brief utterance by asking the question 

"If nobody sees you, are you still there?" 

Set in the author's home country of Nigeria, the story of Vivek's life and eventual death unfolds like a "stack of photographs." He is loved by all but there are people in his life, including his biological family who mean well, but ultimately fail to understand who he really is.   At school he doesn't fit in so is brought back home, he suffers from periodic blackouts, grows his hair long, and nobody knows what's going on with him.   His mom believes he's going through a "phase," his aunt believes he can be "cured" by getting his demons exorcised.   At one point he finds himself lonely,  "drowning" and planning to give up; through all of this and more, however, he remains steadfastly true to himself.  A measure of salvation in one form comes as he reconnects with a group of childhood friends, one of whom reaches out to him and offers to listen.  This is  his "chosen family," children of the Nigerwives,  where despite all of the social/cultural forces and standards working against him, he finds a place to belong and a place where he can start to fully bloom -- that is, before his life is tragically cut short, as the dustjacket notes, "in a moment of exhilarating freedom."  

The Death of Vivek Oji is, as the dustjacket blub also states,  a novel of "family, friendship, and the self that challenges expectations."   It  also encompasses coming-of-age, grief, spirituality, and belief, but most importantly, I think, it is a book about belonging and not belonging, about finding or creating safe spaces or  building communities and finding love and unquestioning support while locating oneself within them.    And while the book starts with the physical death of Vivek Oji, after finishing it I came to the conclusion that there is a dual nature to this title, which I will leave for others to discover.  It is hauntingly beautiful, ending on a positive and hopeful note, and it is a book I very highly recommend.  It is also a book that everybody should read, so very pertinent to here and now.  

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