I began following Akwaeke Emezi on Twitter when their debut novel Freshwater was released in 2018. I was gifted the book earlier in the year but never got an opportunity to read it. The urgency to read Freshwater came when I knew that their sophomore adult novel, The Death of Vivek Oji would come out in August 2020. I like to make comparisons between an author’s previous work and their current work. Particularly to see how the author has evolved from one book to the next and to look for continuing threads between the books. I did manage to get round to Freshwater over a weekend before delving into The Death of Vivek Oji. The two books are different, Freshwater is a complex story that mixes Igbo ontology and modern life while The Death of Vivek Oji is a suspenseful family tragedy. Emezi showed that they will not be boxed by style or genre as well as growth in their storytelling ability. The Death of Vivek Oji is a book that raises many questions about a death of young man, the reasons for the death, the way it happened and what we are to make of it.
The first chapter is only 11 words— They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died. The captivating opening sets in motion the backstory of Vivek Oji. Vivek is born to a Nigerian father, Chika and an Indian mother, Kavita. We are introduced to his multicultural upbringing and how this at times makes it difficult for him to fit in a society where there are not many other children like him. Early on we learn that he struggled with identity and through the book, we journey through his transformation. Akwaeke uses various points of view to show the life of Vivek— friends, family and Vivek himself. It is through these characters that we get to know about the different layers of who Vivek was and the community in which he lived. For example, his bond with Osita his cousin adds a different dynamic to their relationship. His mother’s frantic search for answers surrounding her son’s death is what moves the story along.
Hair plays a symbolic part in this book. If you have seen the United States of America published cover, it has a ponytail. Hair plays an important role in African culture. African hair in its diverse styles has not always been accepted. Dreadlocks have often not been favourably looked upon by employers. In 2016, a school in South Africa raised an uproar when it deemed a girl’s afro as untidy and un-ladylike. In the same vein, Vivek’s hair is a source of admiration and conflict at the same time. Vivek uses it as a statement for the person he wants to become. This is the beginning of his transition, which his family witnesses yet refuse to recognise it.
This story is more than the subject of hair. It is also about religion and relationships. Religion is embedded in our society and the decisions we make are often seen through Christian or Islamic lens. This means that anyone who attempts to deviate from the teachings seen as a misfit. A misfit who needs to be corrected and made to obey society’s norms or face the consequences. Vivek is faced with the dilemma of keeping a secret that if his parents found out would cause them shame. He finds solace in a close-knit group of friends who keep his secret safe and away from the community that would likely take his life if they found out.
The prose in this novel is rich, descriptive and emotive. The book is weaved together with wonderful sentences like, “Life was like being dragged through concrete in circles, wet and setting concrete that died with each rotation of my unwilling body,” or “Some people can’t see softness without wanting to hurt it.” You will keep turning the pages trying to knit the pieces together and might be tempted to predict what happens. Emezi manages to capture the reader’s attention by ensuring that the suspense of what happened to Vivek is only revealed at the end.
This story is well told, my only misgiving is the character of Ebenezer. He seems to be incomplete and we do not have time delve into his character as he dips in and out of the book. Besides that, in The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi tackles subject matters that you do not often find in African literature. One of the reasons may be that some topics are considered taboo and to even write about them is a risk. This book contributes to raising awareness about the challenges some people in our communities live through. On the other hand, what is the appropriate way to address topics which are considered taboo and an abomination in most of the African continent and what happens when we don’t. In this novel, we get offered one glimpse of what happens when we choose to ignore the truth before our eyes.