If you’re yet to read ‘The Death of Vivek Oji’, the third book by Nigerian-American author Akwaeke Emezi, then you need to stop what you’re doing and get a copy right away. Hopefully, I can make a compelling case about why, for me, it was an unforgettable read seeing as the lives of Vivek and the other characters in his world extended far beyond the pages I read. Their stories were a haunting reminder of the injustices that many queer Nigerians face daily for simply just existing in this world, but more than just a reminder of death, the book is an exploration of life, loyalty, becoming, love and finding your chosen family. If that still hasn’t got you convinced, might I also add the fact that the gripping novel became a New York Times bestseller within weeks of its release, marking a first for the talented author who completely deserves all the praise they are getting.
Exploring queerness in present-day Nigeria, Akwaeke’s third offering is storytelling at its finest. Through flashbacks and perspective-shifting narration, the life (and death) of the brilliant Vivek Oji and the people he loved is unveiled to readers. These characters can’t save Vivek from what readers know is inevitable, but through their narration, we see the story of a young person who lived his life fully with his chosen family, who loved and lived privately, and who was unwilling to let his background or his born-gender stop him from truly feeling alive.
For the sake of giving too much away–you absolutely must pick up a copy right away, here were my five takeaways while reading the book last week (I’m in love with Vivek so feel free to discuss with me @tamimak_)
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Death is certain but so is life.
From the moment you pick up ‘The Death of Vivek Oji’, you know it ends in the eventual death of the protagonist. Excluding the obvious hint in its title, the first chapter of the book contains one haunting sentence, ‘They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died’. The chilling sentence is a firm reminder that the protagonist is no longer with us, opening readers up to a sinister mystery of uncovering his death. In a year of seismic change and discomfort, everything we knew and clung to has been called into question, while we continue to lose lives to the scourge of the ongoing global health crisis, we’re also coming to terms with the fact that people pass on every day for a myriad of other reasons. Reading this novel while grappling with the loss of death in my personal life gave me some reassurance and served as a reminder that death is not ultimately as final as we think. Even in death, there is life because just like Vivek, his life is eulogised by those he left behind, who tells his story full of life and love.
Queer lives are not up for bargain.
In a recent interview, Emezi said, ‘‘I’m writing for people like Vivek. I don’t want to centre the people who are doing the harm” and while reading the most intriguing moments were witnessing the fervour and life that resided within Vivek. He was unabashedly himself with his chosen family that consisted of his close female friends and his cousin, Osita. Despite living in a world that didn’t accept him, Vivek was firm and certain in who he was. In this book, queer lives of young Nigerians are told not as an accessory to the main plot but as a manifestation of everything that gave Vivek comfort and security. Reading a book like ‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ reminds you of the social attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community in West Africa, but it also opens you up to a private world where they all live and love without fear and hesitation. It’s such a beautiful story, and I truly believe every queer Nigerian should read it.
Our ancestors are with us always.
After exploring Igbo spirituality and ogbanjes in her debut book Freshwater, Akwaeke’s focus shifts towards Igbo spirituality and the idea of reincarnation. Here, death is not an end but rather a beginning of new life. A part of me actually wishes Akwaeke named this book, the death of Nnemdi Oji, the name that should have been given to Vivek due to the links between his birth and the death of his paternal grandmother, Nnemdi. Through Vivek, Emezi explores the idea of reincarnation which is not accepted because of the gender assigned by the parents at birth and it’s interesting to see her take on how this plays out and how it bleeds into all aspects of Vivek’s life.
The unwavering community of safety and support women provide.
Vivek’s mother is part of the Niger wives, a group of foreign women who married Nigerian husbands and relocated to the country to raise their children and support their husbands. Though these women are friends solely based on their husbands, their periodic meetings spur the most unlikely friendship in their children, most of whom are girls. When Vivek is teased and taunted at home for wearing eyeliner or growing his hair, he hides away in the homes of close friends, Juju, and the twins, Olunne and Somto. They become part of his chosen family and with them, he can be Nnedi and live free form judgment. When Vivek passes away, they become the anchor through which his parents learn about their child – not as Vivek, who they never seemed to understand, but as Nnedi, the person she truly was. Reading about Vivek’s friendship with these women left me feeling safe and reminded me of my own community of best friends and support systems who are always there for me unapologetically.
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