On paper, The Death of Vivek Oji is about what it is like to be a trans woman in a country that kills queer people for existing. Though yet another queer story that ends in tragedy, Emezi flexes their agency in the small haven that writing provides by refusing to rewrite state violence, turning the final tragedy into something that is relievingly incidental in its mundanity. Emezi has said to various interviewers that they do not fear death: death is a natural occurrence that gives life flavour, not a necessarily tragic one. The Death of Vivek Oji believes that tragedy exists in everything in the lead up to death. As Sarah Neilson writes in her review for Lambda Literary, “the inheritance of reductive and harmful colonial structures of gender is a great arcing tragedy of the story.”

The Death of Vivek Oji is primarily interested in all the ways that love manifests itself and how limited understandings of sexuality constrain a more expansive understanding of everything love can be.

Though she is not seen and accepted for who she is in life, in death, Vivek’s family finally see her clearly and inscribe her gravestone with her true name, Nnmedi. Opening with a thunderous line about how “they burned down the market the day Vivek Oji died,” the retroactive narrative is organised around that final tragedy, offering a continual echo of death’s overarching thematic resonance. Taking on the structure of a whodunit, the initial image of a young corpse wrapped in colourful fabric and placed on her mother’s doorstep launches a meandering journey towards understanding how such a tragedy came to unfold.

Who did it? In an intolerant society weaning intolerant families that drive queer children to create their own makeshift families when biological connections disappoint, Emezi offers many options but never points a finger. What is apparent is that this author intimately knows and is connected to the world they are writing about. Hot and heady, the suburban setting is so effortlessly navigable that intimate characterisation is allowed to take centre stage, where even the well-meaning but ultimately destructive parents are animated in all their human complexity. Told from a mélange of various perspectives of which Vivek’s is only one, Emezi employs a strategy of communal narration that makes the already revealed final death a non-issue, situating the real story in how the characters respond to circumstance.

An Igbo-Tamil author, Emezi’s autobiographical world is one where expat mothers married to native fathers create their own middle-class ‘Nigerwives’ community consolidated through the fact of their collective foreignness. But facing an older generation that refuses to see her for who she is, Vivek finds her own acceptance, love, and community in the younger generation made up of the Nigerwives’ daughters and her own beloved cousin, Osita. We get a clear sense of what it feels like to be trans in this time and place through living in two narrative worlds, one populated by an older generation synonymous with the persecuting nation, and another by a younger generation in which we can find a brief respite.

It is apparent that this author intimately knows and is connected to the world they are writing about.

Yes, The Death of Vivek Oji is primarily interested in all the ways that love manifests itself and how limited understandings of sexuality constrain a more expansive understanding of everything love can be. While the concern with familial love quickly slides into one with familial incest that enormously complicates the character map and introduces various unsatisfied plot strands, the intention is clear. Society blinds itself to the limitlessness of human identity and connection witnessed in The Death of Vivek Oji through binary notions of gender, love, biology, and family.

Vivek — a child who was born on the day her grandmother died and experiences intermittent fugue states that have no rational explanation — is something of a unicorn in a community too afraid to challenge the status quo: a near-supernatural repository of magical realism. Through the narrative motif of her secret photographs and a brief moment in which a market-man perceives a mysterious beautiful woman he assumes to be a village newcomer, Emezi continuously highlights the fallibility of social perception and limits of what we think we know.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

AKWAEKE EMEZI (they/them) is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Death of Vivek Oji, which was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize; Pet, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Selected as a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation, you can find them in liminal spaces or on their website.

The coming-of-age story of a Nigerian trans woman that will change youThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Riverhead on 4 Aug 2020
Genres: Coming-of-age, Queer, Contemporary, African, Romance, Literary fiction
Pages: 248
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Bookshop.org
Goodreads
three-half-stars

One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colourful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.