Emezi, Awaeke. “The Death of Vivek Oji”, Riverhead, 2020.
Understanding a Child
On an afternoon, in Aba, a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother finds at her front doorstep, her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric. Following this we have a family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Vivek, the child had been raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother and suffers from disorienting blackouts and moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As he matures from teen to adult, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the boisterous daughters of the “Nigerwives”, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. His closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence hides a very guarded private life. As their relationship deepens, Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis and this gives way to a “heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.”
This is the story of family and friendship that challenges expectations, faces loss and a kind of transcendence that is incredibly moving. It is a work of social criticism, and a story filled with suspense. It revolves around an actual death, but also around the mystery of the dynamic of human relationships.
Vivek Oji is the beloved son of a Nigerian father and an immigrant mother from India, and we learn in the first sentence that he dies. The question of how and why drives the narrative.
The story is told in alternating chapters by an omniscient narrator, Vivek’s cousin Osita and Vivek himself. Vivek was born with a mark on his foot that looks exactly like a scar his grandmother, who died the day he came into the world, had. Vivek also suffers from an enigmatic “illness” which drives him into a deep depression. Not only Vivek queer, he is gender-variant and doesn’t know how to live his truth. He also Vivek senses a strong, mystical connection to his deceased grandmother.
We seehow the people around him struggle with Vivek’s shy attempts to show and speak himself, including his feminine side. There are complicated relationships between friends and family, their love, their friendship and their sexual relationships, both straight and queer.
A subplot is based on the concept of “otherness” and we see this through the Nigerwives, foreign women who are married to Nigerian men and their stories show the challenges they face as immigrant wives. The Northerners who live nearby have different clothes and customs than the people living where Aba is found.
At one point in the novel, Aba asks why people are afraid of something different than what they are used to. They do not understand themselves but loving him is enough. We do get a hint that there will be a better future for those who are gender non-conforming.
I see the major themes are identity, belonging and sadness. We get a look at Nigeria and its culture as we move from small city to rural village and read about the variety
of cultural and religious traditions, daily life and conflict and intolerance. The large issues of gender identity and sexuality are present throughout the novel. Vivek is at the center of the novel even though he is dead in the first sentence.