By Gurnish Kaur Birdi and Natalia Alvarez
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and With Teeth by Kristen Arnett.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
After the publication of Okorafor’s award-winning fantasy novel, Who Fears Death, the fantasy genre has become a playground for writers of colour to explore and reclaim their personal and national identities.
Who Fears Death combines the thrill of the supernatural and sorcery with the discussion of belonging and race. We follow the journey of a young “Ewu” girl called Onyesonwu growing up in post-apocalyptic Sudan. Sudan is a divided land where the “light-skinned” Nuru community oppresses the “dark-skinned” Okeke community. Onyesonwu is a product of her mother’s suffering and abuse from the Nuru men, making her an outcast to society. Onye faces brutal discrimination, yet her fierce determination prevails to the end of the novel. In hope of being accepted by society, Onye undergoes a female circumcision where she bonds closely with three girls, Binta, Diti and Luyu.
However, upon reaching maturity, Onye discovers her speculative powers of shapeshifting and communicating with death. This changes everything. Onye needs to learn how to control her powers yet battles with constant rejection as an “Ewu” girl. Onye’s character seeks education and justice not only for her mother but for herself. Onye is a powerful character even when she feels powerless.
Along the journey, she learns to love, forms friendships, finds power in her magic and understands her identity. I deeply appreciate the themes of this novel; Okorafor portrays the complexity of lost identity in such a relatable manner. We see Onye grow and become stronger against the evils of humanity. She finally builds her resilience to seek revenge on her sorcerous Nuru father. At this moment I felt so proud of Onye’s character development. It truly felt like you have been on this quest with her.
I have enjoyed reading about African mythology, culture and history and broadening my literary scope. This novel is a great starter for introducing more diversity to your bookshelf. Okorafor’s writing allows you to escape into a futurist world while encapsulating the struggles of people of colour. Nnedi Okorafor uses African-futurism as a tool to empower her characters but also her readers.
Onye’s quest is jam-packed with action, and obstacles and her relationships will tug at your heart. I truly did not want Onye’s quest to end but I was full of pride and tears when she finally took the final step to justice.
With Teeth by Kristen Arnett
In Kirsten Arnett’s newest novel With Teeth, we are introduced to the intricacies of queer households in a way that has rarely been seen in fiction before. This is the author's third publication and her second novel following her short story collection Felt in the Jaw and her hit debut novel Mostly Dead Things.
Published in June 2021 by Riverhead, With Teeth follows protagonist Sammie as her and her wife, Monika, face the trials and tribulations of being parents. The novel follows a scene-based narrative with each chapter having its own respective scene and the chapters are clustered into sections named after the seasons. I felt that this helped to create an accurate timeline and made the progression of the novel run smoothly.
From as early as four years old, Sammie and Monika’s son Samson has behaved in a way that constantly unnerves Sammie. As a toddler Samson willingly walks off with a man, nearly being abducted, in fourth grade he begins carrying a doll with him everywhere, often refusing to speak to anyone unless it is through this doll, and eventually the couple is called to the hospital after Samson bites another child. As Samson continues to grow and more instances pop up, Sammie must confront her own idea of what it means to be a parent and we as readers see the family unit from an outside perspective as the author raises questions of how much of ourselves - the good and the bad- we pass on to our children and the ways we let these traits impact our perceptions of them.
As the novel progresses, Sammie must examine her own destructive tendencies as she allows fear and anxiety to constantly impact the way she treats her child and the strain this puts on her relationship with him as well as her marriage with Monika. The author does a wonderful job switching from Sammie’s worries about Samson to her own life and mind. We as readers feel for both the mother and son as they struggle with their relationship. I thought this novel was expertly crafted, and I enjoyed learning about the conflicting emotions Sammie carried around with her. I would recommend this book because of the complicated questions it raises as well as the unapologetic examination of parenthood, queer relationships and family dynamics.