Welcome, welcome to another book review by yours truly for Queer Naija Lit. Today, I’m getting into The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. The novel centers Vivek Oji, born to Kavita, his mother and Chika, his dad. There’s also Vivek’s extended family, his uncle Ekene — Chika’s elder brother — Ekene’s wife Mary, and their son Osita.
Vivek’s immediate family is a fairly standard Igbo family living in Aba, Nigeria. Their family — or really, Vivek and Kavita — are isolated from the community. At first, the isolation is because Kavita is Indian. Eventually it becomes because of Vivek’s “strangeness” as well. The majority of Vivek and Kavita’s community is made up of the Nigerwives and their children. The Nigerwives are a socio-communal group formed by the wives of Nigerian men who were not Nigerian. The group provides space for women who’ve been wrested from a lot of what they know and their safety mechanisms and are forced to rely on a man in his home country. It also offers a community for some of their children who have to deal with different kinds of ostracization. Vivek is one of these children, and so are the kids that become his friends and shelter, Juju, Elizabeth, Somto and Olunne.
Vivek needs shelter because his mind, body and spirit are existing in a reality that his father Chika and most of the adults around him are fighting to suppress. The reality is this: Vivek is the reincarnation of Ahunna, Chika and Ekene’s mother.
This isn’t a reality that’s hidden from the people around Vivek and most Igbo people reading the novel. Vivek is born as Ahunna dies. Vivek has the same scar on his leg that she did, and Ahunna was buried the same night she died. Vivek starts to experience blackouts and premonitions of things that happened when Ahunna was alive. It doesn’t end there; the signs of reincarnation are clear throughout the novel.
The book, like its title makes clear, revolves around the death of Vivek, a jarring painful horror that wrenches an already splintered community further apart. Vivek’s death becomes a true thing; an irrevocable presence that forces everything else to move and restructure around its truth.
The plot turns the title on its head and shows how the first tragedy in Vivek’s life isn’t his death, or even Ahunna’s death, but his family’s refusal to acknowledge his life. Vivek isn’t told about his grandmother. He isn’t told who he could be, and the reality Vivek is carved from is suppressed by the people who raised him.
I hurt for Vivek, and my anger at the family that let him down is plenty, but Vivek’s family aren’t the only ones responsible. Fear is no justification for bigotry, yet the people that manufacture the fear that feeds bigotry are responsible for it as well. The spiritual reality Vivek exists in, one where he is his grandmother, would be actively denounced by most of the religious circles I grew up in as “village superstition.” This denouncement is a remnant of colonial authority, which permeates through private and public spheres.
The consequences of Nigerians being forced to witness and interact with ourselves through the eyes of colonizers is that our own realities, which we’ve been taught to see and interact with, become othered, explained away, and mislabeled.
The spiritual consequences, both for Vivek and his family, are dire. Understanding this requires understanding the role of reincarnation in Igbo culture, and particularly in the family. This is one of the many aspects of the novel where Emezi’s skill as a writer and theorist shines. The plot of Vivek moves through time, unbound by his death. This allows the reader the chance to step into Vivek’s narrative as he is experiencing it. One of the ways Vivek describes himself is as a hinge. The philosopher Jacques Derrida uses the term hinge to describe the connection between absence-presence. Think of it like a door hinge that separates and connects, and both functions are vital.
So, Vivek our hinge is connecting what is absent and what is present. In other words, life and death. In other words, Vivek’s body, life, self, experience are a tether to the spiritual realm. In Igbo culture, there are procedures around this kind of thing. Unfortunately for Vivek, none of them are followed. It’s not right, and it’s not fair.
More painful is that it’s so clear how much Vivek’s family needs Ahunna. In Igbo culture, the need of your descendants is enough to cause an honored elder to return. Vivek should have been seen and recognized for who he was, especially by the people who needed him there. Vivek (the present thing, the material) was a channel for spirit (the absent/needed thing).
Outside of the spirit face of the book, the characters are living human contextualized experiences. For Vivek and his community, this means they’re having experiences contextualized by their embodied realities. Vivek (who isn’t a man) is forced to align with his parents’ perceptions of gender and sexuality that don’t settle neatly on his skin.
It’s his friends — Somto and Olunne at first, then Juju, Elizabeth and Osita — that breathe life into Vivek. While Vivek’s parents worry about how he is, his friends try to make sure he is at all. Vivek’s friends face ostracization (for their tribe, or gender, or sexuality) and they allow that hurt to soften their hearts toward each other best they can.
Another place Emezi’s writing shines is in their ability to create worlds within each character. In a novel like Death of Vivek that centers on community, this results in a near endless depth to the layers within the text.
Death of Vivek is based entirely in Aba, Nigeria, and through Vivek’s relationships, Emezi is able to authentically capture and communicate multiple realities of youth growing up in Nigeria. A big part of how they accomplish this is in their god-tier ability to disappear within the text. Emezi is a writer with a strong voice — it’s impossible to be reading their work and forget you’re reading Emezi — and strong character presence. They’re able to present a story from within the character’s perspective so that the reader is truly immersed in Vivek’s world, even as the reader is also unmistakably within an Emezi world. Just the best kind of mind melder.
It was fun to hear them talk more about this aspect of their writing process — intentionally presenting a slept-on reality from within the perspective of a character living it — on a Twitter space hosted by The Reading Corner a few weeks ago. It was nice to have confirmation of the intention behind the work (even though it’s evident in the text) and the questions asked in the space were better than most of my grad school discussions.
Emezi’s ability to immerse the reader into multiple characters’ realities and tell a story that isn’t just one narrative but infinite is reminiscent of Toni Morrison, even as Emezi creates something entirely new in Vivek. It’s like hinges again, Morrison and Emezi’s work are connected by a spirit, a trace that exists in the space between and within both of their works.
Emezi skillfully explores various aspects of Nigerian society, from boarding school as a hotbed of queer activity — the only true universal experience — to the many violences of the Church within the Nigerian intimate family sphere. The characters embody and engage with tribalism, gender discrimination, and political upheaval.
The Death of Vivek Oji is a book to read and read again!
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.