Emezi’s new novel continues the exploration of lives that fracture rigid attitudes about selfhood and sexuality. The whole story takes place in the penumbra of grief. Even the book’s title, “The Death of Vivek Oji,” leaves little room for optimism, and the first chapter — just a single sentence — reveals the time of death: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” But over the course of the novel, Emezi constantly affirms and resists the inevitability of that tragedy. If only, if only, if only. . . . Vivek’s death is emphasized so often that it acquires an odd kind of mystery, like the blurry edges of a legend.
Although the presence of spiritual forces is muted in “The Death of Vivek Oji,” the possibility of ancestral reincarnation frames the story in tantalizing ways. Vivek is born in Nigeria on the same day his grandmother dies. A starfish-shaped scar on one of the baby’s feet resembles a similar scar on one of the old woman’s feet. “Superstition,” the boy’s father insists. “It was a coincidence, the marks on their feet — and besides, Vivek was a boy and not a girl.”
This is largely the story of a family that clings to a strict demarcation between boys and girls even as that distinction poisons their only child.
Emezi opposes such linear attitudes with the very structure of the novel. Rather than progress from beginning to end, “The Death of Vivek Oji” swirls around incidents, before and after Vivek’s passing, not so much rising toward its climax as gradually accruing power. Again and again, we learn of events long before we understand their cause or significance. Such a presentation could easily become a muddle, but Emezi is a remarkably assured and graceful guide through this family’s calamity of silence.
Vivek’s adolescence passes quickly with alarming but only glancing references to his trance-like episodes and his temper “like gunpowder packed into a pipe.” Soon his ambitious college plans in the United States are scrapped. He moves back home in 1998. He loses weight and grows his hair long. His father becomes impatient and drifts away. His mother dotes, nervously. “It’s just hair! It doesn’t mean anything,” she says. “He’s fine, really. He just needs some time.” But later Emezi notes, “There was a tendril of shame unfurling into a leafy plant inside her.” The atmosphere of depression and denial in their house grows toxic.
“I’m not what anyone thinks I am,” Vivek says in one of the very short chapters he narrates himself. “I didn’t have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt I needed to change. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them. It didn’t even exist to them.”
His parents may suspect what’s happening to Vivek, but they won’t allow themselves to acknowledge what he’s going through. The truth is too frightening for them. After all, Nigeria is a viciously homophobic and transphobic nation. People who don’t conform to traditional sexual roles are scorned, arrested, murdered. Vivek’s parents can protect him up to a point, but neighbors gossip. His aunt, who holds on to her faith “with a stubborn kind of bitterness,” subjects Vivek to a particularly brutal exorcism at her church. But the challenge is not just a culture of intolerance; it’s a culture of ignorance that gives Vivek no way to understand himself. He knows that he wants people to stop trying to “fix” him, but he silently admits, “I couldn’t figure out if something was wrong with me or if this was just my life.”
If there’s any hope, it resides among the younger generation. “They barely understood him themselves,” Emezi writes, “but they loved him, and that had been enough.” Vivek finds solace with a lesbian who adores him. But the person he needs most is his cousin, Osita, who vacillates between loving him and rejecting him, acknowledging his own homosexuality and denying it. They’re all part of a savvy underground community. “Maybe,” Osita says, “we were all pretending to be fine because the world gave us no other option.” But that pragmatic tolerance of the threats they face can’t work for Vivek, who finds remaining in the bubble of silence and invisibility intolerable.
“The Death of Vivek Oji” ends on a note of mystical happiness that can’t help but sound faint after the ordeal of Vivek’s life. There’s just no way to finish this powerful novel and not feel more deeply than ever the ghastly consequences of intolerance. But in these intense pages of tightly coiled desire and dread, Emezi has once again encouraged us to embrace a fuller spectrum of human experience.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
The Death of Vivek Oji
By Akwaeke Emezi
Riverhead. 245 pp. $27