Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2021

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi

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I recognised the author’s name on this remarkable novel when I was at the library collecting something else that I’d reserved… I’d previously read Freshwater.

The Death of Vivek Oji is an achingly sad book, bittersweet in its depiction of a trans adolescent in Nigeria.  The novel begins with his mother finding his naked, bloodied body on her doorstep, the silver charm missing from around his neck.  It is not until the end of the book that we learn the manner of his death and who it was who placed Vivek there.  It seems such a cruel mystery to inflict on his grieving parents, but it was done out of love in the belief that it was what Vivek would have wanted. Which is one of many sad aspects of this story.

Early chapters create confusion about what Vivek’s problem might be with childhood episodes of what appear to be epileptic blackouts and convulsions. It seems that perhaps the death has something to do with this untreated condition. But as the novel progresses the parents’ response to Vivek’s blackouts seems to signal their religious insensitivity to their only child’s real needs.  A devout Catholic, his mother Kavita prays to have Vivek cured, and in desperation even sends him to Aunt Mary’s for faith healing.  When he returns from what turns out to have been a brutal exorcism this causes an estrangement between the two sisters at a time when they really need each other.  But though Vivek is sent away for education, he is not taken anywhere for medical attention.  The point is, I think, to show that Nigeria is a long way off from being able to help anyone with gender identity problems if they can’t even get help for epilepsy because there are barriers of superstition, shame and secrecy.

Kavita tolerates Vivek’s long hair, but she will not face up to what it might mean.

In adolescence, however, Vivek finds acceptance and love from his cousin Osita and their friends.  In the privacy of their unsupervised home, he is free to enjoy his hair, to wear dresses and makeup, and enjoy loving sex with Osita.  But as in the Greenwood retreat of E M Forster’s novel Maurice this Eden is only safe and happy because it’s a private bubble, protected from any judgements, misunderstandings and threats of violence.  To be his real self, which is also her real self, Vivek always has to hide it from the world, including from the parents whose support he needs more than anything.  Although this idyll in his friends’ home is a loving atmosphere, it’s also a prison, from which Vivek yearns to break free.

It takes great courage to go out of this house dressed as a girl, but Vivek takes the risk.  The friends are beside themselves with anxiety because theirs is a society subject to sporadic bouts of rioting and they know the violence that anyone ‘different’ might attract.

Without sentimentality, Akwaeke Emezi portrays the overwhelming confusion and grief of the mother with great perception.  Kavita knows that the young people are concealing something from her, but she’s asking them the wrong questions.  But for them, the dilemma is that the truth will be devastating.  It brings to mind all the young people struggling with issues like this, and how hard it is for them to confront their parents with it.  The setting in Nigeria shows that it’s harder still in some societies though rigid religiosity and dogmatic opinions can made it harder anywhere.

Still, the attitude of the young people in this novel signals hope.  And novels like this one help to spread understanding…


I am conscious of having used gendered plurals in writing this review.  It doesn’t seem right for the character’s gender identity as portrayed.  Because the pronouns used in the author profile at the beginning of the book are the plural gender neutral pronouns they/their/them, I tried using they/their/them to write about Vivek even though for most of the novel, he/his/him is used.  But when I came to the paragraph beginning ‘In adolescence’ I couldn’t make it work.  Using they/their/them for Vivek up to that point, meant confusion in the sentence beginning ‘In the privacy of their unsupervised homes’.  It’s not Vivek’s home, it’s the friends’ home.  If you try it yourself you’ll see what I mean… the sentence needs a pronoun to differentiate between they/their/them meaning only one person (Vivek) or more (his friends).  I welcome suggestions for ways to resolve this dilemma to achieve clarity because I’m sure I’ll come across it again.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Title: The Death of Vivek Oji
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House), 2020
ISBN: 9780571350995
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. This sounds like a very powerful book, Lisa, and perhaps a tad more authentic than Craig Silvey’s novel about a trans teen which is entertaining but problematic in many ways. As to the pronoun thing, I’m not sure how to solve that… not sure if this (American) guide to pronouns will help https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/GLSEN_PronounsResource_2020_Final.pdf

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    • Thanks, Kim, that is a useful resource… especially what it says about people not yet having decided what pronoun they want used. I started Growing Up Queer in Australia last night, and the one thing that’s clear already is that for some people uncertainty lasts a good while.
      I thought about that problematic passage and realised that I would not have had the same problem if I’d written it in Indonesian which has neutral pronouns that enable the writer to differentiate in number (dia=he/she/it, him/her/it, his/hers/its) singular; and mereka (they/ their/,them).

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  2. Mr Gums and I were discussing this neutral pronoun issue at lunch over the weekend. As you’ve found, in some places it works fine, but there are places where it can be ambiguous. Using their/them/they is not new. It was used in Austen’s times because besides the gender fluidity issue they is the issue we’ve always and of just not knowing the gender – an author known only by initials, people with gender neutral names (like Kim!), names in countries that we are not familiar with. (Rie, Riko and Shino from Japan for example). English has needed gender neutral pronouns FOREVER! In writing, I often use the ugly s/he but you can’t say that, and you can’t use it for people who do not want to be identified as a gender. We need an “it” like word for people!

    (I’ll check out that article that kimbofo has shared.)

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    • And then there’s French… where everything is either masculine or feminine and there’s no neutral at all!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It does sound like a sad story indeed. I can see why the author would have chosen that structure…get the audience intrigued and then unfold the backstory.

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    • Yes, that’s a very effective technique.

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