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The Life in Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘The Death of Vivek Oji.’

A few years ago I read ‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi and it is still one of my go to books, a book that has stayed with me. So, when I picked the author’s latest book my expectations where very high. I was not disappointed and after reading this book I felt like there was a gaping hole in my heart. How can such pain be so real and how can death be such a thief? How can the right to be, be such a heavy threat to the world?


Author’s profile

Akwaeke Emezi is a Nigerian and Tamil writer. They have written a number of books; ‘Freshwater‘ and ‘PET‘ which is considered to be a young adult novel. ‘The Death of Vivek Oji‘ is their third book and they have a fourth non-fiction book on the cards, ‘Dear Senthuran‘ a memoir which is set to be released in June 2021. ‘Freshwater‘, their debut book was a New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and a Lambda Literary Award. It was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal of Excellence, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize, The Wellcome Prize, the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and named a 2018 Best Book of the Year by the New Yorker, NPR, the Chicago Public Library, and Buzzfeed.

‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ is their sophomore adult novel. It is currently longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Jean Stein Prize, the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize, and the 2021 Dylan Thomas Prize. It is an honour book of the 2021 Barbara Gittings Stonewall Book Award.


My thoughts

I thought I was done with reading stories that are sad and tear my heart apart but this book proved that I still have a long way to go. Akwaeke Emezi, takes us into the life of Vivek Oji in twenty four chapters. The life Vivek lives at home and the one that the inner circle knows. Everyone thinks that Vivek is losing his mind, how can you not lose your mind if you are not allowed to live your best and honest life?

Vivek protects himself, his parents, Kativa and Chika (he shelters them from the shame that comes with him living in honesty) and in turn who looks out for Vivek? Oseti, his brother and true love, Juju (the first girl he ever had a crush on), Elizabeth, Somto and Olunne (the sisters who extended grace and freedom when the world felt like a cage). Vivek finds freedom and truth in this community which he had been apprehensive of at first in his younger years. Vivek Nnemdi, neither he or she just existing as just a person, being what they are. Vivek is a complex character viewed and trapped by the eyes of a larger community blind to anything other than what they are used to, blind to the fact that there are several ways of being.

In this book Emezi brings out several important themes such as the devastating effects effects of homophobia, the roots of culture and the violence inflicted by blind religion on society, the creature that is grief, sexuality, identity, incest and mental health. They write this story in a simple language that does what it is supposed to do. From the onset it is clear that the protagonist will die and Emezi users several mediums to take us through the story. They mainly use flashbacks in which the backstory is actually the main story. To take the reader from damning secrets to heartbreaking truths, from familial love and strain to a love that knows no bounds but also threatens to break everything the characters have ever known. Time is an important component of the story for it is only in good time that things begin to make sense.

This book has me questioning the place of traditional superstitions/myths in our lives, are they only that or something more? I liked that the truth comes out in the end but of what use is the truth if it only leaves bitter tastes of regret? Perhaps, even in the edges of regret, the truth is freeing. Every character has a life of their own, a full life interwoven with Vivek’s. Did Osita take advantage of Vivek at first, in his moment of seeking and validating his truth? Osita disappointed me in inexplicable ways but that is the thing with some secrets, you just have to take them with you to the grave. Chika should have slaughtered that cow in celebration of Vivek’s life.

I could not help but sympathize with Kavita, who is at a world’s end grieving the son that she knew and the Vivek whom she is exposed to in death. It is like she lost one person only to find another. Kavita honours Vivek in the best way possible given the circumstances. Vivek Nnemdi Oji, how unfair to finally be visible on the epitaph when life has passed. Emezi also paints a picture of a community bound by the need to make it in a foreign land, we are given a front row seat in the lives of the Nigerwives (foreign women married to Nigerian men and living in Nigeria). In this community you find love, betrayal, secrets and silent factions. The disintegration of Vivek’s, Osita’s and Juju’s families is portrayed in a harrowing manner.

I don’t know if I am more angry about Chika’s attempted sexual assault on Mary, his revolting attitude towards Vivek, his infidelity to Kavita or his refusal to pass the traditional name to Vivek? It is also heartbreaking that Kavita knew that Vivek was ‘different’ but just did not want him to be that kind of different. Showing that people will only accept you if you fit into the little boxes that they have made to measure what is/is not acceptable. She is warm enough to let him be but only within certain confines and never to fully be. When I put this book down I still felt Vivek’s entrapment, as if he died in my arms and I wanted to know if Vivek continued to be free and happy in death. The plot is intense and devastating but I could not take a break because I wanted to know when the pain would end.

My top five quotes from this book are as follows:

1. ‘He did know. How else could that scar have entered the world on flesh if it had not left in the first place? A thing cannot be in two places at once. But still, he denied this for many years, for as long as he could. Superstition, he said.’ (page 13)

2. ‘Alone is a feeling you can get used to, and it’s hard to believe in a better alternative.’ (page 112)

3. ‘I was drowning. Not quickly, but enough for panic, but a slow and inexorable sinking, when you know where you’re going to end up, so you stop fighting and you wait for it to be all over.’ (page 110)

4. ‘I always thought that death would be the heaviest thing of all, but it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. Life was like being dragged through concrete in circles, wet and setting concrete that dried with each rotation of my unwilling body.’ (page 89)

5. ‘You keep talking as if he belonged to you, just because you were his mother, but he didn’t. He didn’t belong to anybody but himself. And the way you’re behaving now-that’s why we couldn’t tell you. That’s why he lived his last months of his life as a secret. That’s why he couldn’t trust you. You think you own him, when you didn’t know anything that was going on in his life.’ (page 218)

I see this as a story about Vivek’s life. Of course there is death that is certain from the beginning yet the book is filled with so much life unraveling and death neatly tucked too. It’s hard to fault this book but towards the end Ebenezer’s character starts to bloom and I wish that storyline had been extended. If you know what’s good for you you grab yourself a copy!


Book Details

Title: The Death of Vivek Oji

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 256

Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (2020)

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