It has become increasingly difficult to write my thoughts on this novel (and I’m not even talking about the author’s plurality here). The Death of Vivek Oji is undoubtedly a work of Akwaeke Emezi because only they can pull this off and not fall flat on their face.
The protagonists they create are nothing short of cryptic. Last night, as I read through, I couldn’t help but wonder how so many contrasting components could occupy one body.
How can one be a man and a woman and delicate and tempered and alive and dead all at the same time?
This multi-character I speak of is Vivek Oji, our dead protagonist. Vivek–child of Chika and Kavita, grandchild of Ahunna, and cousin to Osita–was born a boy on the day Ahunna died. According to Igbo cosmology, the date of his birth means that he is a reincarnate of his grandmother Ahunna. This is validated by a starfish shaped birthmark on the soft part of his foot which Ahunna too had had of the same shape and in the same location.
Chapter one starts: “They burned down the road when Vivek Oji died.” and we relive the life of Vivek Oji from long before he was to his ominous death through the eyes of those he left behind. We are exposed to his childhood, being indian-nigerian in a community of equally half-caste children, and how he navigates his way through and finds his trans identity. The thing that I find so peculiar about this book and this character is… it seems with every page turn, I’m reading about a different person.
Vivek eventually finds himself in the name Nnemdi, in long hair and flowy dresses and lipstick. He makes questionable choices, one of which is an incest relationship with his cousin, Osita. All the while, he hides this feminine side of himself from his parents for fear of the repercussions. As Nnemdi, he goes through tedious lengths to be seen (as any human would do in that position), and it just about costs him his life.
The message behind this book, I believe, is that you cannot love what you haven’t seen. Igbos say love is ‘ihunanya’ which means ‘to see with your eyes’.
Visibility is freedom. Being able to be seen, to not have to hide on the fringes or in shadows is a privilege often taken for granted. In The Death of Vivek Oji, we see the repercussions of being seen, the hyerawareness it brings to those who have seen us and how dangerous that protection can be.
My introduction to Akwaeke Emezi’s writing was her debut novel, Freshwater. The novel had been long-listed for the Women’s Prize in 2019, which brought up controversy as Akwaeke doesn’t identify as a woman.
It was difficult for me to adapt to the language in Freshwater, as I had never been presented in the past with a protagonist who possessed many selves, like The Ada. Reading Freshwater felt strange and complex, like decoding braille or learning nsibidi. I believe The Death of Vivek Oji would’ve made a better introduction into the Akwaeke’s writing, for it’s simplicity and relatability to the trans experience, especially in Nigeria.