The Death of Vivek Oji

I had a gift card and wanted to read fiction. That’s all I knew. So I went to my favorite local book store to buy a book. After drifting around a bit, I asked someone who worked there for a recommendation and he pointed me to The Death of Vivek Oji.

I find Nigeria confusing and interesting and weird. I’ve tried to understand the country better by reading some Nigerian novelists and essayists. So, sure, a highly-rated novel by a Nigerian author sounds good.

So, I read it. It’s a pretty easy and quick read. I won’t spoil it by discussing in too much detail. It’s about Nigeria; really about a community of hybrid/expats in Nigeria. It’s about other things as well, as you’ll see if you read it. Overall, it was fine. I didn’t love it, but it went down pretty easy and offered some insight into Nigeria, which was my deeper motive.

I didn’t bother to research the book or the author, Akwaeke Emezi, before reading it. Sometimes I like to see movies without knowing anything about them. I feel it preserves the director’s original intent: the surprise, the suspense, the denouement is as intended. If you know the subject, plot, characters, outcome in advance, it sort of spoils the directors choreography of knowledge and disclosure. Same with novels. Sometimes, I enjoy letting the author tell the story to me fresh, without any priors, context or foreshadowing.

I didn’t even know the gender of Emezi before reading the book, but for some reason presumed they are female. Then, partway through the book, I started wondering if the author might be male — especially after reading the sex scenes which were written mainly from a male perspective. So, I finally looked at the book jacket and saw Emezi presenting as female. That made me recalibrate a bit. This was a woman imagining how a man would experience sex?

This is relevant to the book’s themes and subjects and to Emezi who has stirred a controversy on the question of their gender. As it happens, Emezi is non-binary or trans or gender fluid. I’m not sure exactly the right description. I didn’t know any of this before reading and finishing the book. It doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t matter. Emezi wants they/them and that’s fine. I don’t need to know what gender they were assigned at birth, nor do I need a detailed explication of their gender identity or sexual orientation. I’m just reading a book.

On the other hand, my experience of reading the novel was slightly different depending on my impression of the gender of the author. These questions are relevant to the novel’s themes themselves. And reading through scenes of m-f sex, the gender of the narrator was of interest to me. Why? I don’t know exactly. The fictional narrator was male, but, I was curious if the fiction was written by a man. Was the writer a native to the male experience of sex, or a visitor. Starting the novel, I imagined Emezi was a woman. Then, I guessed a man. On seeing a photo, thought Emezi was a woman. Later I learned that Emezi is gender fluid or non-binary or trans. And so, maybe is neither native nor visitor to the male experience of hetero sex. Or maybe is both. I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about, to wonder. And to reflect on why it mattered to me. How did it change my reception, depending what gender I thought the writer was? Why was this something I even felt a need to know?

In general, the novel is sad, but also a story of personal liberation and becoming. And there is a lot of love and accompaniment throughout, so although the book is tragic — the title is a pretty big hint on that — it’s not a jarring or traumatizing experience. Which is good, because I don’t have a lot of emotional reserve to manage that sort of violence and horror.

Overall, I didn’t find it compelling enough to spend much time on. The most interesting thing to me was the twist about the gender of the author and narrator. The story offers some texture and insight into modern Nigeria, which I appreciated and which was my main purpose in reading it. But it wasn’t actually a major focus of the story and there was little cultural or historical context provided in the book itself.


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