“They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.”
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi begins with this evocative line. Vivek’s death is certain, yet the circumstances surrounding that death are hazy: the body is left upon Vivek’s parents’ house, stripped and battered, leaving mother Kavita with devastated questions and father Chika with a gap in his heart. What happened to Vivek? And moreover, who was Vivek?
Told from multiple points of view, this novel unfolds the tragic yet beautiful story of the “gentle and mysterious” Vivek, a young spirit who rejects the traditional expectations placed on sons in their society. Emezi’s poetic and captivating writing expresses the tortured grief of parents losing their child and a group of young adults losing their beloved friend. Although uncomfortable at times, this novel depicts the emotional and complicated existence and heartbreaking death of Vivek Oji. This is not a story for the faint of heart.
Some people can’t see softness without wanting to hurt it.Page 113
I was absolutely blown away by The Death of Vivek Oji, and although I knew Vivek’s death was inevitable, as it is granted to us in the title, I still wept in the final pages of the book as Vivek’s death was finally revealed. Brief yet powerful, this book delivered a truly incredible story, and I think that the less you know about the plot, the harder it will hit as you read it.
The content warnings I noted were: infidelity, incest, moderate gore/blood, animal abuse, homophobia and transphobia
The remainder of this review will include SPOILERS! If you have not read The Death of Vivek Oji, the following commentary will reveal important plot details revealed throughout this book.
This novel opens with the narrator offering images to the reader as though flipping through photographs, glimpses of grandmother Ahunna and Vivek’s father Chika as a young man. We learn how Chika met Kavita met through Kavita’s uncle, and how they both adored Ahunna, which made Vivek’s birth so bittersweet when Ahunna passed away on the same day. Mysteriously, Vivek was born with the same scar that Ahunna had on her foot, which would have meant their spirits were connected—if Vivek were a daughter, not a son. Chika speculates that perhaps Ahunna’s soul was reincarnated into Vivek, but dismisses this:
But still, [Chika] denied this for many years, for as long as he could. Superstition, he said. It was a coincidence, the marks of their feet—and besides, Vivek was a boy and not a girl, so how can?Page 13
In Vivek’s culture, gender norms are very rigid and homophobia is commonplace, so the worst thing for a man to be is “womanly,” which is why Vivek’s family does not fully entertain the notion that Vivek and Ahunna’s spirits are kindred. But, because the day of Vivek’s birth marked the loss of Ahunna, Vivek’s existence is portrayed as an ambivalent occurrence:
This is how Vivek was born, after death and into grief. It marked him, you see, it cut him down like a tree. They brought him into a home filled with incapacitating sorrow; his whole life was a mourning. Kavita never had another child. “He is enough,” she would say. “This was enough.”Page 14
Perhaps one of the more intriguing and unanswered aspects of Vivek’s life is the moments of blanking out—Vivek’s cousin and close friend Osita is the only person who knows about how Vivek experiences random phases of losing awareness, entering a trancelike state. The first instance of this appears on page 22 when Osita describes the first time he really noticed this. In the scene, Vivek and Osita are both reading when Vivek starts speaking about “The wall is falling down” and “You don’t hear the rain? It’s so loud.” Then, Osita narrates:
“There’s no rain,” I started to say, but when I touched the cotton of his shirt and the bone of his joint underneath, his eyes rolled up into white and his body flopped sideways, falling against the mattress. When his cheek hit the foam, he jerked as if he was waking and scrabbled his arms and legs, pushing himself back up and gasping loudly. “What? What happened?”Page 23
“Shh! You’re shouting,” I said. I didn’t touch him because I was afraid of setting him off again.
His eyes were wide and jittery. He looked around the room, his gaze brushing past me as his breath settled. “Oh, he said, and dropped his shoulders. Then, almost to himself, “This thing again.”
Vivek’s random trances occur throughout his adolescence and young adult years, and the narration never really offers a conclusive explanation for why they happen—or, not that I caught on to, anyway. My interpretation of these “fits” are that they are supposed to allude to a deeper connection to Ahunna, and perhaps in those moments, Vivek is being pulled into another lifetime or slipping into a previous dimension.
In addition to Vivek’s trancelike spells, Vivek has another secret:
I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. 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.
So: If nobody sees you, are you still there?Page 38
As I read this book, I thought that Vivek’s secret was that Vivek was gay. Often, the characters noted how long Vivek’s hair was getting and how much weight Vivek was losing, so I began to wonder if Vivek had contracted AIDS and was isolating from others because of this. In fact, the cause of Vivek’s weight loss is never really addressed either (unless, once again, I missed something), except if Vivek’s lack of eating is supposed to indicate the immense physical toll the secret has.
However, as the end of the novel reveals to us, Vivek’s identity is more than merely “male,” which is why I have labored to refrain from he/him pronouns throughout this review. It seems that Vivek was non-binary, so moving forward I will use they/them pronouns for Vivek. Because Vivek only revealed their true identity to their closest friends Osita, Juju, Somto, Olunne, and Elizabeth, the only living testament to Vivek’s authentic spirit is these friends and a series of photographs Juju developed. Not even Vivek’s parents know the full extent of Vivek’s truth.
Ultimately, Vivek’s homophobic and transphobic culture forced Vivek to repress their expression. After Vivek’s death, Vivek’s friends argue about the photographs Juju developed of Vivek because the images are so taboo; if anyone were to see them and spread rumors, the shame brought upon Vivek’s family could be devastating. However, because Vivek’s mother Kavita so frantically seeks answers to Vivek’s mysterious death, the group of friends decide to show Kavita the pictures to finally reveal Vivek’s authentic nature and quiet Kavita’s search. Thus, the motif of photographs first introduced in the beginning ties back in at the end, as they are the sole living proof of Vivek’s vibrant identity:
[The photo] was of Vivek the first time he’d worn a dress. Juju had put it near the top because he looked so happy in it; she thought that might make it a little easier for Kavita to see, that her heart might be softened because he looked so happy… The dress was cinched at the waist with an A-line skirt, white and navy blue stripes running from neck to hem, short crisp sleeves, darts in the chest.
Vivek had nothing to fill out those darts, but he hadn’t cared. He was spinning in the photograph, so the skirt of the dress was just a blur, like splashed water, and his hair was vague in the air. But Juju had managed to get his face in focus, and his mouth was wide open, laughing completely, his eyes squeezed shut. She had put lipstick on him, a bold red framing his teeth, and he had drawn on his eyeliner, dark on the lower lid and then a thicker line on the upper, so his eyes seemed lost in black borders.Page 215
At first, Kavita rejects what she sees: she is angry, confused. “He was dressing like a woman?” she asks, to which Somto responds, “He said he was dressing like himself” (page 216). Kavita grapples, calls Vivek sick, blames Vivek’s friends for allowing Vivek to do this, and they struggle to reason with her that this was what made Vivek the happiest.
“He was happier than he’d ever been since Uncle Chika brought him back. Sometimes he asked us to call him by another name; he said we could refer to him as either she or he, that he was both.”-Somto, Page 217
Thus, Vivek’s death, in a way, symbolizes the death of society’s notion of Vivek and the liberation of Vivek’s true identity. Finally, in the ethereal plane that souls passed on inhabit, Vivek has the freedom to live their truth. In the physical world, after Kavita and Chika reconcile with Vivek’s secret, they at last accept that who they thought was their beloved son was actually their beloved child, and in honor of Vivek’s memory, they change the headstone to include Vivek’s preferred name, Nnemdi, which carries significance in their family. Kavita, upon discovering this name, calls her brother-in-law Ekene and asks him what the Igbo name he had suggested for Vivek at birth:
He sighed through the line. “Nnemdi. It’s not a common name, but it was for Mama. Because they had that same scar on their feet.” She could almost see him shrug. “If it was our father who’d had the scar, he would have been named Nnamdi, you know? But Chika didn’t agree. If Vivek had been a girl, maybe he would have agreed. I don’t know. He was very somehow about the whole thing, so I just left it alone.”Page 222
But what of Vivek’s death? In the final pages of this book, Osita describes the tragedy that transpired. Although Vivek/Nnemdi’s friends protested, Nnemdi began wearing dresses and make-up in public, asserting their right to dress how they desired. When Osita finds out that one day Nnemdi has ventured into the market wearing a dress while, separately, a riot has broken out, Osita runs to find Nnemdi and pleads for them to come home, that it wasn’t safe to be in public dressed like that. Osita fears for Nnemdi’s life and reputation, but in the most tragic misstep of events, Osita’s insistence leads to Nnemdi’s accidental death, hitting their head as they land. Although Osita desperately attempts to carry Nnemdi’s body to medical aid, he realizes it is too late: Nnemdi’s heart and breath have ceased. From beyond the grave, Nnemdi writes:
I often wonder if I died in the best possible way—in the arms of the one who loved me the most, wearing a skin that was true. I watch him grieve and I want to tell him he’s already been forgiven for everything and anything he could ever do to me. I want to tell him I was dancing with death every day, especially when I walked outside like that. I knew it, and I made my choices anyway. It wasn’t right or fair, what happened, but it wasn’t his fault. I want to thank him for loving me.Page 244
Perhaps at this point I should address the incestuous relationship between Osita and Nnemdi. More than just cousins and friends, the two were lovers. This was at times uncomfortable to read about, and I can see how some people may be upset that the primary gay relationship in this books was incestuous, portraying gay relations in a seemingly unsavory manner. Moreover, that Osita was the death of Nnemdi because of Osita’s fear of being outed for homosexuality and how, after Nnemdi’s death, Osita keeps his sexuality a secret to those who don’t already know (and also lets all Nnemdi’s friends and parents believe Nnemdi was killed by transphobes in the market), could be interpreted as a toxic element of their relationship.
But with that final chapter, Nnemdi reminds the reader that from the ultimate otherworldly perspective, it doesn’t matter. Despite Osita’s mistakes, Nnemdi knows Osita’s intentions were loving yet misguided, and acknowledges how Osita can only be blamed so far when it is their culture and their society that is truly at fault; they were merely trying to do their best and to do what felt right to them in the prejudiced world they lived in. With love and forgiveness, Nnemdi is finally at peace:
Somewhere, you see, in the river of time, I am already alive.Page 245
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