Book Review: The Death Of Vivek Oji

Have you ever had a book just capture your attention right from the offset? Be it the cover, the title and then the content? Not only is this book by an author from the LGBTQIA community and Black, let me tell you about how good it feels to get my hands on a book that is representative. It’s unlike any book I have read before, be it the content or the setting, this book is captivating! This week on the blog, we are reviewing Akwaeke Emezi’s “The Death Of Vivek Oji”, let us know what you think.

Synopsis:

Vivek Oji’s dead body is laid on the front porch of his parent’s house, his naked body is wrapped in an akwete cloth and his treasured necklace has been removed. The ripple effect of his death is far reaching, friendships are tested, family relationships are broken and his mother’s mission to find out what really happened to her son pushes her to the depth of her grief but also to the sharp realization that she never truly knew her flesh and blood. The son she loved so very dearly was not the person she thought she knew.

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.

Characters:

Vivek : Born of a Nigerian father and an Indian mother, identified as Nnemdi in later life
Osita : Vivek’s cousin, they grew up like brothers, as they were their parent’s only children.
Kavita : Vivek’s mother
Chika : Vivek’s father/ Osita’s uncle
Ekene : Chika’s older brother & Vivek’s uncle
Mary : Vivek’s aunt, married to Chika’s brother, Ekene
Ahunna : Ekene and Chika‘s mother, who died on the day Vivek was born
Nigerwives : The name for the group of immigrant women, married to Nigerian men, some from India, The Philippines and various other countries-
Juju, Elizabeth, Somto & Olunne: Vivek’s squad of trusted friends, with Juju as his best friend- this is where he felt the most at ease and the most himself.

Break It Down

I’m not really sure I know where to begin with his book. It was soft, sensual, but yet brutal and honest. It touches on so many tough truths within the Black community and more specifically Nigerian culture. How difficult it is to grow up different, in a culture that is so deeply rooted in conforming to the “norm”. I wish there was a better way to say it, or that I could be more poetic about it. I genuinely learnt a lot about Nigeria, about the fact that there is a slither of an Indian/East Asian community. The fact that Vivek is the product of an African father and an East Asian mother, is something that I don’t personally hear a lot about. Added to this Vivek is very different and has been from a very young age, but he is growing up in an environment that isn’t always welcoming to different, especially his kind of different. A society that is deeply religious and lawless when it comes to expressions of queerness or any gender non-conforming peoples. Vivek struggled with who he is and for all intents and purposes, it was killing him. He didn’t feel he could be his true self in his own home, so he chose to spend his time with his friends, at their homes and for the most part it wasn’t an odd thing to do, because the families were very close. But surrounded by his close knit group of friends, he felt safe to express himself freely and he did live freely. The complex love story between Vivek and Osita was so turbulent, yet still full of softness and admiration that you couldn’t help but wish them the best, despite the fact that they were in fact cousins. But the most heartbreaking thing was the fact that ultimately Osita’s inability to be open and honest about his sexuality and his projected overprotectiveness over Vivek is what lead to Vivek’s death. A literal argument, leading to a misstep and an accidental fall lead to so much turmoil and broken hearts. Nearly breaking Kavita and Chika’s marriage as it became an obsession for his mother to find out the truth. The fact that Osita was in fact the last one to see Vivek, who at this time was now identifying as Nnemdi, his grandmother’s name. The beautiful full circle of that name and the connection to his roots, which Vivek never knew as his grandmother died on the very day he was born. I really loved the symbolism of them, though it was tragic, it was really touching.

Book Club Questions:

Q: When they were younger, Osita and Elizabeth were an item, and later Osita is with Vivek and Elizabeth is with Juju. Vivek and Juju share a kiss, and after Vivek’s death, Osita and Juju sleep together. What did you make of the many ways the friends are enmeshed? How does the author present a wide spectrum of expressing feelings and affection through physical touch?
A: As I was reading it, I was initially put off by the web of entangling that eventually occurred, but the way the author presented it and especially the wording and the scene, it was definitely presented as a grief mechanism. Juju and Osita loved Vivek so deeply and they were so enwrapped in their own grief that I guess in many ways they were not able to express some of their shared pain in any other way. They both needed someone in that moment and at the same time they both needed a way to feel closer to Vivek and in some ways I feel like Juju was also trying to help Osita with his grief as he not only lost a cousin, but he lost the love of his life.

Q: “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,” Somto tells Kavita when the group of friends goes to visit her. Do you think Somto is right in saying this about Kavita, and if so, is she right to bring it up then? How does possessiveness play into our relationships with the dead? 
A: Although at the time this line appeared to be harsh and in some ways uncalled for, I feel like it was something Kavita needed to hear and no one else was either willing to tell her or didn’t have the space to as they were excusing her behaviour because she was grieving. In many ways she never knew her son and the son she thought she knew was the ghost she was chasing. Almost as if she felt like she needed to compensate for the fact that she never took the opportunity to know Vivek’s true self. I suppose when someone passes, you hold on to the memory you have of them so tightly- it’s the only thing you can do, but it doesn’t allow you to fully assess the gaps in your relationship.

Q: After meeting with the “children,” Kavita decides that Vivek’s gravestone should display the other name he was going by, Nnemdi. Does this prove Kavita’s acceptance of Vivek, even if it comes too late? How did this shape your understanding of Vivek’s identity? Did the connection between Ahunna and Vivek resonate with your beliefs on family, inheritance, and reincarnation?
A: I think that Kavita realized just how little she knew her son, despite her claim and obvious love for him, it must have felt like a sort of failure on her part that Vivek/Nnemdi didn’t feel safe or comfortable enough to be his true self around her. Her acceptance came after his death, but at the same time, maybe that’s what it took, maybe that was his role, and it took his death to bring it to fruition. It’s interesting that Vivek was born on the very day his grandmother died, he never met her and because his birthday is also the anniversary of the death of one of the most beloved members of the family, it’s almost as if he knew he was never meant to be on the earth for very long. At least, the book read like this, and in some ways he might have been almost sent to pass on a message to his family.

Q: At the end of the book, we learn that Vivek died after fighting with Osita, not at the hands of rioting strangers. Were you surprised by this final reveal? Do you agree with Osita that Vivek would have stayed safe and alive if only he had kept his dresses within the “bubble” of Juju’s room? How does this last bit of information shape your feelings about Osita and your ideas of whom Vivek was most under threat from?
A: I was very sad that Osita had accidentally killed Vivek, I wasn’t necessarily surprised, because there were hints throughout the book, as Osita carried a lot of guilt. I felt upset because the one person whom he loved and trusted so explicitly was ultimately the person who killed him. Especially because of the nature of their argument. No one can truly say that Vivek would have not been safe on the streets, although we know that it wasn’t exactly a very welcoming place for anyone who was gender non-confirming, but at the same time if this is how Vivek felt safe and this is what he desired, then Osita should have never been suggesting for him to suppress a part of himself. I began the book believing Osita was one of the protagonists, but in the end I feel like he was the antagonist in the sense that he was trying to make Vivek conform to a standard because he was too scared to be his true self. Vivek living his true self- was a threat to Osita, because he wanted to remain closeted, but also because in some ways he loved Vivek so much, he couldn’t risk anything coming back to him. At the end of the day I suppose Vivek’s biggest threat was actually Osita’s fear, Vivkeks’ lack of fear and it cost him his life.

Negatives

The book began with a lot of imagery, mentions of memories being like snapshots of photographs, when the girls reveal Vivek’s secret to Kavita, it is delivered in a series of photographs, but other than those 2 minute events in the book- there isn’t any other mention of photographs and I felt a little bit confused, because it is what captured my attention at the beginning of the book.

RnR Rating

4 out of 5

Would I Recommend?

Most definitely! There is genuinely no reason NOT to pick this book up, it’s full of love, a mother’s love, a lover’s love, a friend’s love and the love of your true self. It’s almost a story of blossoming into the person you were always meant to be, no matter the cost. It really is a great book!