REVIEW: “THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI” BY AKWAEKE EMEZI

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A great litre of the author seems to have been poured in “The Death of Vivek Oji”. Akwaeke Emezi’s queerness and multiplicity are seen in Vivek’s life. Like Akwaeke, Vivek is a mix of Indian and Nigerian blood who grew up in ’90s Eastern Nigeria — especially at Ngwa (Aba). Then for sexuality, personality state, and mixed heritage, the novel also explores other themes like reincarnation, mental health, homophobia, family, and friendship.

Vivek’s birth coincided with the death of his grandmother Ahunna. Before the birth of Vivek, Ahunna had an injury to her ankle from a stick on the farm. The injury healed and left a deep-brown scar shaped like a “limp starfish”. At birth, Vivek bore the same scar on his ankle.

Just before Chika and Kavita had Vivek, Chika’s elder brother Ekene and his wife, Mary had given birth to Osita. Osita became more than just a cousin to Vivek. From cousins to rivals to brothers to best friends to strangers to lovers to confidants. 

The family Vivek knew grew past those under Ahunna. He grew up around the Nigerwives: a group of non-African women married to Nigerian men, including his Indian mother, Kavita. These women had children who would become a part of Vivek and Osita’s lives. Aunty Rhatha had Somto and Olunne; Aunty Ruby had Elizabeth while Juju was Aunty Maja’s daughter. Aunty Eloise’s sons were off to the university in the UK.

When he was younger, Vivek was experiencing a series of blackouts that were sometimes accompanied by unrelatable mutters. Osita had been the only one that knew about the phenomenon and cared for Vivek during the episodes until he stopped. He stopped when Vivek’s blackout held him as he visibly watched from the door Osita make love to Elizabeth. That event created a gap between Osita and Vivek for years.

During those times without Osita, Vivek changed into something neither his parents nor their family and friends could explain. He had withdrawn from everyone and left his hair to grow down his back. This “insane” part of Vivek is what we see in most of the novel until he confides in the children of the Nigerwives he had known while growing up. By the time Osita was back to his life for real, the two men got true to themselves and embraced their sexuality and affection for each other though in secret.

Not wanting to be boxed up, Vivek gave into his feminine side, began cross-dressing, and started going out freely. Understanding the Nigerian society and how Akwaeke had done justice capturing it, the reader, like characters in the novel, is left with a tension of what could befall a crossdresser going freely on the road. Mob action. Lynching. And as we feared, crossdressed Vivek was at the market during a riot. Well, he died on that day as his feminine side, Nnemdi. Akwaeke had played us into having an imagination as to how he/she died when he/she actually didn’t die that way. The plot twist that surrounded his death was mind-blowing even with the sorrow that came with it.

Akwaeke’s eccentricity is reflected in THEIR style of writing. The first chapter is but one sentence “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died”. End of chapter! The tone within the novel screamed, “I grew up a millennial in a middle-class Eastern Nigerian mixed family, it’s not my problem if you don’t relate”. In the penultimate chapter, we experience an unannounced transformation of gender from masculine to feminine — Vivek to Nnemdi. From he to she. Just when we were trying to get comfortable grieving over the woman, Akwaeke brakes suddenly and takes us to and fro gender lines.

After reading “The Death of Vivek Oji”, I am left to ask the question: Does Dissociative Identity Disorder explain reincarnation? Is reincarnation a spiritual undertone to sexuality? Is psychology a scientific explanation for spirituality? 

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