The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel by Akwaeke Emezi, an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. This novel unpicks Vivek's tale. It begins with his end, his body shrouded on his mother's doorstep, and moves backwards through time to tell us the story of Vivek's life and the mystery surrounding his death.
Many will see The Death of Vivek Oji as a departure from Freshwater in that this is a deeply accessible novel suffused with family life and a tragedy sits squarely at its heart, but it speaks to Akwaeke's earlier work in its call to gender fluidity and the pain of adolescence lived beyond binary constructions of sexuality.
As compulsively readable as it is tender and potent, this is a fresh, engaging novel about the innocence of youth and how it clashes with culture and expectation. THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI tells the story of a Nigerian childhood quite different from the one we might expect - Akwaeke's writing speaks to the truth of realities other than those that have already been seen.
They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.
If this story was a stack of photographs—the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept in albums under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country— it would start with Vivek’s father, Chika. The first print would be of him riding a bus to the village to visit his mother; it would show him dangling an arm out of the window, feeling the air push against his face and the breeze entering his smile.
Chika was twenty and as tall as his mother, six feet of red skin and suntouched-clay hair, teeth like polished bones. The women on the bus looked openly at him, his white shirt billow- ing out from the back of his neck in a cloud, and they smiled and whispered among themselves because he was beautiful. He had looks that should have lived forever, features he passed down to Vivek—the teeth, the almond eyes, the smooth skin— features that died with Vivek.
The next photograph in the stack would be of Chika’s mother, Ahunna, sitting on her veranda when her son arrived,a bowl of udara beside her. Ahunna’s wrapper was tied around her waist, leaving her breasts bare, and her skin was redder than Chika’s, deeper and older, like a pot that had been bled over in its firing. She had fine wrinkles around her eyes, hair plaited into tight cornrows, and her left foot was bandaged and propped up on a stool.
“Mama! Gi.ni. mere?!” Chika cried when he saw her, running up the veranda stairs. “Are you all right? Why didn’t you send someone?”
“There was no need to disturb you,” Ahunna replied, split- ting open an udara and sucking out its flesh. The large com- pound of her village house stretched around them — old family land, a whole legacy in earth that she’d held on to ever since Chika’s father died several years ago. “I stepped on a stick when I was on the farm,” she explained, as her son sat down beside her. “Mary took me to the hospital. Everything is fine now.” She spat udara seeds from her mouth like small black bullets.
Mary was his brother Ekene’s wife, a full and soft girl with cheeks like small clouds. They had married a few months ago, and Chika had watched Mary float down the aisle, white lace gathered around her body and a veil obscuring her pretty mouth. Ekene had been waiting for her at the altar, his spine stern and proud, his skin gleaming like wet loam against the tarred black of his suit. Chika had never seen his brother look so tender, the way his long fingers trembled, the love and pride simmering in his eyes. Mary had to tilt her head up to look at Ekene as they recited their vows — the men in their family were always tall—and Chika had watched her throat curve, her face glowing as his brother lifted up the tulle and kissed her. After the wedding, Ekene decided to move out of the village and into town, into the bustle and noise of Owerri, so Mary was staying with Ahunna while Ekene went to set up their new life. Chika stole a glance at Mary from the veranda as she watered the hibiscus garden, her hair tied back in a frayed knot, wearing a loose cotton dress in a faded floral print. She looked like home, like something he could fall into, whirling through her hips and thighs and breasts.
His mother frowned at him. “Mind yourself,” she warned, as if she could read his mind. “That’s your brother’s wife.”
Chika’s face burned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mama.”
Ahunna didn’t blink. “Go and find your own wife, just don’t start any wahala in this house with this girl. Your brother is coming to collect her soon.”
Chika reached out and took her hand. “I’m not starting anything, Mama.” She scoffed but didn’t pull her hand away. They sat like that, another picture, as the evening pulled across the veranda and sky, and something boiled slow and hot in Chika, thrumming at the back of his throat. This was before Vivek, before the fire, before Chika would discover exactly how difficult it was to dig his own grave with the bones of his son.
When Ahunna’s wound healed, it left a scar on the instep of her foot—a dark brown patch shaped like a limp star-fish. Her son Ekene came and took his wife to their new house in Owerri, a white bungalow with flame-of-the-forest growing by the gate and guava trees lined up by the fence, and Chika visited them there. These would be the happy pictures: Mary smiling in her kitchen; Mary plaiting her hair with extensions and singing with her full throat in her church choir; Mary and Chika gisting in the kitchen while she cooked. Ekene had no patience for talkative women and he wasn’t the jealous type, so he didn’t mind that his junior brother and his wife got along so well.
As for Chika, the thing boiling inside him took on a new heat whenever he was around Mary. It sang and bubbled and scalded him where no one could see. He joked to his family that he just liked being in a house with a woman in it, rather than his empty bachelor flat, and Mary believed him — until one afternoon when he stepped behind her as she was cooking and put his mouth on the back of her neck. She whirled and started beating him with the long wooden spoon she was using to make garri.
“Are you mad?” she shouted, flecks of hot garri spitting off her spoon and burning the forearms he’d raised to block her blows. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Sorry! Sorry!” He dropped to his knees, bowing his head under his arms. “Biko, Mary, stop! I won’t do it again, I swear!”
She paused, breathing hard, her face confused and hurt. “What’s your problem, ehn? Why must you try and spoil everything? Ekene and I are happy, you hear? We’re happy.”
“I know. I know.” Chika stood up slowly, one reversed knee at a time, keeping his hands up and looking into her eyes. “I know. I don’t want to spoil anything. Please, forgive me.
Mary shook her head. “You can’t continue coming here if this is what you’re coming for.” Chika wanted to reach out to her, but her knuckles were tight around the spoon.
“I know,” he said, keeping his voice soft.
“I’m not joking,” she said. “Don’t come back with this nonsense.”
Chika looked at the tears hanging wet inside her eyes and he put his hands down.
“I hear you. I swear, from now on, you’re just my sister.” He felt her eyes on him as he reached for his car keys. “I’m going. I’ll see you next week. Please, let’s just forget today, okay?”
Mary said nothing. She just watched as he left, her fingers relaxing against the curved wood of the handle only when the door closed behind him.