Emezi Akwaeke’s “The Death Of Vivek Oji”: An Exploration Of Controversial Identities – Okorite Joy Harry
Emezi Akwaeze, in their usual manner has given us another mouth-watering, unusual, heartrending and refreshing literary dish simply titled, ‘The Death Of Vivek Oji’. Set in the 1990s during Nigerian military era, the novel begins from the novel’s resolution (end) just like its titular character’s life, side by side with an exposition described in photographs, as an intentional pathway to the truth which lies at the novel’s end.
‘The Death Of Vivek Oji’ chronicles Vivek Oji’s life, as a child who is born on the day his beloved grandmother, Ahunna died and with her birth mark clearly imprinted on him. The former, giving way for his birth to warm a bittersweet memory; the latter, a foreshadowing of his person and identity.
The story unfolds as Vivek Oji grows and we begin to draw a composite of who he is through his occasional deep thoughts which render him almost lifeless; his preference to be referred to as he or she; his father’s little understanding and nonchalance towards him and his mother’s futile struggle to know him as well as his aunt who believes he’s possessed by a demon and his Uncle who feels he’s just spoilt.
In the midst of all these, however, Vivek Oji finds family, friendship and love with Juju, his close friend whom who shared the most with throughout the book. Then there are Olunne and Somto; the two sisters who also cherished and knew him as well as Elizabeth who is rather a bit indifferent.
Most important in this crew is Osita—Vivek Oji’s cousin, lover and childhood friend. And this crew unsurprisingly becomes the light to Kavita’s darkness about her son’s lifetime and death.
‘The Death Of Vivek Oji’ cuts across family, love, friendship, reincarnation, the supernatural, heartbreak and everything in between. But, above it all, are controversial identities.
Vivek Oji, prefers to be called he or she and for a name, Nnemdi (his grandmother’s other name). He would rather dress as a lady; carries on a sexual relationship with his cousin, Osita and does things considered unusual for the society.
Where Vivek Oji is strange, the other characters are no less so: there’s Osita, Oji’s cousin and lover and the only truth to Vivek Oji’s death. We have Juju, Elizabeth’s lover and a close friend of Vivek’s. Elizabeth once shared a kiss with Vivek and after his death, slept with his cousin, Osita.
Elizabeth dated boys for a while before realising her sexual preference was women through a senior back in secondary school.
These opposing identities also extend to minor characters like Mary, Tobechukwu, Maja, Vivek Oji’s father and Ebenezer.
Their expository actions change as the rising action takes place in the novel, we are shown new persons in the face of certain circumstance(s). The exploration of controversial identities would not to be complete without a question of identity for each.
Let’s consider the tripartite identity: Vivek Oji/Nnemdi/his grandmother, is he really a re-incarnate of his grandmother or just a part of the queer society?
If he really is a re-incarnate, did his grandmother intentionally use him as a cause of pain to his parents despite how much they all loved each other when she was alive and even in her death or she did not fully leave because they never really let her go?
Did Vivek really die or just began to live? Did Osita truly love Vivek Oji?, if yes, why sleep with Juju after his death most especially in their grieving moment? Also, why did Osita hide the truth behind the death of Vivek Oji? For his sake or for Vivek’s?
Juju cheated on Elizabeth twice, human or circumstances —or rather, uncertainty?
Elizabeth never forgave Osita despite having forgiven Vivek, the main cause of their beef and was disgusted by his and Vivek’s affair. Is the former more personal and the latter hypocritical?
Could Mary’s sudden change of person be truly on a religious basis or out of fear?
Maja could have left her husband’s house without going to the Philippines, yet she chose to remain there. Love, fear or societal pressure?
The list is endless.
We find out that indeed, these questions and more linger through the novel’s characters, and in the end without exact answers to the questions, one is pressed to ask, ‘What truly defines identity?’
Although at a point I felt the story line was getting boring (this could be out of my anxiety to know what happens at the end) I was particularly drawn to the narration, the description using photographs, the calculated introduction of events and the controversial nature of most if not all the characters.
While the title of the novel might sound like something you have an idea as to its storyline, Akwaeze takes you unawares and to places, people, circumstances and happenstances you are not exactly prepared for.
And it is at the very end that you realize that the ‘The Death Of Vivek Oji’ isn’t really about his death. To find out what it is about, you will have to read the novel.
**Okorite Joy Harry is an avid reader, budding writer and fashion designer.