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Review: THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI by Akwaeke Emezi

According to Oxford Languages, a ghost story (n.) is “a story involving ghosts or ghostly circumstances, intended to be suspenseful or scary.”

We know from THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI’s title and opening sentence — “They burned down the market on the day that Vivek Oji died” — that Vivek Oji is dead, but we’re not told how or why. We spend much of the book trying to solve the mystery of his death, as well as the mystery of who he really was, alongside Kavita, his mother, and come to understand before she does. Her journey toward the truth, or as close as she’ll get to it, is charged with suspense. 

According to Oxford Languages, a ghost (n.) is “the soul or spirit of a dead person […] that can appear to, observe, or contact the living.” According to Collins English Dictionary, a ghost (n.) is “a returning or haunting memory or image.” 

Vivek speaks to us from the grave. He speaks of his life, his stories, those he loves. Those who loved him — his lover, his friends, his family — are haunted by their memories of him. 

And Vivek never met his beloved, well-respected grandmother, whose memory his parents never stopped being haunted by. They missed her terribly. She died on the day Vivek was born; when he entered the world as she exited it, his foot was marked by a starfish-shaped scar identical to the one she had on hers. Emezi tells us, “In Igbo spirituality, wherein the dead are reborn back into the family, this is a potential sign of reincarnation.” 

Whenever I think about THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI, I think of it as a ghost story. 

THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI is an incredible exercise in non-linear storytelling, exploring the life of Vivek Oji, an enigma to all those who love him, by beginning with his death. While Vivek does speak to us beyond the grave at points, we largely come to know him through the perspectives of those who loved him most: Osita, his cousin, closest childhood friend, and eventual lover; Kavita, his mother; and a group of girls who, in adulthood, were his best friends and confidants. 

This book is deceptive. It begins by adopting the appearance of the traditional crime novel, with Vivek’s death appearing to be the point the book revolves around and Kavita seemingly taking on the role of the tireless sleuth determined to get to the bottom of things. But you come to realize that this story takes on many different forms, bending and twisting the conventions of not only the murder mystery but the coming-of-age story and ghost tale. It’s simultaneously many things at once and none of them at all. 

This particular book wouldn’t be possible without Vivek’s death, but it slowly decenters the question of how he died in favor of exploring the mystery of his life. Who was Vivek Oji? What troubled him so deeply that he suffered fugue states beginning in childhood, that he had to abandon his university education? Why was he prone to fits of terrible anger and violence, especially in his adolescence? Why did he, a young man living in southeastern Nigeria, where one’s physical appearance is largely dictated by existing gender norms, choose to grow his hair long? 

We receive answers to some of these questions, but Emezi seems to be less interested in providing clinical, clear-cut answers than in showing us how they confused and affected Vivek and those closest to him. While those who loved Vivek loved him to the best of their ability and the ways they knew how, they also all failed him in some way. Osita rejected him twice, first after a fugue episode in their adolescence, and secondly when Vivek first tried to show him who he really was. Kasita, in spite of herself, was ashamed of him — although she insisted to others that there was nothing wrong with him, privately, “There was a tendril of shame unfurling into a leafy plant inside her.” She allowed that shame to deliver him to a traumatic experience, teaching him that he couldn’t trust her with his truth. His best friends believed they didn’t protect him as they should have. THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI is as much about these characters finding redemption for these failures as it is about finally granting Vivek his freedom. 

Vivek’s lack of freedom to express himself safely is central to his story. From the very beginning, we’re able to see that he wasn’t like the other boys he went to school with, or even like Osita, even if we don’t yet know why. This difference and inability to accommodate it clearly tormented him, spurring on fugue states in which he’d walk as if he was a living corpse, becoming a body that was completely absent of any sense of self.

Speaking to the reader, he explains, “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?” 

We eventually realize that this “real me” is nonbinary — Vivek is a nonbinary person. He isn’t able to live as his true self until he finds his best friends in adulthood, a group of girls who help him embrace and explore his gender identity. He tells his friends that they can “refer to him as either she or he,” as both are true. There was nothing wrong with him beyond the fact that he had no resources to better understand himself and no space to be himself for most of his life — and he suffered because of it. 

Although she didn’t realize it, this is the real truth that Kasita was trying to uncover. The correct question to ask wasn’t, “How did Vivek die?” but “Who was Vivek when he was alive? And why couldn’t I know him?” When she finally learns who Vivek really was, she celebrates his truth and his life — and offers an implicit apology — in the best way she could: by giving him a gravestone that displayed his chosen name, the one his friends said he sometimes asked to be called. 

This name, Nnemdi, was one he was almost given at birth as a tribute to his grandmother — the one whose scar he shares; the one who died on the day he was born. The only reason he was denied it was that he was born a boy. Recall that in Igbo culture, sharing a scar or birthmark can signify reincarnation within a family. Emezi is asking us to consider what could happen if a reincarnated child isn’t given their appropriate name because their gender was incorrectly assumed at birth. Couldn’t such a mistake result in dysphoria, confusion, anger, shame, and dissociation, all of which Vivek suffered?  

Vivek only ever had room to breathe when he was with his best friends and Osita, a group that became his chosen family. They styled his long hair, taught him to apply makeup, and gave him dresses to wear, celebrating him all the while. It cannot be emphasized enough that this unflinching acceptance was crucial to his wellbeing; even when his friends were confused by him, they never denied him the freedom or space to be who he was.“They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.” Vivek didn’t need to be saved or dissected or even fully known, he needed to be embraced. And his friends held him close.  

In a discussion with their editor for London Review Bookshop, Emezi, who is nonbinary and trans themselves, said, “I think that something that is really useful, especially for young queer people, to lean into is this knowledge that we can make our own worlds, and we can make our own families, and if you can get past the idea of ‘limits’ in that sense, it gives you a lot more agency about how you can move through the world.” As a young queer person, I agree with Emezi entirely; I thank them for giving voice to this unique kind of freedom, with all its love and unfettered joy, even when it must be hidden.  

I began this book wondering how Vivek died, who or what killed him, and who delivered his body to his parents’ doorstep; I left it with a new set of questions: How often does our version of love harm those we only want to help? What’s more important, that we make people feel understood, or that we make them feel safe? What does it mean to love someone who’s trans?  

Because ultimately, that’s what THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI comes down to: love. Like all good ghost tales, this one is a love story in disguise. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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