This is the 5th book of the Aspen Words Literary Prize Longlist 2021 that I’ve gotten to. I’m a third of the way through the list now! This is one I definitely was planning to read anyways, having read and been so freaking impressive by both Freshwater and Pet, so it’s nice that it overlapped with a longlist contender. Of note, I must say that this one is unequivocally topping my shortlist predictions list so far.
(For the record, Emezi uses he/him pronouns for Vivek throughout book and, towards the end, writes that he is ok with either he/him or she/her pronouns, so this review will reflect that.)
The title for this one says it all: this is the story of Vivek Oji’s death. But it is also the story of Vivek Oji’s life. The life that he struggled to make reflect who he truly was. The novel opens with Vivek’s mother finding his dead body carefully wrapped on their front porch. As the novel continues, we see more of Vivek’s life unfold: being raised by a mostly-not-there father and a “compassionate but overprotective” mother, of struggling through mental health crises and separation from reality during adolescence, of having/losing/re-finding a close relationship with his cousin Osita, of exploring and truly discovering who she was with daughters of other Nigerwives (her mothers’ friends – a group of foreign women all married to Nigerian men), and of the complex lives and relationships of her closest friends and relatives. This is all set within the context of a grieving mother trying to find out what happened to her son, a set of friends trying to do their best to protect and love Vivek both during and after her life and the ever-present and over-whelming gender and relationship expectations that are so arbitrary and deeply ingrained into society.
Ohhhhhhhhh my freaking goodness the emotions. I mean, everyone said it. Everyone who read this one said it hit like a ton of bricks. And it’s not that I didn’t believe them. It’s just…I do not have words to describe how even thought I knew that, and even though the ending is literally in the title of the novel, I was still knocked the f*** over by this book. I’m crushed. I loved it. Emezi’s way with words, the way they are able to convey so much, with such feeling, in so few pages, is just…it’s just special. I’m not an own voices reviewer, but still feel like I so truly and deeply felt what Emezi conveyed in these pages, what Vivek experienced as far as a disconnect between who he was as a person and who society saw him as and expected him to be. Plus, the juxtaposition of that internal struggle with the revival she found when the daughters of the Nigerwives (and eventually Osita, as well) loved her, all of her, inclusively. There is a section right at the end where Vivek (Nnemdi) speaks to her acceptance of the risks she took, the choices she made to live as herself, the knowledge that something terrible and unfair could happen, but that it was worth it, to live her truth. And it was one of the most affecting parts for me, that need to accept such a terrible potential risk to just…live completely.
Speaking of affecting parts, the other aspect of this novel that most deeply got me was the choices Vivek had to make as far as who he shared his truth with. There are definitely a few aspects of my life where I can relate, at least in a small percentage, to this. Not being sure that the people closest to you, like parents, will accept certain pieces of you OR thinking in any way that there are things about you that make your friends ashamed – and all as a result of the aforementioned arbitrary societal standards – it’s beyond difficult. And there is nothing so heartbreaking as the depth to which those choices affected where and with whom and to what extent Vivek was able to show herself to others, especially to many closest to her, because of the ways it would have caused everyone involved unimaginable pain. In this vein, the second to last chapter, the last from Vivek’s mother’s point of view, was such a gift. It was a gift to Vivek, in such a major way, to become their beloved child no matter what. It was a gift to trans/non-binary people, a recognition of who they are, as they are. It was a gift to the reader, to soften the incredibly heavy emotional blows the book brought upon us. And, importantly, it’s a gift to family and friends of trans/non-binary people who are still alive today. It’s a gift to show them, show us all, that they still have a chance to truly know their loved ones before it’s too late, before they lose someone they should have loved and protected all along and have to live with that tragedy and regret.
Emezi’s eloquence, their story-telling, their ripping open of the fabric we think makes life and re-weaving it into something deeper, bigger, better, is just astounding. Every single book they’ve written has been awe-inspiring, challenging, absolutely unique, and completely shattering. There is a wisdom and gravity in their words that is matched by few, but it’s also always balanced with a truly great story as well. Vivek and his cousin Osita are such compelling and real characters; their struggles are both individual and universal. And every one of the side characters, from Vivek’s mother to his each of his friends to the random man in the market who saw Vivek walk by and admired her hair…they’re all so real. Despite some incredibly high expectations, I am coming out of this book totally, brilliantly, devastatingly awed.
As always, a few pull quotes:
“Fresh starts were good; that separateness was where you could feel yourself, where you could learn who you were apart from everyone else.”
“I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. 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?”
“…people don’t react well to their power being beaten out if them.”
“It was how he always did nowadays, pushing her aside gently, not listening to her. Sometimes it felt like he had stopped listening to her years ago, and she just hadn’t noticed. Like they were living in two separate worlds that happened to be under the same roof, pressed against each other, but never spilling, never overlapping.”
“Some people can’t see softness without wanting to hurt it.”
“I know what they say about men who allow other men to penetrate them. Ugly things; ugly words. Calling them women, as if that’s supposed to be ugly too. I’d heard it since secondary school, and I knew that night was supposed to make me. Less than a man – something disgusting, something weak and shameful. But f that pleasure was supposed to stop me from being a man, then fine. They could have it. I’d take the blinding light of his touch, the blessed peace of having him so close, and I would stop being a man. I was never one to begin with, anyway.”
“They were girlfriends, yes, but who could they even go and say that to? And if you didn’t tell other people, was it real or was it just something the two of you were telling yourselves?”
“How could he be gone when he’d overtaken us so completely while he was here?”
“That was why they’d kept it from their parents, to protect Vivek from those who didn’t understand him. They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.”
“You can chase the truth, but who could avoid the moment of hesitation when you wonder if you really want what you’ve been asking for?”
“But his shame couldn’t overcome his fear; his secrets kept a padlock on his throat.”
“We didn’t see him and we failed.”