The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi is a novel that examines gender identity and cultural norms. In some ways, it’s a murder mystery where you as the reader have limited information about who or what killed Vivek. As the story unfolds, you learn about Vivek and how the family and friends around him navigate him being different. And also the circumstances that lead to his death.
The Death of Vivek Oji begins with the story of his parents and how they met. His father, Chika, is a young bachelor who journeys home shortly after his older brother, Ekene, marries a woman named Mary. He visits his mother and spends a little bit of time with her which brings him into contact with his new sister-in-law Mary. She’s described as being a rather beautiful woman whom his brother loves dearly and takes deep pride in. The two of them are very much in love.
Chika is unmarried at this time and is not in a relationship. He’s a bachelor, living on his own. And seeing the love between his sister-in-law and brother, causes him to feel a certain sense of loneliness within his own home and life. While visiting his family, he grows to be quite close to Mary in part due to his loneliness but also, unfortunately, he begins to develop an attraction to her. It’s something that his mother picks up on, as she’s quite aware and intuitive.
Things come to a head one day when he oversteps his boundaries. I don’t think it was so much a physical matter of him being attracted but more so him being lonely, seeing his brother’s relationship, and wanting something like that for himself. Unfortunately, this leads to a period of distance from Mary, but the incident is never repeated.
Shortly thereafter, he meets a young woman, Kavita, who has moved to town with her uncle from India following the death of her father. They fall in love and end up getting married after a courtship. You then have the blending of these two cultures.
Initially, there’s a clash at the time of the wedding because in Indian culture the bride’s family typically pays the bride price in the form of a dowry. Whereas in Chika’s culture the husband’s family pays the bride price. The two sides battle over whose tradition is going to reign supreme. It’s finally settled that the groom’s bride price and bride’s dowry will be considered to cancel each other out.
Kavita’s dowry, which consists of a collection of jewelry that had been handed down through generations of her mother’s family, will be given to whatever children the marriage produces. And with that, they settle into a comfortable relationship. Chika is described as being quite handsome while Kavita is described as being pretty. The two of them produce Vivek who is a very beautiful child.
It’s known from the beginning of The Death of Vivek Oji that Vivek dies but the author doesn’t give any details about how it happens. Instead, there are little flashbacks as the people at the funeral are thinking back on moments from his life. They wish that they could go back to those moments in the past that are now burned in their memory.
Chika’s mother, Ahumma, injured her foot very early in The Death of Vivek Oji after stepping on a stick or some type of tool on their property. It’s nothing major at the time as she goes to the doctor and it gets taken care of. But it leaves a very peculiar scar on her foot, which the family comes to know and recognize. Vivek is born and shortly after his birth, a similar scar suddenly appears on his foot.
This creates a sense of foreboding in Chika that something is wrong. He tries to dismiss this from his mind but it remains a constant gnawing feeling that he can’t quite shake. Shortly thereafter, he receives notice that his mother has died. The family is distraught at the loss.
Ahumma had two sons and no daughters. After her sons got married, she became very close to her daughters-in-law. Her death was felt acutely by both her sons and their wives. Kavita had lost both her mother and father and while Ahumma wasn’t a replacement, she helped to fill that void. Her mother died when she was quite young and in Ahumma, she found a mother that she didn’t have in her childhood and missed dearly.
Having her surrogate mother pass away as well, just at the moment that this baby’s coming into the world was rough. What should have been a joyous occasion ends up being somewhat overshadowed by this sad moment. So when the scar appears on Vivek’s foot, it’s seen as a connection between him and his grandmother. It develops a heavy feeling within Chika.
Chika has Vivek and his brother has a child as well, Osita, who is about one year older than Vivek. As the two children are close in age and grow up together without other siblings, they grow up to be quite close more like brothers than just cousins. Through Osita, we see their development and moments from their childhoods.
Kavita is a member of a group of women who aren’t Nigerian, but rather are married to Nigerian men and for whatever reason are living in the country. It’s like an immigrant group that helps them to adapt to life in Nigeria. They throw parties and host other events through which the kids get to know each other. As they get older they then begin to develop little crushes on each other and puppy love relationships.
As a kid, Osita begins to spend more time at his uncle’s house with Vivek because it’s quite different from his household. Initially, Mary and Ekene had a happy marriage and the two were very much in love. But after a few miscarriages, Mary turned to religion and became a fervently religious individual. She has created a very cold and strict household that results in both Osita and Ekene spending as little time as possible at home.
Eventually, Mary notices that they’re rarely home and complains about that too. She’s likely hurt but doesn’t realize that her harsh demeanor and fervent religiosity are the reason that the two of them are staying away. She’s pushed them away and then gets upset that they don’t want to be around. Mary accuses Ekene of having an affair and she fusses about Osita spending so much time at his uncle’s house. Instead of trying to make the house a bit more welcoming, which might make them want to spend more time at home, she just digs in and does the opposite of what she probably should.
As Osita gets older, he develops a crush on a girl from the neighborhood who attends these little get-togethers. And with that, they become boyfriend and girlfriend and share some early experiences. But as Osita spends more time with his girlfriend, it begins to feel like Vivek is on the outside looking in.
From a rather young age, the other kids regard Vivek as being weird. Part of this is that he just moves differently as well as he has what’s described as blackouts. It’s not a matter of zoning out as in being distracted but losing consciousness at times. It’s something that Osita is very aware of because they live together, they share a house when Osita stays over. There’s a little shack at the back of the house which is an area set aside for the boys. Vivek lives in the shack so when Osita is visiting, they live in close contact in this small space. Osita sees firsthand that something is wrong with Vivek but the adults remain unaware for quite some time. Keeping this secret, they fail to realize how potentially serious it might be.
Vivek and Osita used to fight when they were younger but it stops as they get older. There’s quite a bit of machismo amongst the local boys, especially as they become young men. But Vivek is skinny and looks kind of frail. He’s quiet in comparison to the other kids, making him a target for attempted bullying. Vivek continues to fight because the neighborhood boys try to pick on him.
But it turns out that never mind his appearance, Vivek is a ferocious fighter. It’s very unexpected as looking at him you wouldn’t think that he’d be able to hold his own. At first, Osita would break up the fights when he saw them. Until the day that he saw Vivek giving some older kid the business and realized that he could take care of himself.
Osita is a young man who wants to fit in and has an interest in girls. He doesn’t have the tools to recognize the seriousness and deal with Vivek’s blackouts. So while he keeps Vivek’s secret from the adults, he also kind of casts him aside when it gets in the way of the things that he wants to do. In some ways, Osita is a typical young man but Vivek being different means that they don’t share the same interests. Unfortunately, this results in them drifting apart.
By the time they reach their early 20s, they barely see each other. Part of this is a result of them going to different schools and being about a year apart. Originally, the plan was for Vivek to attend college in America. But by the time he reaches his late teens, the brief episodes from his youth have become more serious and noticeable to the people around him. He was previously able to hide these blackouts. But it becomes apparent that something’s off about him, not just that he’s different. He seems to also be struggling with depression.
When Vivek was younger, he would get haircuts. But when he got older, Vivek stopped cutting his hair so it’s grown quite long. His parents notice that he’s not eating and appears to be losing weight. He’s described as being skinny but is becoming increasingly frail in appearance. Vivek looks like he’s wasting away.
Another change that contributed to the distance between Vivek and Osita is that Vivek was sent to a military boarding school as it was felt that he was a little soft and needed some toughening up. The local kids picked up on him being a little soft and different from a young age. And depending on how children are being raised, any kind of difference can result in bullying. As Vivek gets older, his parents start to become more aware and concerned.
By the time Vivek returns from military school, the idea of him going away to college in America has fallen by the wayside. This is also the case for Osita as he doesn’t have any real interest in going abroad to study. It’s not clear if it’s a financial matter, but neither Osita nor Mary have a real interest in him going abroad.
It’s always been viewed by them as a fantasy, something more reasonable for Kavita because of her mother’s jewelry. The jewelry which was originally her dowry had been set aside with the intent that she could sell it when it was time for Vivek to go off to college. But given his depression and other health issues, it doesn’t seem like a good idea for him to be away. This results in both Vivek and Osita going to school locally.
Yet, Vivek’s issues continue. Vivek has to return home from school and it’s clear that there’s something wrong with him. It’s not just a matter of him growing up but he seems very divorced from everything that’s going on around him. Chika ends up having to go and bring him home from school as he has what seems to be a nervous breakdown. At this point, Chika and Kavita are at their wit’s end and don’t know what to do.
Kavita is incredibly concerned. She spends all of her time trying to think of what she can do to help Vivek get better. Chika is also concerned but maybe less so than Kavita. This causes some distance and tension in their marriage as Chika feels a little bit neglected by Kavita. And here again, is this issue of a lack of communication between a husband and wife.
Kavita guesses at what’s going on and tries to figure out how to help Vivek get better. But I don’t recall any point in time where she sits down with Vivek and just talks to him or asks him what’s going on. Likewise, when Chika begins to feel a bit neglected in his marriage at no point does he sit down and speak to Kavita about his feelings.
Vivek needs care but so does their relationship, they should be concerned about him but they still have to maintain their romantic relationship as well. They have to give time to their marriage. Chika having these feelings is not the problem rather him not sharing them with his wife is the issue.
There was an inkling when Vivek was young, but it seems like no one wanted to admit to themselves that might be gay. It’s something that becomes more noticeable as he gets older. Vivek grows his hair quite long and because of his very slim body type, he might look like a woman from a distance.
That becomes a cause for concern because, during this time, there’s fear that violence might be on the horizon due to politics. His family members and loved ones begin to fear for Vivek. Their concern is that despite him having grown up in this community all it takes is for the wrong person to mistake him for a female or to assume that he’s gay and they might react violently.
His mother hasn’t even allowed the idea that he might be gay to enter her mind. Kavita is kind of dismissive when this is pointed out to her by Mary. During their conversation, Mary suggests that instead of taking him to the doctor, having Vivek pray and go to church might be a better option. Mary offers to have him come to her church because they know how to deal with these situations.
Unfortunately, his experience at Mary’s church ends up driving a wedge between the family. Her church’s solution to dealing with what they deem as the problem of being gay is to attempt an exorcism. It’s an unspoken thing early in The Death of Vivek Oji but Vivek is dealing with depression and there’s a mental health element at play as well. Some of it might be a result of him struggling with his sexual identity, and his identity overall.
Vivek likely feels disconnected and isolated from everyone around him in addition to not knowing how to deal with his feelings and identity. He can’t speak openly about what’s going on with him and has to hide a part of himself away. When people ask him questions, his mother and other family members included, they don’t want the real answer about what’s going on. They’d rather infer and speak around his feelings and his issues than deal with them head-on.
This probably gives him a sense that they’re kind of ignoring it, making excuses to not deal with it. It makes him feel that he won’t be accepted. Everyone’s trying to figure out the problem of what’s happening to him but no one’s talking to him about it. His mother is well-intentioned but also in denial about what’s going on.
The first person that reaches out to him and calls what’s going on with him by its name, which is him being gay, is Mary. It’s the first time that someone acknowledges it and he feels seen. With this being his aunt and him trusting her, it feels like it’s coming from a place of love. But her efforts and solutions are misguided.
She takes him to her church intending to help him but their solution is to perform an exorcism. It’s promoted as a program but is more like one of these conversion camps. Mary’s church is fervently religious and they attempt to essentially beat the gay out of Vivek.
Here is this woman who he’s loved since he was a child and supposedly loved him. He grew up with her being like a second mother. And she takes him to this church where the preacher and the congregation turn on him and beat him.
It’s an incredibly traumatic experience for Vivek. There is the physical pain but then also the emotional hurt of this woman who’s been a major figure in his life allowing this terrible thing to be done to him. It’s incredibly devastating to him and emotionally upsetting.
It drives a wedge in Mary’s relationship with Kavita. While Kavita asked him to go to the church, she didn’t understand what exactly their “deliverance program” was about. It felt like a violation of trust for Mary to take Vivek to the church and stand by while they hurt him.
Vivek had similar experiences while he was away at boarding school. While sharing the shack with Osita, he noticed weird circular marks on Vivek. When questioned, he explains that they’re cigarette burns that he got while at boarding school. Vivek has been quietly dealing with being tortured by people for being different.
The first time it happened he was attacked by students at school. Not that it excuses their actions but those were immature and misguided children who were strangers to him. But here is this person who he has loved and claims to love him. And she has allowed the members of her church to torture and abuse him because of their misguided belief that he’s possessed by a devil. What would that say about how this person feels about you?
He’s already feeling isolated and ostracized from the rest of the world. But he also can’t turn to his family for comfort and acceptance. Because the reality is that he can’t trust them either. If you can speak to friends or family, who can you talk to about what you’re experiencing?
Even when Osita starts to suspect that Vivek might be gay, he rejects him and says some rather unkind things to Vivek. This person has been like a brother to him, his best friend throughout their childhood. And he rejects him once it’s open knowledge that he’s gay. Kavita remains in denial as she hasn’t admitted to herself that Vivek is gay. This is because she doesn’t want to have to turn away from him. So instead of rejecting him, she rejects this side of him.
By chance, some of the girls that Vivek and Sita were friends with as part of the Nigerian immigrant group reconnect. They’re the first people who instead of just assuming that they know what’s going on with him or that they have the answers just sit down to not even talk to him but listen as Vivek explains how he’s feeling and what’s going on. Having someone listen allows him to reconnect to others because he’s finally got someone, actually a group of people, who are willing to listen and hear him out and accept him as he is.
The more he moves through life, it becomes clearer that everyone in The Death of Vivek Oji has their little secrets. Things that they keep to themselves. Lies that they tell other people. You see this kind of hypocrisy with them sitting in judgment of Vivek.
They might not necessarily do the same things that he does, specifically that they might not be homosexuals. But they’ve all got their own little individual ways of living that other people might take issue with or judge them for. Some of the very same people that sit in judgment of him are doing far worse in their own lives.
There is an exchange that Vivek has with another person that struck me as weird. Because nowadays, it’s not done in American culture or West Indian culture either, or rather it’s frowned upon. The incident itself gave me pause but I was shocked by his friends being seemingly unbothered. I understood them being accepting of Vivek’s sexuality but then he entered into a relationship with someone that caught me off guard because it seemed inappropriate. Yet no one else saw it as a big deal. I wasn’t sure if this was a regular practice in Nigerian culture. But, in looking it up, it seems like one of those things where what’s publicly done versus what’s privately accepted might not necessarily be the same thing.
Throughout The Death of Vivek Oji almost everyone has secrets. But within Vivek’s friend group with the young ladies, they’re incredibly accepting of each other. They trust each other to the point where they tell each other things that they wouldn’t tell anyone else. Maybe that’s why they remained seemingly unbothered by Vivek’s secret.
Being so close and having known each other since childhood they could be honest with each other. They could tell each other anything and not fear the other person judging them for it. Knowing that the other person would accept them. On the one hand, I get that and think it’s cool to have friends of that nature. You don’t have to worry that if you tell them something today and have an argument or disagreement tomorrow that they’ll bring it up or whisper about it behind your back. They’re able to have truly genuine friendships where they can be their full authentic selves with each other.
Throughout The Death of Vivek Oji, there’s this thing of keeping secrets. Vivek and his peer group keep secrets from their parents. The parents keep secrets from each other and themselves, which often involves infidelity, lack of communication, and selfishness. Often the kids don’t lie outright to their parents. Instead, the parents have a vision of who their children are and how they should conduct themselves based on cultural expectations.
As the kids reach their teens and early 20s, they start questioning these cultural practices. They begin dating and have to keep that side of themselves from their parents. This results in a distance developing between the kids and their parents. The kids have a far better understanding of who their parents are than the other way around.
For example, one of the kids, her parents are having issues in their marriage because her father has been having an affair with another woman. To be accurate, not just an affair but a whole other family. When it comes to light, it brings problems within his marriage as he doesn’t want to leave the other woman but rather hopes to hold on to both of the women.
It’s not a matter of loving his wife or the mistress more or less but rather a matter of ownership. He tries to make things where his wife, the mistress, nor the children can leave him. Despite him having this other woman, he expresses that his wife should remain in his life. In the midst of all this going on. Just imagine that you and your spouse are arguing about infidelity and not just verbally but also physically at times. And this is within the same house that you share with your child. What are the odds that your kid doesn’t notice you’re unhappy or aren’t speaking to each other? That dad is away a lot and your demeanor has changed from how things normally are?
The parents see themselves as trying to shield her from what’s happening. But they don’t realize that it’s impossible for her to not pick up on what’s going on in the house. She’s had some inkling but eventually gains full knowledge of what’s taking place. Yet, her parents remain oblivious to this. That’s not to say that the kids know everything about their parents, but rather that they have a pretty good understanding of who their parents are as people.
The parents feel as though they’re doing a good job of hiding themselves and what’s going on. But the kids pick up on things and know what’s going on. They’re killing themselves, trying to hide things, and feeling like they’re getting over. But the reality is that their spouses, kids, and the other people around them know what’s going on.
As Vivek and the other kids get older, they develop inner lives. They reach a point where the conversations aren’t neat or tidy but they can be honest about themselves. They have messy arguments and disagreements where they fuss and fight amongst themselves. But they are their full authentic selves with each other. They don’t then have to hide from or lie to each other. They can be honest about who they are. and because they don’t have to hide from each other. They all reach a point where they’re comfortable.
This in part allows Vivek to share his full truth with his friends and to fully reveal himself to them. And as it develops, his parents can see a change in him. But because this is something they don’t approve of and don’t want to have associated with their child, they ignore it. They focus on surface-level questions but don’t listen or pay attention. By the time Vivek’s parents face the reality of what’s going on with him it’s too late as he’s already passed away.
They remain clueless about what he was going through towards the end of his life and really for much of his life. After he passes away, they’re trying to scramble to figure out what happened to him. What was it that he was dealing with? What was it that he was going through?
Chika remains in denial about what was going on. His mom is asking questions but they’re not the right questions. Everything that they need to know, all of the questions, and all of the answers they’re looking for are right there in front of them. But in this case, they’re kind of being willfully ignorant. They’re choosing to ignore or not acknowledge what’s going on. They’re in denial.
Vivek picks up on this. That his parents see what they want to see. And they aren’t at a point where they’re not willing to accept what they see. And thus, they’re not willing to accept him as he is. Because he has an idea of what his parents’ reaction will be, Vivek chooses to continue to hide away this part of himself from his parents.
This is part of his identity, part of how he feels, views, expresses himself, and lives his life. It’s difficult for him to hide this away. And so with that, he goes where he can be himself which is to hang out with his friends. They might not necessarily get him but they accept him as he is. They don’t try to push him to change or hide parts of himself. Instead, they allow him to fully be who he is. They listen to him and allow him to express himself.
Because of that comfort, safety, and acceptance he knows that he can be himself around them. He comes alive around his friends versus being this barely living person around his parents. Quiet and devoid of any real feeling or emotion, he’s a vibrant, full, and complete person with his friends. His parents spend a lot of effort trying to figure out what they can do to make him better. But it looks like there’s nothing they need to do aside from just letting him be. The friendship that developed between him and the other girls was incredibly quite sweet.
For much of his life, Vivek was an outcast. He was all alone. And then within this group, he finds acceptance. He finds himself able to not just be an individual but also to be part of this group. Vivek can hang out with them and have a good time, enjoying himself and being free. To just enjoy being in their company.
They develop little things that they do together like Pancake Day. Hanging out doing normal, young adult stuff. Yet, he can only be himself within this confined space around this particular group of friends. He can’t be that way at home or out in society on the street.
The Death of Vivek Oji was a really interesting book. I haven’t read a lot of LGBT literature. And I try to seek out books from other parts of the black diaspora. Not specifically focused on Nigeria, but for whatever reason, it seems like a lot of the books that I end up reading which take place in Africa are set in Nigeria.
I have very limited knowledge of Nigerian culture and the LGBT community there. But some of the commentaries can also apply here in America and other parts of the Black diaspora. There’s some discussion of colorism and things along those lines but not very much of it. I enjoy reading books set in predominantly Black countries as it’s nice to read about Black people while getting a break from race playing a factor in the story.
The discussion was quite interesting as was the interplay between the different characters. Not just Vivek’s trials and tribulations, but also the people around him. Once you get into the story and can tell the characters apart, especially once the kids get to be a bit older you get a real feel for their personalities. They begin to feel a bit more fleshed out. And because the parents aren’t actively raising the kids as they become more independent, you see more of their inner lives as well.
Throughout the story, you get more development of the characters. Not just in the sense of Vivek and his friends but also in their changing relationships with their parents. Their parents also get into nonsense with more free time to themselves. And all of this makes for a very interesting story. Several of the characters are one way towards the beginning of The Death of Vivek Oji. And it’s not necessarily that they change but they develop and have experiences that end with them being in a different place by the end. I recommend checking this book out.
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