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How The Death of Vivek Oji inverts the murder mystery

In Akwaeki Emezi’s ferocious and kaleidoscopic novel, the real mystery is whether Vivek truly lived.

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi.
Left: Riverhead Books. Right: Kathleen Bomani.

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Probably the best advice I’ve come across when it comes to reading Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji, the Vox Book Club’s April pick, is to treat it as an inverted murder mystery.

Vivek Oji begins, like all murder mysteries do, with a death. “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died,” Emezi writes, in the novel’s opening line. That line is all that exists of the first chapter, and it’s all we need to know: Vivek Oji lived, and now he is dead. And on the day he died, the market in Ngwa, the Nigerian town where he lived, was burned down.

Burned down by whom? By them.

A classic murder mystery would have us spend the rest of the novel hunting for the ne’er-do-well who killed Vivek, scanning all his closest connections for the motive that would have them commit such a dastardly crime. But as The Death of Vivek Oji goes on, and Vivek’s mother Kasita becomes our detective, trying to solve the death of her son, Emezi refuses to follow the template of the genre.

“This is Emezi’s first and greatest intervention on the crime-novel form,” writes Lily Meyer in a terrific review at NPR: “nobody loved Vivek impurely.” Everyone who claims to love Vivek — his mother; his friends; and most importantly, his cousin and lover Osita — truly did love him.

But sin lies at the center of every murder mystery. And the sin of those who loved Vivek was that they failed to quite see him for who he was. They failed so completely that they refer to him almost exclusively with he/him pronouns, even after they recognize that Vivek does not identify as a man. And we readers, in turn, also find ourselves unequipped with the knowledge of what Vivek’s preferred pronouns might actually be, because he never tells us, and all of his chapters are in the first person. (Emezi, who is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns.)

“I’m not what anyone thinks I am,” Vivek tells us early on. “I never have been. I didn’t have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt needed to change.” And now that he is dead, he truly does not have the mouth. Vocabulary failed him in life, and then death silenced him.

Vivek’s death, we learn eventually, was not a true murder. On a literal level, it was accidental. Osita killed Vivek during the market riot that led to its burning, trying to get him to safety while he was dressed as a woman and pulling him so hard that he stumbles and hits his head.

But on another level, Vivek was killed by exactly the forces Emezi implicated in the book’s very first sentence: by the people who burned the market down. By them. By a violent world that destroys what it does not understand.

Terror of them pants through this whole book. Vivek’s parents fear that he will “end up like those lynched bodies at the junction, blackened by fire and stiffened, large gashes from machetes showing old red flesh underneath” — not even from dressing in women’s clothes, but from existing in the world the way he is.

“The boy is slim, he has long hair,” says Vivek’s aunt Mary. “All it takes is one idiot thinking he’s a woman from behind or something, then getting angry when he finds out that he’s not.”

The “idiots” who make up this “them” never resolve into specific figures in The Death of Vivek Oji, and they don’t have to. Everyone who loves Vivek has one of “them” living in their heads, spurring them to try to force Vivek to live as a man when he is in public. It’s for his own good, they keep insisting; it will protect him.

But that protective impulse doesn’t keep Vivek safe. In the end, it’s what kills him.

“If nobody sees you,” Vivek asks us, “are you still there?”

The implication is that most of Vivek’s life was something for which he was not present. The only times he was truly there, truly alive, came when he took off his men’s clothing and dressed himself in jewels and dresses.

And so the story of most of Vivek’s life is, as Emezi told us in the title, the story of his death. We only learn the story of his real life — the life in which he was seen as his true self, using she/her pronouns and the name Nnemdi — at the very end of the novel.

That’s the mystery at the core of this book. Not how Vivek died, but how he lived. And who he was when he was alive.

Share your thoughts on The Death of Vivek Oji in the comments section below, and be sure to join us on April 29 for our live event with Akwaeke Emezi. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion questions

  1. It’s tricky to find the best way to talk about Vivek/Nnemdi after the fact. Would you default to using she/her pronouns and the name Nnemdi?
  2. How does approaching this book as an inverted crime novel affect your reading? Does it change the structure for you?
  3. Emezi’s first novel, Freshwater, similarly played with gender identity, but from a much more interior perspective. If you read Freshwater, how does projecting this examination outward change the way you interact with The Death of Vivek Oji?
  4. Vivek’s home is among the Nigerwives, the expat women from various countries who have married Nigerian men. How do these multiple racial identities interact with the multiple gender identities we see played out across the novel?
  5. How do you feel about the love story between Vivek and Osita? Do you think Osita is to blame for Vivek’s death?

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