The Real Me Was Invisible
The Death of Vivek Oji
By: Emezi Akwaeke
This week’s novel starts out with one sentence that captured my attention instantly.
“If this story were a stack of photographs – the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept in albums under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country – it would start with Vivek’s father, Chika.”
The Death of Vivek Oji is a beautiful story about the life and death of a young man of the same name. Within the first sentence of this novel, you know that Vivek, a young Nigerian man has died. His body has been delivered to his parent’s front doorstep, naked but wrapped in a cloth.
Vivek’s mother Kavita is of course heartbroken over his death but also on a mad quest to understand what happened and how he died. Yet in understanding how he died, she will have to come to recognize who Vivek was while he was alive. He was not the boy she thought she knew. Vivek had a secret, and his cousin and close childhood friend, Osita knows what it is. Osita and Vivek were close from a very young age and Osita is one of the story’s narrators. Osita carries many secrets about Vivek. He is tormented by these secrets throughout most of the book where his narration is foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Vivek Ojii was born on the same day that his beloved grandmother died. Just as in the saying, in life there is death, the story follows the same path. It’s as if his grandmother’s soul has been transported into the body of this beautiful little newborn boy, Vivek. They even share the same starfish scar on their foot.
“This is how Vivek was born, after death and into grief. It marked him, you see, cut him down like a tree. They brought him into a home filled with incapacitating sorrow; his whole life was a mourning.”
Vivek has what would be considered a normal childhood in Nigeria, playing with friends and cousins. He has a very close relationship with Osita as they both are only children of two brothers. Vivek’s mother is determined to send Vivek to university in America. She decides this early in his life as many of us decide how we want things to be for our children when they are born. However, as we all know, what we want and what our children want are often two different things.
We know that Vivek is sent to Military Boarding School for high school and it is probably there that he learns things about himself. After an incident with his cousin around the same time, the two become estranged.
Against his mother’s wishes, and countless SAT prep classes, Vivek ends up going to university in Nigeria. After his first term, Vivek leaves University and comes home to live with his parents. Something has clearly gone wrong. What Chika and Kavita find is a very different boy then the one they used to know. His hair is long and he is very thin. His parents are worried as Vivek locks himself in his room at home or goes for long walks until after dark. His mother is desperate for him to be “normal” and to have friends. She forces him upon her friends’ daughters so that he will have someone his age to talk with. His parents try to change him; they want him to eat more, to cut his hair, to be different.
But we know that Vivek is far from normal as he narrates from beyond the grave, “I felt heavy my whole life. I always thought that death would be the heaviest thing of all, but it wasn’t; it really wasn’t. Life was like being dragged through concrete in circles, wet and setting concrete that dried with each rotation of my unwilling body…I wanted to stay empty, like the eagle in the proverb, left to perch, my bones filled with air pockets, but heaviness found me and I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t shake it off…”
His differences were never and would never be accepted in the Nigerian community that he lived in. Vivek identifies with women and he wants to be a woman. He wants to dress like a woman, look feminine, and wear make-up and lipstick.
Kavita forces friendships on him with other friends’ daughters and Vivek actually enjoys their company. Kavita thinks it is because he has found some kind of romance, but in reality, it was because these girls saw him for who he really was and they accepted him. He could be himself to these girls. He could be the person that he could never reveal to his parents and the greater community.
Vivek’s sadness really stemmed from the fact that the people he loved the most didn’t know who he really was. He says, “people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong…the real me was invisible to them.”
In Vivek’s first narrated chapter he asks, “If nobody sees you, are you still there?” I will not tell you how Vivek dies, that is for you to discover. I will tell you that finally after his death his family accepts who he was, in one singular action, they show the world that they have accepted Vivek and his wishes. Although the mystery for them is not of how Vivek died, but more about how he lived and wanted to live.
As we see through other stories in the book which takes place in 1980's-1990's Nigeria, this is an extremely traditional society. It is very common for a wife to accept that her husband takes on another wife and has another family. A girl must shave her head in order to go to school, and a man whose wife can’t get pregnant refuses to accept that it may be his fault and shames her for it. This is the society that Vivek Oji lives in and why he must keep his true self a secret from everyone.
This story is a beautifully written account of what many people experience in their coming of age. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Will the real me be accepted? While Vivek’s story ends tragically, not everyone’s story has to end this way.
The Death of Vivek Oji
By: Akwaeke Emezi
Publication Date: August 4, 2020