Content warning: trans death, suicide, murder. Spoilers for the entirety of Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji; mild premise spoilers for Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian).
Before we even learned that trans life was possible, many of us already knew about trans death. Cop procedural. Monster slayer. Family reunion. Oscar nod. If we are not dying, the world is too lenient. If we are dying, then it’s more proof we’re crazy. More proof we should have taken good advice and stayed put. Talking about trans death is to open a wound. Staying silent about it is to lose our history.
Still, I am of the trans demographic least likely to be touched by death; as such, I rarely talk about it as if I am an interested party. Too many white, Western trans people talk about murdered transfem sex workers in Brazil as if we have the same life. I live in a heated flat with my partner, I make my relatively painless money, I keep my headphones on when I go out, and I worry about my friends killing themselves. That’s it. The world is not violent towards me. Just distant.
But when we talk about trans death, when we write about it, we have responsibilities to each other: to tell the truth, to stand in solidarity with each other, to work as insurrectionists against the vast power of cis tragic-trans-narrative, which tries to press trans life, and trans joy, out of existence. Non-transfem people sometimes fall into the trap, however, of trying to be good representatives of the tragedy of transfem suffering, rather than working as collaborators in pursuit of the good death. And reading The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi’s recent novel, made me think about the ways in which we may be falling short.
As any reader of books by trans authors will likely know, trying to find book reviews that substantively consider trans books as works of art, and as works of art within a trans context, is nigh on impossible. For instance: the Guardian review of Vivek Oji takes up a common thread of cis reviews of trans books in its anodyne praise, calling the book ‘an antidote to invisibility’. ‘Invisibility’ is a common cis phrasing of the problem of trans existence, and it erases the fact that hypervisibility is far more relevant to transfem life than ‘invisibility’ is. Cis people’s unawareness of the conditions of transfem existence is partly cultivated by their heightened awareness of, and disgust at, stereotyped caricatures of their bodies and appearances; Vivek, the book’s transfeminine protagonist, is explicitly shown to be very visible as queer/trans/divergent throughout Vivek Oji, and it takes both her friends’ subterfuge and her family’s repression to keep her family in the dark. ‘Invisibility’ might be better termed ‘you looking away.’
This isn’t a specific issue with that one review, of course; any cis writer who reviews trans books tends to fall into simplistic, cisnormative tropes. And because of the way cis paradigms govern how we review trans books, I haven’t seen anyone ask the simple question: what does it mean for a non-transfem writer to write about a transfem character, and, more than that, a transfem character’s death? (This is probably because a lot of people don’t actually know what sort of trans person Emezi is, and assume that any visible trans person is probably a trans woman. Emezi shows up not infrequently in people’s recommendations of trans women, as do other non-transfem nonbinary and transmasculine authors.) How might their account differ from a trans woman’s? Why do people tend to assume that all trans people are perfect ambassadors for each other?
Vivek Oji is about a transfeminine character (her gender isn’t defined precisely, and she uses both he and she pronouns and two different names in the book, but ‘transfeminine’ covers her experience well enough) who dies, and it traces her family’s history, her life, and her friends’ and family’s relationship to her. The book jumps around in time to cover both Vivek’s life and the time after her death, but we’re made aware from the first line (and the title, I suppose) that she dies, and on page 12, we find her body. She’s naked, wrapped in cloth; the back of her skull is broken. She has been left on her parents’ doorstep. Throughout the book, we learn about her adolescence; the first intimations that her male peers detect something different about her; her dropping out of university, becoming quiet, withdrawn; her developing friendship with a group of girls, who help pull her out of her shell; her sexual relationship with Osita, a boy she grew up with; and her death, which took place on the same day as a riot at the market she frequented.
Vivek Oji’s prose is smooth and clear as a stream; its characters are compelling in their personal dramas, miscommunications and confusions. There are parts of the writing that work less well than others — Vivek’s headstone misgenders her, and when her mother finally finds out about Vivek’s true self, she ends up smashing the headstone into pieces with a rake while sobbing; it’s a moment that might ring true for some when reading, but which I find somewhat difficult to describe without finding it funny — but my bigger issue with the book is in its concept. There are clearly intentions here to not hyperfixate on Vivek’s death. One of the first scenes involves Vivek’s grandmother dying on the day Vivek is born; Vivek comes out with an identical scar to her grandmother, which ends up foreshadowing her ultimate journey to selfhood. In the last chapter, Vivek is at peace with death, and says she will ‘come back’: ‘Somewhere, you see, in the river of time, I am already alive.’ I cannot speak with any authority on Igbo conceptions of death, but Emezi absolutely seems to intend to balance the tragedy of Oji’s death with a celebration of her life, of the love she created and helped foster, and of the continuation of her spirit in the world.
However, from page 12 onwards, we have that body in our heads, with its obvious marks of violence, and what’s worse, the book signals relatively early on that it will move towards a double apotheosis: a) Vivek’s family discovering her true self, and b) the revelation of her circumstances of death, which we are fully expecting to be a transphobically motivated lynching. I’m not extrapolating this from tropes of transfem death, either. We’re foreshadowed multiple times that this will be Vivek’s death, including a former schoolfriend saving her from a similar scenario by pulling her into a car, saying ‘Do you know what they’ll do to you?’. Though it jumps around in time and focuses partly on how Vivek blossoms when she develops an accepting group of friends, we are fully set up by the novel at every turn to await this point of horror.
Then, in the penultimate chapter, it comes, the death scene — and it turns out she wasn’t lynched, after all. Instead, Vivek goes out in girlmode as Nnemdi, and Osita tries to stop her going to the market where a riot is taking place (we’re already aware this is the case, from a flashback where a man sees Nnemdi); they scuffle slightly, and then, out of nowhere, she trips, hits her head on the curb, and dies. I’m glad that Emezi didn’t depict a transfeminine person being lynched, but this ‘twist’ honestly feels somewhat insulting, since there’s no real message to be derived from how she dies, but it doesn’t emphasise the pointless and arbitrariness of the death, either. Reading it felt like a bizarre joke, especially since the ‘how’ of her death is so heavily implied beforehand. Having us carry the anticipatory horror for 200 pages that Vivek was likely assaulted and killed, and then revealing that no, she died accidentally and Osita took off her dress and wrapped her up so he could keep her secret safe from her family…this feels like transfem death as theatre to facilitate cis growth, and it felt deeply uncomfortable to read, but in a way that isn’t really discernible to people who don’t consider how trans women care about the narratives ascribed to their own deaths.
Many works about trans women pay a little too much attention to the bodies. Eleven Groothius has written about this for Bitch Media, describing the film A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, about a Latina trans woman who was killed in a transphobic attack:
the film is so saturated with talk of Gwen’s death that it overwhelms the story of her life: It opens with a detailed description of everything the killers did to Gwen alongside photographs of her body — a sequence that ends with the coroner cruelly pronouncing that she’s “a normally developed male.” Because Gwen’s death is present from the beginning, it is clear how the story ends with her murder framed as the inevitable consequence of being trans.
Vivek Oji speaks of the horror of bones rotting beneath the ground, of Vivek’s hair fanned out in her coffin, of her cis friends protecting a seemingly oblivious Vivek from mortal danger. Vivek spends too much of the novel waiting to die: her death is configured as a scene of horror, our expectations for it overwhelm what actually happens, and this kind of death-as-spectacle draws the eye like nothing else, draws it away from everything that matters. Contrast this with a work like Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), which also deals centrally with trans death, and is written by a trans woman: Little Blue Encyclopedia keeps our distance from Vivian’s death — only stopping at one point to clarify that Vivian didn’t commit suicide — and instead focuses on building a complex portrait of the protagonist’s love for Vivian, Vivian’s power and presence in the lives of those who loved her, her qualities and flaws, and how the protagonist is processing her grief and how to live within it. Death is a shitty thing that happens in Little Blue Encyclopedia, rather than an inevitable consequence of transness, and Vivian may have lived in negotiation with death, but she didn’t live dwarfed by it.
Talking about death as trans people means tightrope walking over a vast pit that says that we were born to die, that nothing worthwhile dies when we die, and that our lives and deaths must be open to the hands of cis people. But good trans criticism includes identifying our own collusions with bad trans death, and trans narratives cannot lose sight of the agency we deserve over our distinct deaths, how we talk to them, make our lives in the shadow of them, spit at them, scream at them, dress as them, fight them, love them, make them our own. As for the bodies: perhaps only their owners have the right to them.