Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Bridge-Dwellers of Neverwhere and Who Fears Death: An Uncanny Realization

Who Fears DeathDuring a recent medical mission trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I encountered the term “bridge-dweller.” Before this trip, I lived in the United States, completely belonging to this society and not actively addressing other worlds around me. But that all changed. After two weeks abroad, I recognized these other peoples and worlds, and I somehow could not return to life completely narrowed to the United States. Yet I clearly did not belong to the world of the Costa Ricans or Nicaraguans either. I am, and will forevermore be, a “bridge-dweller.”

Both Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death feature protagonists who themselves are “bridge-dwellers.” Both novels contain main characters who are rejected from their own societies; Richard, from Neverwhere, and Onyesonwu, from Who Fears Death, both exist in between two diametrically opposed cultures, and yet belong to neither of them. NeverwhereThis allows for these characters to interact with other societies and cultures, never completely dwelling on one side or the other, but bridging the gap between the two. As a result, both characters are poised to challenge discrimination and injustice; in the case of Onyesonwu, she faces both racial and sexual prejudice, while Richard’s experiences highlight discrimination based on wealth and social status.

A critical difference in the analysis of these two narratives, however, comes through the endings. Who Fears Death provides a satisfying conclusion for the reader, the admirable traits of the main character shine through, and some degree of social order has been attained. In stark contrast, Neverwhere concludes with Richard, one of very few who is capable of enacting great community change, failing to address these appalling social discriminations. Due to Richard’s inaction, the reader is then obligated to examine real world consequences, and is compelled to act herself as the “bridge-dweller.”

As the daughter of two warring tribes in a future Africa (the Okeke and the Nuru), Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu is ostracized because of her mixed race. Not only does the culture discriminate against mixed children, but Onyesonwu was also the child of rape, an even greater sin: “such children are not children of the forbidden love between a Nuru and an Okeke, nor are they Noahs, Okekes born without color. The Ewu are children of violence” (Okorafor 20). Within this culture, a child is the race of her father, but if a Nuru impregnates an Okeke woman, she will protect her child regardless of the cost to herself, husband, or society. As a result, she becomes bound to the Nuru through her child, and slowly, this process rips apart Okeke society. It is into this society that Onyesonwu is born
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In order to avoid the harsh punishment of the villagers, Onyesonwu and her mother live in the barren desert, until her mother realizes that civilization will at some point be necessary for her. They move into the village, where Onyesonwu faces cruel faces and derisive taunts. Regardless of circumstances, the mixed race children of Nuru and Okeke always look the same, are always assumed to be the children of rape and therefore violent and unteachable. These prejudices shape Onyesonwu's life as she seeks approval from her society, fights to attain instruction, and ultimately becomes a powerful sorcerer.

In addition to animosity toward Onyesonwu because of her race and child of rape, she also faces injustice due to the sexual expectations of her society. When Onyesonwu unrelentingly attempts to become Aro’s student, her friend and future lover Mwita suggests, “He won’t teach you because you’re a girl, a woman! … He won’t teach you. You were born into the wrong body” (Okorafor 63). This racial and sexual discrimination is a necessary component of the narrative; it draws attention to the boundaries that exist, as well as the way in which Onyesonwu is able to interact with those on both sides of these social divisions.

In Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew faces a different type of social prejudice than Onyesonwu, namely, society’s shortcomings and ill-treatment of the underprivileged. The expected response in this society is to ignore them, walk right past, and assume that the only reason they are still alive is simply because they lack the courage to end it. Richard experiences this first hand. Originally a moderately capable business executive and average citizen of London, Richard abruptly loses his home, fianceé, and job after assisting Door, a young injured girl from London Below, a world that consists of those who have fallen through the cracks of London as we know it, also called London Above. In London Above, where his home and life had been, he is suddenly ignored, seemingly invisible to the people around him, and experiences the general society’s ostracism of the poor and homeless. Clearly, he no longer belongs to the society of London Above. Richard states, “It was like I didn’t exist anymore, to anybody up here” (Gaiman 86). He is no more welcomed, however, among the residents of London Below.

Though most of the quest of the narrative presents Richard in London Below, he is subjected to no end of social prejudice and ridicule. While in London Below, Richard is clearly a stranger, an unwelcome trespasser, and he is treated as such. The Marquis de Carabas states to Richard, “You are out of your league, in deep … and, I would imagine, a few hours away from an untimely and undoubtedly messy end” (Gaiman 120). In addition, much of his curiosity as well as his fearful inquiries remain unsatisfied. It seems, “he knew better, at this point, than to risk asking anyone… He seemed marked as a man from London Above, and thus worthy of great suspicion” (Gaiman 112).  While completely unwelcome in London Below, being non- existent in London Above hardly seems like an alternate solution. Although Richard exists in either London Above or London Below, he never actually belongs in either of the two societies.

Because both Onyesonwu and Richard are severely ostracized from society, they maintain the unusual ability to interact with people of different cultures, drawing them together: for Onyesonwu, the Okeke and the Nuru peoples, and for Richard, the people of London Above and London Below. This may initially seem like a trivial point, but both Gaiman and Okorafor have used this important quality of these characters in order to address the social insufficiencies presented in their respective novels. If Onyesonwu had been purely Okeke or full-blooded Nuru, she would no longer be bridging the gap between peoples, but rather firmly located on one side. Not only would the opposing peoples question her bias and trustworthiness, but the reader would be skeptical as well, wondering what personal gain she had been scheming. Both Onyesonwu and Richard are “bridge-dwellers.” Rejected from both, yet simultaneously tied to both, they live between the two differing cultures, permanent residents on the bridge between, a position especially successful for interactions with peoples of different cultures.

Onyesonwu has an interesting interaction between the Okeke and Nuru people and sets off on a quest to protect the Okeke from the violence of the Nuru and unite them in peace. The nature of the relationship between the Nuru and Okeke people was that of violence. Okorafor writes: “Nuru and Okeke try to live together, then they fight, then they try to live together, then they fight… it ebbs and flows” (Okorafor 150). Yet Onyesonwu exists in a world between the two. She lives with the Okeke people, and hates her Nuru father for his evil violence and feels strong hatred toward the Nuru people. However, Mwita shares with her the violence he has experienced at the hand of the Okeke.  Because of her hatred of the discrimination, and in an effort to end the violence between the Okeke and Nuru peoples, Onyesonwu journeys in search of the one of whom the prophecy spoke, the Nuru sorcerer who would come and change things (Okorafor 161). In addition to interacting with the Okeke and Nuru, along her journey, Onyesonwu unites the people of different towns and cultures, including the Red People. Because of her awareness of the differences between these groups, Onyesonwu is able to bridge the gap where others had failed.

As Richard journeys through the worlds of London Above and London Below, he becomes increasingly aware of the differences in these societies and the needs within. He helps a beggar, and sees and helps Door. In addition, he is able to see passages, doors, and streets which had previously been absent or overlooked. Even in his view of other people and societies, Richard’s eyes became more keen and observant. Gaiman states, “There was something deeply tribal about the people, Richard decided. He tried to pick out distinct groups…” (Gaiman 112). As Richard himself no longer belongs to any social group, he is enabled to freely see them all, and address the social divisions.

These two narratives clearly address the cultural prejudices of race and sex as well as social standing, but there is another great link between them: Gaiman and Okorafor compel the reader to identify and acknowledge these social insufficiencies. This is by no means accidental or sheer coincidence, but rather intentional use of what Sigmund Freud calls "the uncanny" to tie the reader to the rising social issues. If the reader were comfortable with the happenings of the narrative, it would be easy to ignore the social prejudices. However, the uncanny stirs up feelings of insecurity and discomfort for the reader. It is through these irrepressible feelings that the uncanny forces the attention of the reader to the social problems illuminated in Neverwhere and Who Fears Death.

When Freud defines the uncanny, he highlights several key components. He describes the uncanny as something comfortable and familiar, yet also concealed and kept from sight: “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (Freud 76). Freud further narrows the uncanny stating, “the better oriented in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it” (Freud, 76). Thus, appropriate and successful use of the uncanny not only contains some element of the concealed yet familiar, but also of intentional disorientation. Clearly, both Who Fears Death and Neverwhere technically take place in our world, but somehow not quite. The setting, both time and place, have been altered in order to provide the uncanny.

One of the unsettling and uncanny components of Who Fears Death is this setting difference in time and place. While technically still on earth, the post-apocalyptic setting is vastly different from the world as we know it. The world powers have crumbled, and society has become somewhat primitive, yet there are uncomfortably familiar components remaining. The idea of tribal villages with GPS systems and skeletons of computers provide an eerie tone--the uncanny. While the reader is familiar with earth, it is no longer the welcoming and predictable place it had been.

Similarly, as Richard encounters societal tensions, the setting again provides important direction for the reader with respect to the uncanny. The narrative begins with Richard in the familiar world of London. He lives a menial existence with no connections to the city and intentionally refuses to care about it. Yet at the same time, the reader can identify with this and finds a great deal of stability in the expected nature of this setting. After Richard’s encounter with Door, however, he wanders through London Below, the unsettling component of London, which in the reader’s experience should not exist. The reader explores this with him, having only as many questions answered as Richard does, both feeling equally excluded from these societies and further unnerved. This hidden world of London Below is both close to and different from the safe, predictable society of London Above, which causes a the reader's uncanny experiences.

It is through these encounters with the uncanny that both Gaiman and Okorafor are able to involve the reader in the problems of society. As Gaiman states in Neverwhere, “As lost as [Richard] was in this strange other-world, he was at least learning to play the game. His mind was too numb to make any sense of where he was, or why he was here, but it was capable of following the rules” (Gaiman 102). The same could be said about the reader in both Neverwhere and Who Fears Death. The reader has been thrown into these experiences alongside Richard and Onyesonwu, and similarly follows along, with the same nagging questions. The uncanny feeling arises as Richard and Onyesonwu, along with the reader, move back and forth between different worlds and societies, the familiar stranger in a strangely familiar land. As a result, the reader becomes involved in the novel in a unique way, becoming invested not only in the characters and the narrative, but also in working to fix the social injustices seen throughout the text.

Once the reader is aware of and invested in righting the social biases and injustices, Neil Gaiman and Nnedi Okorafor provide the main characters’ own solutions. In Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu embarks on a journey to reconcile the warring African tribes, not through violence but through peace to the Nuru and Okeke people, as the Nuru sorcerer was expected to do. As she and her friends traveled, Onyesonwu healed many people and helped victims of violence escape. When she discovers that she is the sorcerer who is to rewrite the book, she completes this, at a severe cost to herself, in order to bridge the gap and bring peace to these warring groups.

While Who Fears Death presents a complete and satisfying conclusion, it demands less from the reader. Onyesonwu has offered a reassuring bridge between the two societies. Good has conquered evil, peace will be restored, and now the book may be placed once again upon the shelf. While the novel as a whole does bring up disturbing social injustices, the reader is less compelled, simply because the narrative ends with peace and order. This, however, is not the case for Richard Mayhew.

Throughout the journey in Neverwhere, Richard serves as a type of unification of London Above and London Below. As a “bridge-dweller,’ being ostracized himself and wholly belonging to neither world, Richard is enabled to unite those he meets in the world below with those above, recognizing and bettering the lives of both. After his journey through London Below and back to London Above, it seems that this may be a personal goal of his. At the end of the narrative, when Richard encounters an old, homeless woman on the streets, he is no longer able to ignore her. Instead, he sees her, has compassion, and offers her some money. With this character, one might expect him to take advantage of his keen eye for those who have “fallen through the cracks” and provide a great service as one able to bridge the worlds of London Above and London Below. However, his next action is shockingly the opposite.

Richard bolts from this exceptional opportunity to address the social division. Immediately after helping the homeless woman, he has a burst of mad desperation for his previous life in London Below, and without any consideration of the good he could do in London Above, he turned his back on the social dilemmas, leaving nothing behind. While possibly having the greatest advantage of any other character to use to combat the social injustices, Richard ignores this, leaving a gaping hole where Richard the “bridge-dweller” used to be.

This poses a critical problem for the reader: this world clearly contains unaddressed social discrimination and injustice which are emphasized to the reader through the uncanny. Richard has been set up as one with intimate familiarity with both London Above and London Below, and therefore one able to enact the necessary changes in society. However, with Richard’s absence, the void remains. That is, until the reader realizes that she is now most suited to fill this role. While Richard returns to London Below, the reader remains in the world above. Throughout the narrative, the reader has been made aware of social insufficiencies, not just challenges specific to the world of London, but certainly in the real world of the reader. The use of the uncanny challenges the reader to examine his own societal discriminations, and the unsatisfying ending compels the reader to recognize his potential. Richard is no longer the only “bridge-dweller.”

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny." Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Sandner. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. 74-101. Print.

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. New York, NY: Harpertorch, 1996. Print.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Who Fears Death. New York, NY: Daw Books, 2010. Print.

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