The gods inside

Breaking boundaries: Akwaeke Emezi addresses the themes of gender, coming of age, spirituality and placelessness. 
Photo: Elizabeth Wirija

Breaking boundaries: Akwaeke Emezi addresses the themes of gender, coming of age, spirituality and placelessness. 
Photo: Elizabeth Wirija

FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi (Grove Atlantic)

Akwaeke Emezi is a shapeshifter. Born in liminal space and destined to move, play and create between boundaries, the Nigerian-born Igbo and Tamil writer arrived on the international literary scene with the suddenness of a ray of light.

With their startling debut novel, Freshwater, released earlier this year, Emezi unfolds a story that itself shifts between boundaries: between life and death, fiction and autobiography, as well as self and subject.

In the novel, Ada, a young woman born to a fracturing family in Nigeria, enters the world laden with spirits that are fused to her. She is a vessel, born “with one foot on the other side”, and home to spirits and gods that lie dormant within her.
Emezi uses these spirits as nonlinear narrators of Ada’s life. They are witnesses but also act as forces inseparable from Ada’s fears, desires and appetites.

Ada and Emezi are ogbanje: Igbo spirits born into human bodies as “malevolent tricksters” whose goal is to torment the mother with unexpected death, only to come back in the next child to torment the mother again, continuing the cycle.

In a moving essay for The Cut, Emezi writes that ogbanje signify breaks in Igbo ontology, which is itself cyclical. In this ontology, “you are your ancestor, you will become an ancestor, the loop will keep looping within the lineage. Ogbanje, however, are intruders in this cycle, unwelcome deviations. They do not come from the lineage; they come from nowhere,” Emezi writes.

This theme of placelessness is explored in Freshwater, following Ada as she slowly unravels from the unspeakable pressure of being one thing and many things, alive and dead. Pushed to the brink of sanity by trauma and the godlike voices in her head, Ada spirals into darkness, flirting with self-harm, self-destructive behaviour and suicide.

One of the most complex struggles in Freshwater involves Ada and Asughara, a presence in Ada’s mind and body that awakens after she suffers a terrible trauma.

Emezi writes of this struggle archetypically: Ada is deferential, afraid, confused and naive, whereas Asughara is dominant, protective, insatiable and sexual. She inhabits Ada’s body but resents the implication that she looks anything like her.

Asughara describes herself in opposition to Ada, introducing herself in vivid prose: “Me, I made my mouth as red as silk, I turned my eyes black, and I made sure no one could trick me. When I did cruel things, I did them with my eyes open. I’ve never been ashamed — I always looked at myself without blinking.”

Asughara’s struggle with Ada is deeply familiar, in the tradition of the internal struggle in books exploring coming of age. But it is also charged with an uncanny and sinister ancestral magic that ribbons through the rest of Emezi’s imaginative novel.

Freshwater’s brilliance lies in this tension — in presenting a story that can be viewed through many lenses at once. It is a story that fractures and turns with kaleidoscopic interpretation, depending on how the reader chooses to view Ada’s journey to selfhood.

In a conventional sense, and one deeply embedded in Western systems of thought, Ada’s struggle is explicable. She is unwell, profoundly traumatised and suffers from a host of mental illnesses that can be neatly catalogued.

But through another lens, Ada’s struggle is also deeply mysterious, nestled in physical and spiritual realms that defy Western systems of understanding.

Ada’s gender and sexuality are also coloured by an ambiguous multiplicity. In one world, Ada, much like Emezi, experiments with sexuality on multiple points on the gender spectrum, while exploring their own gender through how they dress, embody and express themselves.

In this world, Ada might be described 
as “queer”, “transgender” or “nonbinary”, in line with the modern LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) 
parlance.

But, beneath the surface, in the cool, white marble room of Ada’s mind, spirits and 
gods govern Ada’s sexuality and appearance. In this world, it is not only gender dysphoria that propels Ada to flatten out her breasts, it is also a spiritual presence named Saint Vincent. He governs Ada’s desire for women and delights when she begins to wear men’s clothes.

“The first time Ada wore [a] binder, she turned sideways in a mirror and Saint Vincent laughed out loud in relief, in joy, in the rightness of the absence,” reads one passage. “Ada wore that binder every day and washed it by hand in her small bathroom sink. Once, she made the mistake of putting it in the dryer, weakening the elastic. Saint Vincent suffered with each fraction of looseness she had caused, so she was more careful after that.”

Here, Emezi offers us a radically different understanding of transness that complicates the dominant narrative of being born “in the wrong body”. Ada and Saint Vincent are different, yet fused. They are distinct identities whose desires, behaviours and decisions manifest in ways that dovetail into Western understandings of dysphoria but deviate into a challenging and complex spiritual understanding of gender and selfhood.

In her essay in The Cut, Emezi presents us with two provocative questions. “If ogbanje represent an overlapping of realities — a spirit who looks incredibly convincing as a human, then what does it look like for one to experience gender dysphoria and take surgical steps to resolve that? Our language around gender identity is often so Western: how can we intersect that with non-Western realities?”

As a possible answer, Freshwater presents us with a compelling insistence on ambiguity, mystery and open-endedness. As a supremely imaginative and gorgeously written novel rooted in ancestral and intimately personal realities, it breaks multiple boundaries, and builds tenuous bridges between them.

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