Drink It In

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater

Karla Strand
Feb 13, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Eyitayo Adekoya of a Black woman holding up her fingers in a box around her eyes, looking over her sunglasses.
Photo by Eyitayo Adekoya of a Black woman holding up her fingers in a box around her eyes, looking over her sunglasses.
Photo by Nigerian photographer and graphic designer, Eyitayo Adekoya on Unsplash

Freshwater is captivating, dynamic, and wise. At once, Akwaeke Emezi is able to frighten and confound their reader with a writing style that is intense and poetic. The raw honesty with which Emezi frames their debut book grabbed me by the throat and compelled me to continue reading, catching my breath as I turned each page.

In this semi-autobiographical debut novel, Igbo/Tamil writer Akwaeke Emezi centers Ada, a Nigerian girl who was always a bit different from other children. She was a challenging child for her parents, who worried about her precocious and fractured existence. Throughout her life and the book, Ada speaks through her various selves, which Emezi frames within the Igbo tradition of ogbanje. According to Sunday T.C. Ilechukwu, ogbanje is:

…a term commonly used to describe a child or adolescent that is said to repeatedly die and be repeatedly born by the same mother. The child is said to die before the next one is born in serial sequence. Ogbanje may also be used to refer to a living child, adolescent, or adult who was preceded in birth order by a child or children that died early in life and is thought to have this potential to ‘’come and go’’. This is a malignant form of reincarnation. The Igbo believe that an ogbanje has ties with deities or agents of deities who are said to guard the interface between birth and a postulated pre-birth state and who are believed to mediate life processes.

Emezi’s focus on rebirth in the book aligns with traditional notions of ogbanje. There are also traumatic events that occur to Ada and her siblings that are designed by her embodying entities to break them. The strength of Ada and her siblings as well as Ada’s ties to certain deities are imperative to get them through these trials.

A dark, geometric photo by Nigerian designer Joshua Oluwagbemiga.
A dark, geometric photo by Nigerian designer Joshua Oluwagbemiga.
Photo by Nigerian designer, Joshua Oluwagbemiga on Unsplash

Some reviewers of Freshwater have referred to ogbanje as demons or evil spirits that possess Ada and cause her to have a mental breakdown, but I don’t agree with this. I see Ada herself as an ogbanje and Emezi as exploring their own identities through this character.

As someone who has dealt with gender dysphoria their whole life, Emezi got to the point where they wondered if they weren’t an ogbanje themself. They have had to examine their identities and determine how to navigate a world in which these identities may be judged as deviant or sinful. As Emezi made decisions about their physical body, they faced Nigerian (and, I’m guessing, Western) criticisms of what is sometimes seen as the mutilation of their body while in reality, it was what Emezi needed to do to authentically align their inner and outer selves.

Emezi is masterfully able to evoke the dark emotions and confusion Ada experiences and bring to light her complicated codependence upon her various selves or ogbanje. At times, Emezi conjured feelings of sympathy and understanding in me for them.

By the time Ada gets to the US to attend college, a being called Asụghara is the most prevalent of Ada’s selves and is the most reckless and fearless of them all. Asụghara is content to live out their sexual compulsions through Ada’s body. As she grows, Ada surrenders to her various identities but it’s important to remember that surrender is not always a sign of weakness or loss. I believe Ada is finally able to make peace with her multiple selves and work with them in order to live a balanced and authentic life.

Perhaps pathological in Western views, the truth is that most of us could point to multiple identities through which we scroll and choose the one which will serve us best at different times in our lives. Some of us though, like Ada/Emezi, may be more misunderstood and challenged than others to the point where it feels as though the dark side possesses a power over us that will not let go.

At times disquieting to read, Freshwater takes on challenging topics such as identity, mental illness, self-harm, sexual assault, suicide, and more. Emezi has a style of writing that is deliberate and exacting; I felt as though each word was painstakingly chosen so as to illustrate Ada’s splintered and exigent existence.

The book is reminiscent of of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Toni Morrison’s brilliant Beloved in its fearful reverence of ancestral relationships, tradition, and spirituality. But it stands out in Emezi’s use the Igbo tradition of ogbanje as a framework for a cogent exploration into identity formation and evolution, and for how we wear masks throughout life to deal with and make sense of pain and for how we exhibit bravery in the face of fear.

Image for post
Image for post
akwaeke emezi portrait by texas isaiah

In the end, I found Freshwater to be bold, challenging, and unique. It touched places of fear and pain within me but it also made me recall delicious moments of audacity and triumph.

I gagged on the sticky, jagged chunks of this book and I long to read it again and swallow it whole because I know there is so much more there to be digested.

I can’t wait to devour more of what Akwake Emezi is serving up. (And we don’t have to wait long; Emezi’s first YA book, Pet, will be released on September 10.)

Akwaeke Emezi’s new book PET. Cover art by shyama golden.
Akwaeke Emezi’s new book PET. Cover art by shyama golden.
cover art by shyama golden

Find Akwaeke Emezi online at https://www.akwaeke.com/ and on Instagram and Twitter @azemezi.

cover art by ruby onyinyechi amanze

Title: Freshwater
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 240
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
My Rating: Essential

For further reading:

Updated from the review originally published at http://www.karlajstrand.com on February 13, 2018.

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