Written by Amuna Wagner
Edited by Veronica Vivi
Illustrated by Olamide Florence Adeoye aka Sharp Txngue
Do you believe in spirits? And does it matter whether you do? Akwaeke Emezi taught me that to Black people this question is essential for collective survival the day I stumbled upon Freshwater (2018) in my partner’s bookshelf. The novel pulled me into the life of Ada, the child of a Nigerian father and Tamil mother who suffers the pain of being a spirit trapped in flesh. An ọgbanje, to be exact. Ada is born a screaming baby “with one foot on the other side” (back cover), only a half-step ahead of madness. When she moves to the United States for college and her boyfriend sexually assaults her, spirits that have been living inside her emerge and assume increasing autonomy: the feminine Asughara, masculine Saint Vincent, and a collective “We” of brothersisters. Ada continues life as a fractured, multiple being, navigating her several selves’ desires and darkness.
An ọgbanje is a spirit in Igbo ontology that is born into a human body. Emezi describes them as “a kind of malevolent trickster, whose goal is to torment the human mother by dying unexpectedly only to return in the next child and do it all over again” (in Philyaw, A spirit born into a human body: talking with Akwaeke Emezi 1). In the beginning pages of Freshwater, “the gates [are] left open” (5) during Ada’s birth; the ọgbanje become imprisoned in Ada without losing their connection to where they came from, painfully aware of their embodiment, longing to return home, confused. In their words, “The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin” (20). Throughout her life, they torment and protect her, make her starve herself, strain her relationships, demand blood and cutting and surgical transitions. They are not universal metaphors for dissociative disorder, transness, or depression, they are Ada’s reality.
As a student in Virginia, Ada meets Malena, a Dominican girl who recognises her reality through the lens of her own Black spirituality. This encounter allows Ada to know that there are others who inhabit liminal spaces, between life and death, god and human, and she begins her journey into Igbo ontology. After a failed suicide attempt, she returns to Nigeria in search of Ala, the Igbo deity of the underworld, python mother of the ọgbanje. Most people stopped believing in Ala when Christianity took over, but praying to her god mother gives Ada clarity in her madness for the first time, accepting herself as a “spirit and human, both and neither” (Emezi, Freshwater 226). In Umuahia, she meets Leshi, a powerful priest who tells her: “I can see you change. […] Your body language. How you talk. Your eyes. You’re not always the same person, are you?” (213). There is a lesson for Black people here: “Understand this if you understand nothing: it is a powerful thing to be seen” (213). Narrated through the various perspectives that co-exist within Ada, Freshwater creates a world of multiple truths that coexist and recognise each other.
Emezi (they/them) is an Igbo and Tamil writer and artist whose work is rooted in indigenous West African cosmologies. Freshwater is their brilliant, semi-autobiographical debut of a spiritual kind of transness, a decolonial being pathologized by western-centric world views and set free by indigenous ontology. It eloquently and brutally challenges readers to question colonial sciences, gender, and mental illness in its multiple forms. In a letter to Tony Morrison, Emezi writes that Morrison’s quote “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. I claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was” (in Emezi, This Letter Isn’t For You: On The Toni Morrison Quote That Changed My Life 1) changed their life. It encouraged them to explore the metaphysics of identity and being through a lens that colonialism had rendered untrue: Igbo reality. Emezi’s pain of embodiment could not be explained in the words of Christianity, mental health, or modern science. It was only when they immersed themselves in their Igbo heritage, in a desperate attempt for sanity, that Emezi realised that “the only reason it’s considered make-believe is because a bunch of white people showed up and told everyone there that the reality they’d been living in was fake, and they’d been believing things that weren’t real” (in Isen, How to Move between Realities 1). Freshwater became their journey into this reality.
“I was making this work for specific people” (in de León 1), shares Emezi in an interview with the New York Times. “All the people living in these realities feeling lonely and wanting to die because they’re like, this world thinks I’m crazy and I don’t belong here” (Ibid 1). However, Freshwater speaks to more than just this specific audience; it is an intricate psychological account that teaches readers the politics of naming and what it means to embody indigenous realities in this globalised, colonial world. It asks us to stretch our minds in the process of decolonisation, to find our own languages, and to remember what we lost to imperialism. As a writer of many heritages, Freshwater helped me realise that I too have been seeking to understand my existence in a reality that was not made for me. It offered me a starting point to writing my non-western cosmologies into my own modern context, and to creatively radically widen my reality.
Freshwater should be included in curricula of Literature, African Studies, Gender Studies, History, Theology, International Relations and any decolonising courses. After all, what is decolonising if not the refracturing of the world into its multiple, magical, equally valid realms? As a student of International Relations, I learned about the many realities that existed “before a christ-induced amnesia struck the humans” (Emezi, Freshwater 9), especially through forcing binary thinking on societies that used to celebrate all sorts of humans and spirits. However, we never entered worlds that were centred in their indigenous heritage, that made us move there instead of observing anthropological objects from our own centre. Freshwater invites us into Ada’s “marble room” (48) mind, a place of wonder to all those who are seriously invested in decoloniality.
Works Cited and Further Reading:
de León, Concepción “‘This Is a Possibility’: Akwaeke Emezi Writes a Trans Story Where Nobody Gets Hurt.” The New York Times, 9 Sep. 2019, nytimes.com/2019/09/09/books/akwaeke-emezi-pet-freshwater.htm
Emezi, Akwaeke. Freshwater. Grove Press, 2018.
Emezi, Akwaeke. “Freshwater Reading List.” akwaeke.com, akwaeke.com/reading-list
Emezi, Akwaeke. “This Letter Isn’t For You: On The Toni Morrison Quote That Changed My Life.” them, 7 Aug. 2019, them.us/story/toni-morrison
Emezi, Akwaeke. “Transition: My surgeries were a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” The Cut, 19 Jan. 2018, thecut.com/2018/01/writer-and-artist-akwaeke-emezi-gender-transition-and-ọgbanje.html
Isen, Tajja. “How to Move between Realities.” Electric Literature, 13 Feb. 2018, electricliterature.com/how-to-move-between-realities/.
Philyaw, Deesha. “A spirit born into a human body: talking with Akwaeke Emezi.” the Rumpus, 21 Feb. 2018, therumpus.net/2018/02/21/the-rumpus-interview-with-akwaeke-emezi/
About the author:
Amuna Wagner is a German-Sudanese writer, journalist, and educator. She studied International Relations and Arabic at SOAS, University of London, with a special interest in decolonising processes and the politics of gender. She co-founded and edits Kandaka, a platform that imagines feminist futures at the intersection of art and activism, and will pursue an MFA in Media Arts starting October 2023.
Amuna Wagner is a German-Sudanese writer, journalist, and educator. She studied International Relations and Arabic at SOAS, University of London, with a special interest in decolonising processes and the politics of gender. She co-founded and edits Kandaka, a platform that imagines feminist futures at the intersection of art and activism. Amuna regularly facilitates creative writing workshops and will pursue an MFA in Media Arts starting October 2023.