‘I have lived many lives inside this body. I lived many lives before they put me in this body. I will live many lives when they take me out of it’.
Akwaeke Emezi, an Igbo and Tamil writer born and raised in Nigeria, has produced a stunning feat of semi-autobiographical writing in her debut novel, Freshwater. A beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of a young woman with mental health issues, Amezi’s writing is unlike anything I have ever read before. Lyrical and poetic, yet not overly so, Emezi balances style with substance and the result is phenomenal.
Ada is an ogbanje. As early as her conception in her mother’s womb, her body is taken over as a vessel for separate selves, which traverse the living and the dead. Many cultures recognise ogbanje as children who grow up ‘with one foot on the other side’. It’s literal Igbo translation is: ‘children who come and go’, meaning that these evil spirits will continue to inhabit a family unless the ogbanje child is mutilated in a way that the spirit will not want to return to it. As the narrative judders back and forth in time, we settle on a particularly traumatic experience when Ada is a young woman at university in America. It is this trauma that calls forth one of the more powerful spirits within her. Named Asughara – the impulse that calls forth action – and, with Ada as the obedient body in which to carry out these impulses, this spirit takes over in situations when Ada feels powerless, when her body is out of her control.
It is through this fraught relationship between Ada and Asughara that other separate selves emerge and parts of Ada’s past – that have been conveniently sectioned off in order not to feel them anymore – come to light. Many of Ada’s actions suddenly become understandable in a way that didn’t quite match up before. Many of the shadily hinted at events in Ada’s childhood shed a light on why Asughara – and the other selves – emerged when they did. Interspersed through these highly stylised passages told from the spirits inhabiting Ada’s body, comes her own brief voice, which in comparison is quite stark and void of luscious prose. Instead we witness an extremely tired and lost individual whose survival is an everyday struggle. It is shocking and heartbreaking to read.
Told through Igbo ontology, Emezi describes how, in the process of writing Freshwater, she had to completely surrender and immerse herself in these traditional Nigerian religions. In a similar way, the reader also has to surrender to this vivid reality that she has created in Ada and the many overlapping selves that inhabit her ‘marble mind’. We have to remember – or learn afresh – that there was, and still is, a metaphysics that came before colonisation and Christianity. Through Ada’s attempt to name the selves within her, Emezi is also able to critique the ways in which Western thought demeans these ancient traditions. Where Western analysis would call Ada ‘mad’ or mentally unstable, there are other explanations for why she is experiencing these separate selves. Just as these selves begin to merge with one another, making their naming inaccurate and defunct, so do Western and African traditions.
Experimental in many ways and refusing to be categorised into one genre, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a beautiful but devastating coming-of-age tale.
‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi was published on the 13th February. Thank you to Grove Atlantic, via Netgalley, for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.