Freshwater - Akwaeke Emezi Review

TW: sexual abuse, suicide, self-harm

by Timi Sotire

Freshwater is the debut novel by Akwaeke Emezi, chronicling the life of Ada, a Nigerian/Tamil woman living with multiple selves. The novel is an articulate expression of the intersecting debates surrounding identity, family, sexuality and religion, analysing the mind from a non-human perspective.

The story begins with an intricate description of how Ada is brought into the world, recounting how as a child, it was clear that Ada was different, that they was troubled and had an innately volatile personality. Reading the novel was initially a confusing experience, I assumed that the narrative was unintentionally fragmented, and was left wondering why Ada was being referred to both in the third person and as ‘we’. But I discovered quite soon that the novel is simultaneously written in both the first-person and third-person, depending on how you look at it. It is explained that Ada is in fact not a normal child, but an ‘ogbanje’, a human inhabited by multiple spirits that lead to their developing separate selves from a very young age. Ada is not possessed by these spirits, they are an equal part of their, with Emezi describing them as “a singular collective and plural individual”. The narrative perspective shifts between every spirit, as they each are given the platform to recount their experiences of navigating life through Ada’s body. Emezi marks the shift between spirits by subtly changing the writing style in order to mirror the changing of the self. The real Ada is eclipsed by the workings of the sprits in their mind, and they each take control of certain aspects of Ada’s personality.

The most dominant, unruly spirit, Asughara, is summoned into Ada’s body after a traumatic experience of sexual assault whilst they are in college. The reader witnesses how the presence of Asughara in the “marble room” that is Ada’s mind ultimately leads to Ada’s downfall. As they grows older, Asughara’s dominance crystallises, and Ada is unable to control their own mind, leading to their losing their grip on reality. Their life then takes a dangerous turn, where the spirits end up alienating Ada’s friends and family, force Ada to endure a failed marriage, and even lead Ada to self-harm and attempt suicide. Throughout the novel, we observe flashes of Ada’s true self, yet they is given few chances to detail the experiences from their own perspective. The reader is left to rely on a narrative told by Ada’s spirits, leaving us to speculate whether the dominance of the spirits over Ada’s psyche even give them the right to try and claim ownership over their identity.

"We live in a world where the body is an important site to showcase how one’s inner-self is represented, but in Freshwater, the power of the physical body is greatly reduced, and shown to be an after-thought"

Freshwater is an auto-biographical novel based on Emezi’s realities, where they eloquently and effortlessly explore the ‘ogbanje’ belief through a contemporary lens, inserting it within prevailing discussions surrounding mental health. The ‘ogbanje’ mythology is rooted in Igbo folklore, with Emezi adopting elements of their Nigerian culture in order to question how we define the self, and to push the boundaries between what society has established to be the confines of consciousness. We live in a world where the body is an important site to showcase how one’s inner-self is represented, but in Freshwater, the power of the physical body is greatly reduced, and shown to be an after-thought in how Ada and their spirits conceptualise their identity. This ambivalence towards the human body is exemplified through Ada’s transitional surgeries that are intended to purposefully mask their true gender, to make them look not like a male or female, but like Ada, as someone who is not singular, who does not want to be trapped in the labels that arise from the appearance of one’s physical form; to transcend classification.

Metaphysical imagery is a central element of Freshwater, and as a reader I believe that Igbo spirituality was used by Emezi in order to provide a new standpoing on mental illness, one that is a major departure from the mainstream debate. The legacies of colonialism remain in modern society through our binary mode of thinking, whether this is in relation to sex, gender, race or disability. When we discuss mental health, most of us conceptualise it within the religion/science binary debate. Emezi in Freshwater exposes the irrelevance of this binary, believing both explanations to be inadequate. Finding solace in the ‘ogbanje’ mythology rationalises the experiences of those who feel as if they are living with multiple selves, allowing them to accept their multiplicity of being. Emezi was unapologetically themselv in this novel, reminding the modern audience that believing in spiritual entities and adopting non-Western epistemology in order to shed light on one’s lived experiences is not unintelligent or ‘backwards’. They refuse to appease anyone, to fit in a mould, or to be placed within the binary structure of Western society. Emezi’s tenacity, paired with their brutal honesty, is truly inspiring.

This review was originally written in Autumn 2019.

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