Read an excerpt from Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s extraordinary debut novel
From birth in Nigeria to near death in Brooklyn via eternal existences in the afterlife. From self-harming to the surgeon’s knife via the bottom of countless tequila bottles. From deep anxiety to spiritual transcendence via acceptance of one’s multiple selves. From celibacy to dangerous sexual encounters via marriage and divorce. And from Catholicism to Igbo faith traditions via dancing with demons, Akwaeke’s Emezi’s debut novel covers incredible and disruptive ground in its concise 202 pages.
Freshwater is the somewhat autobiographical tale of Ada, who grows up struggling with both the realities of human life and love on this earth and with the wayward spirits that possess her mind and control her will (meet the insatiable Asụghara and urbane Saint Vincent). “The Igbo ontology that Freshwater is rooted in is incredibly complex… but I will say that the book is about embodiment as an ogbanje, an Igbo nonhuman entity that’s born to die,” explains Emezi. “The protagonist is dealing with the repercussions of this embodiment, what it’s like to be trapped in flesh while experiencing a pull towards death and the spirit world, and the effects that has on one’s mind.”
“The book is about embodiment as an ogbanje, an Igbo nonhuman entity that’s born to die”
Commenting as much on strict definitions of identity and gender as on accepted notions of mental health and organised religion, Emezi’s book propels you along an often heart breaking rollercoaster ride, and wills you to forget about right and wrong as it delivers you into a non-conformist, blurry yet ultimately revelatory space.
Spellbinding to read, this book has also been a thoroughly therapeutic exercise for the author. “It was definitely cathartic but also immensely difficult because it’s an autobiographical novel, so reliving a lot of the trauma in it was a challenge,” Emezi confides. “I did gain invaluable insight into the nature of my embodiment by using the lens of Igbo ontology to examine my life; the experience of writing the book changed me in unexpected but welcome ways. It’s been a little strange knowing that my story is now available to so many people, but there’s some distance in knowing that it’s a novel, that the book is not me and I am not the book.”
Emezi, who was raised in Nigeria by a Malaysian mother and Nigerian father, and received their MPA from New York University, has been roundly applauded for this accomplished and brave work, both by fellow authors such as Noviolet Bulawayo and Taiye Selasi and by reviews in the New York Times, New Yorker the Guardian. Freshwater was also nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in fiction, the Aspen Words Literary Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and it has now made many best books of 2018 lists.
“As a work of storytelling outside of time, I think that first of all, it’s written well and it’s a good story,” they reflects on the book’s runaway success. “I also think it gives people access to another way of being, perhaps one that’s a familiar secret to them, or one that’s brand new. Each reader probably has a different reason why the book struck a chord with them, and I’m just grateful for all of it!” Has it resonated especially well in Nigeria? “I haven’t been to Nigeria since the book came out there, so the responses I’ve seen are limited to social media, but I do hope it’s speaking to the readers there who need a book like this to affirm their own ways of being.”
“Freshwater gives people access to another way of being, perhaps one that’s a familiar secret to them”
Emezi has already finished their next two books – Pet, a young adult novel to be published in 2019 and the following year we can expect the next adult novel, The Death of Vivek Oji. “Pet is about a young girl who meets a magical creature that emerges from one of her mum’s paintings to hunt down a monster in her community. It’s set in the US, in a future where everyone believes there are no monsters anymore. The Death of Vivek Oji is set in the late 90s in southeast Nigeria, and it’s about the mysterious death of a young mixed Nigerian man and his mother’s search for the truth about his life.”
Emezi is not the only shining light in their family. Their’s sister Yagazie is an influential photographer and public figure in Nigeria and the pair have been featured in US Vogue for a piece on families effecting change. (Read Nataal’s 2016 interview with Yagazie here). So it begs the question, do they have any plans to work on a project together in the future? “We’d love an editor to hire Yagazie to shoot me for a magazine feature! That, I think, would be something really special for both of us.”
Below, Emezi shares an early excerpt from the book that details the merging of Ada’s plural spirit with her body as a newborn baby…
We came from somewhere—everything does. When the transi¬tion is made from spirit to flesh, the gates are meant to be closed. It’s a kindness. It would be cruel not to. Perhaps the gods forgot; they can be absentminded like that. Not maliciously—at least, not usually. But these are gods, after all, and they don’t care about what happens to flesh, mostly because it is so slow and boring, unfamiliar and coarse. They don’t pay much attention to it, except when it is collected, organized and souled.
By the time she (our body) struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open. We should have been anchored in her by then, asleep inside her membranes and synched with her mind. That would have been the safest way. But since the gates were open, not closed against remembrance, we became confused. We were at once old and newborn. We were her and yet not. We were not conscious but we were alive—in fact, the main problem was that we were a distinct we instead of being fully and just her.
So there she was: a fat baby with thick, wet black hair. And there we were, infants in this world, blind and hungry, partly clinging to her flesh and the rest of us trailing behind in streams, through the open gates. We’ve always wanted to think that it was a careless thing the gods did, rather than a deliberate neglect. But what we think barely matters, even being who we are to them: their child. They are unknowable—anyone with sense realizes that—and they are about as gentle with their own children as they are with yours. Perhaps even less so, because your children are just weak bags of flesh with a timed soul. We, on the other hand—their children, the hatchlings, godlings, çgbanje—can endure so much more horror. Not that this mattered—it was clear that she (the baby) was going to go mad.
We stayed asleep, but with our eyes open, still latched on to her body and her voice as she grew, in those first slow years when nothing and everything happens. She was moody, bright, a heaving sun. Violent. She screamed a lot. She was chubby and beautiful and insane if anyone had known enough to see it. They said she followed her father’s side, the grandmother who was dead, for her dark skin and her thick hair. Saul did not name her after his mother, though, as perhaps another man would have. People were known to return in renovated bodies; it happens all the time. Nnamdi. Nnenna. But when he looked into the wet blackness of her eyes, he—surprisingly for a blind man, a mod¬ern man—did not make that mistake. Somehow, Saul knew that whatever looked back out of his child was not his mother, but someone, something else.
Everyone pressed into the air around her, pinching her cheeks and the fatty tissue layered underneath, pulled in by what they thought was her, when it was really us. Even asleep, there are things we cannot help, like pulling humans to us. They pull us too, but one at a time; we are selective like that. Saachi watched the visitors flock around the baby, concern sprouting in her like a green shoot. This was all new. Chima had been so quiet, so peaceful, cool to Saachi’s heat. Disturbed, she looked for a pottu and found one, a dark circle of velvet black, a portable third eye, and she affixed it to the baby’s forehead, on that smooth expanse of brand-new skin. A sun to repel the evil eye and thwart the intentions of wicked people who could coo at a child and then curse it under their breath. She was always a practical woman, Saachi. The odds were good that the child would live. At least the gods had chosen responsible humans, humans who loved her fiercely, since those first few years are when you are most likely to lose them. Still, it does not make up for what happened with the gates.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is published by Faber & Faber (£10.00 hardback)
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Published on 29/12/2018