on freshwater

Forceful and harrowing, Freshwater follows a young Nigerian girl as she comes of age while contending with multiple personalities and prolonged trauma.

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The novel is the literary debut of Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi. The nonbinary writer works across genres and also produces video art; their first YA novel, PET, is set to be released this September, and their acclaimed video project, The Unblinding, is ongoing. Emezi’s art explores liminal spaces and identities, and it prominently features elements of Nigerian spirituality, namely representations of the ogbanje.

In the author’s own words, an ogbanje is “an Igbo spirit that’s born into a human body, 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.”

Freshwater is told from the perspective of a host of ogbanje, who occupy and torment the body of the protagonist Ada. The nonlinear storyline sketches a nuanced portrait of a girl prone to self harm, depression, and abusive relationships, tracking Ada as she endures a dysfunctional upbringing in Nigeria only to come into close contact with a series of violent men in America as a precocious college student.

In lyrical prose Emezi brings to life a talented but troubled mind, plagued by malevolent spirits who seek solace in disorder. The traumatic events recollected in the novel become all the more impactful knowing that the author has described Freshwater as “a breath away from memoir.

The book opens with a pair of spirits, Smoke and Shadow, recounting the early years of Ada’s life. Born to a brash father and undervalued mother, Ada cried constantly as an infant, the spirits remember, and she had few happy times as a child. A car struck her younger sister at an early age, her parents soon split up. From a detached point of view the spirits narrate a string of unimaginably painful memories, all the while commenting on the sensation of co-inhabiting Ada’s mind and being embodied in her flesh.

Things take a turning point for the worse when Ada at 16 attends college abroad in Virginia. The teen begins a relationship with an impulsive, angry boy, who soon starts to sexually abuse her. The experience leads to the formation of Asụghara, a quick-witted and callous force who demands Ada drink excessively, mutilate her body, and have illicit affairs with lackluster men. Unlike Smoke and Shadow, who recede from the narrative at this point, Asụghara rarely pities her host’s misfortunes, and the two often fight.

The spirit also frequently battles with “Yshwa,” or Christ, who’s an enigmatic figure in the novel. From birth to adulthood Ada wishes she could have faith in Yshwa, making him an object of the ogbanje’s contempt, but Ada also resents the Christian god’s distance—one of the few sections Ada narrates is an embittered letter addressed to Yshwa. Christianity fails the protagonist as a system of belief; her homeland’s spirituality much better helps her understand her disorienting life experiences.

So, too, does Western psychiatry fall short in comparison. Ada visits a therapist once in the novel, and later she’s hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Both experiences do little to convince Ada that she should banish the ogbanje from her life, or be uncomfortable with a sense of self that’s fragmented, contradictory, and split.

Toward the story’s end another incarnation of the ogbanje arises: St. Vincent, a level-headed spirit who appears as Ada begins her gender transition. Aiming to occupy a liminal space between the masculine and feminine, Ada undergoes breast reduction, starts wearing flowing clothes, and tells her family of the news, which they take poorly. These sections move at a quicker pace than the rest of the story, and the novel ends with a series of swift revelations and life-altering decisions.

In spite of minor pacing issues, Freshwater is incredibly imaginative. Emezi takes many risks with their storytelling, but the plot never feels disjointed or confusing. Well worth checking out and revisiting over the years.

10 thoughts on “on freshwater

  1. Great review! I read this one over a year ago but it made such an impression on me. It’s one of the only things I’ve read that really forced me to evaluate how biased I am in my Western worldview.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I also found myself moved and challenged by the book. The story really forces you to consider things you take for granted as a Westerner about identity and mental health.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a challenging but rewarding read. Is there any chance that the pacing issues are simply a reflection of the narrator’s and characters’ nonlinear experiences of the world? I find it hard to figure that with characters who are not rooted in what i think of as a recognizable story arc. Either way, it’s a little uncomfortable (not a bad thing necessarily, of course, being uncomfortable).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hm, I hadn’t thought of that, but the idea’s interesting to consider. Depending on who’s narrating, parts of the protagonist’s life are glossed over, while others are detailed at length, so you’re exactly right — the pacing’s not meant to be measured, and it seems reflective of a sense of self that isn’t unified.

      In that sense, I can see why the voice and memories of one of the ogbanje’s incarnations dominate so much of the novel, in that the others aren’t holding as much sway over Ada.

      Liked by 1 person

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