Freshwater is the exciting debut novel by non-binary Igbo/Tamil writer, Akwaeke Emezi. This autobiographical tale tells the story of Ada, a young girl whose mind is peopled by multiple entities. These spirits act as the adhesive of her being, holding her together while simultaneously threatening to pull her apart as they struggle with embodiment. Powerful and relentless, Ada’s inner deities narrate the story, because, as admitted by Ada herself, “whatever they will say will be the truest version of it, since they are the truest version of me” (93).
Photo by: @vitalwritersblog
Freshwater began, says Emezi, with a reflection on the roots of their name. According to Emezi, ‘Akwaeke’ translates to ‘the egg of a python’.* The python is the physical manifestation of an Igbo deity named Ala. During the colonialist era, however, knowledge of the full root of the name was lost, and ‘Akwaeke’ is now superficially translated to ‘precious’. In actuality, the name means ‘precious’ because the python’s egg is considered to be the cherished child of a God. And thus, with this simple contraction of etymology, an entire culture has been lost.
What else has been dropped into this abyss? This historical enquiry served as Emezi’s springboard for the entire novel: “I started to think about that break, and the ways in which colonialism was really an attempt to erase traditional [African] realities and replace them with another one.” Freshwater hence explores this fracture, asking what would happen if instead of using a familiar Western lens to tell a story, we took “an indigenous one, in this case an Igbo one – the concept of an ogbanje – and used that lens to look at an entire life”.
As a result, this is not an easy read. This whirlwind of a novel demands a diffused sense of reading; to some extent, our rigid framework of reading – our grip on chronology and consistency – must be loosened. However, this is entirely the point. Emezi was inspired by a Toni Morrison quote: “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. Claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” Emezi states, “With Freshwater, that’s what I wanted to do. Let me put the story inside this experience that is multiple, that is non-linear, that is confusing. This is the closest way to get the reader to experience what it felt like.” Just as the acceptance of an alternate Igbo reality was a disorientating experience for the writer, it is also a disorientating experience for the reader. Emezi elaborates, “In writing Freshwater, there was a shift I had to make within myself, where I was like, ‘Okay this is real. It’s not juju, it’s not superstition, it’s not magical realism, it’s not speculative fiction. It’s just real.’”
Emezi hence plucks the reader from a society seeped in established Western conventions, and throws them into an indeterminate stratosphere of contradictory spirituality, morality and philosophy. Under the scrutinising gaze of Freshwater, our normalised understanding of mental illness, gender, sexuality, religion and identity begins to dissolve.
To explore this process, one must examine the two dominate personalities which cohabit Ada’s mind. The first, Asughara, is an ogbanje – a strong but malicious African spirit who pays no mind to the consequences her actions inflict on the humans around her. She awakens within Ada as a result of sexual assault, and becomes a ruthless femme fatale alternate personality, devouring men through sexual manipulation; “But I came into the world the way I did because of [him], and whatever chance I had of being anything else was lost in that. I was a child of trauma; my birth was on top of a scream and I was baptized in blood. […] I was ready to consume everything I touched” (73). Asughara’s existence within Ada forces the reader to engage with questions surrounding sexual violence and gender equality.
Likewise, Asughara challenges our ingrained, Westernised understanding of mental illness. For this spirit, the language of Western diagnosis falls short. When Ada googles her symptoms and sees a therapist for a personality disorder, Asughara believes this to be a “betrayal—like she thought we were abnormal” (139). As this spirit states, “disruption of identity, self-damaging impulsivity, emotional instability and mood swings, self-mutilating behavior and recurrent suicidal behavior. I could have told [Ada] it was all me, even that last one” (140). To believe the Western medical discourse is to deny this Igbo spirituality. Emezi is so convincing in their passionate spiritual introspection that they are able to confidently reframe our conception of reality – challenging the very criteria of insanity. We may find ourselves asking, what makes one ‘normal’ anyway? Who is to say what is ‘real’ and what is false? As Ada reflects; “The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it” (93).
The second spirit, Saint Vincent, is a tamer, masculine energy who primarily moves through Ada’s dreams. However, his subconscious explorations influence Ada’s conscious desires, giving her a queer existence; she sleeps with other women and embraces gender fluidity. Through his character, Emezi offers a more liberating view of gender and sexuality. Menstruation and fertility are viewed by Ada’s inner spirits as confining physical transformations; “We had no voice in this warping, this unnatural maturing. […] It pushed us into a space we hated, a marked plane that was too clear and too wrong.” (123). Dichotomising Western labels are inadequate for the amorphous ogbanje; as they say, “We were a fine balance, bigger than whatever the namings had made” (187).
The forced embodiment of the spirits serves as a metaphor for colonialism or enslavement itself: the forcible placement in a predefined or chartered space. However, the novel offers a solution: the acceptance of multiplicity. As Emezi states, Freshwater goes from viewing Ada as having “fractured selves to multiple selves”. ‘Fracture’ has a negative connotation derived from Western medical discourse. Emezi elaborates, “if you’re fractured, then the goal is integration” – it is singular and limiting. Instead, Freshwater, revels in the experience of the multiple. Rather than the colonialist framework of choosing one reality over another, the novel enables the existence of multiple realities. For example, the novel does not deny Western conceptions of religion entirely – it allows Jesus to exist in Ada’s mind alongside the ogbanje, just under a different name (Yshwa).
Ada herself must come to terms with her inner multiplicity. She must claim this nebulous, liminal existence, establishing the validity of her experiences, accepting these personalities as her own, and finally, asserting her Godly status among them.
Therefore, although the title, Freshwater, refers to the water which flows from the mouth of the python, it also captures the novel’s concluding acceptance of Ada’s embodied fluidity. Neither gay/straight, male/female, human/spirit, she is at once everything and nothing. Emezi successfully establishes a confidence in the multiple, using Ada to demonstrate the power that comes from claiming contradictory identities, and opening one’s mind to more than one reality.
Author portrait by elizabeth wirija
*All featured quotations from the author were obtained from the 2018 Africa Writes literature festival hosted by the British Library. To hear this interview with Emezi in full, click here.