Finalist, Transgender Fiction - Lambda Literary Award (2019)
Finalist - Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction (2019)
Freshwater is based on the experiences of queer, trans, black, Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi. In their debut novel, Emezi addresses multiple questions about identity and trauma. It tells the story of Ada, a Nigerian human and ọgbanje: a type of Igbo spirit. The ọgbanje take the form of children who die over and over again, torturing their parents who hope they will stay alive. This is called an Iyi-uwa, the oath that binds the spirit of a dead child to the world, causing it to be reborn to the same mother. But Ada does not die at birth, and so the oath is not fulfilled; as a result, the multiple ọgbanje spirits that should have been reborn are stranded within her. Instead of dying, Ada becomes a bridge, able to go in and out of the spirit world. This leads the already volatile child’s fractured existence to splinter, causing great concern for her southern Nigerian family.
Narrated from the perspective of the different spirits within Ada and occasionally Ada herself, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity. At first glance, you might think the story is a metaphor for mental illness. It is not. Rather, Emezi conveys a lived experience of occupying multiple identities and realities, and has said, “I am a village full of faces and a compound full of bones, translucent thousands.” Freshwater is about transformation and finding a place to call home within liminal spaces — between genders, between life and death, between god and human — and finding a way to co-exist within them. It deals with some challenging topics, such as self-harm, sexual assault, and suicide. At times it’s a harrowing read. But Emezi balances the cruelty and heartache with pure beauty and tenderness, writing with such force and power that I was compelled to read on.
When Ada moves to North America for college, a traumatic experience causes the ọgbanje within her to separate and grow in power. Born out of violence, the dominant spirit, Asụghara takes over. “I already knew Ada was mine: mine to move and take and save.” Obsessed with power and hedonism, and fuelled with rage, Asụghara uses Ada’s body to live out her violent sexual urges. “I was made out of desire… I filled her up with it and choked her.” This hunger is a brutal force unmediated by human concerns about emotional consequences. As such, she wreaks havoc on Ada’s relationships. As time goes by, Asụghara’s dangerous hold over Ada grows. Ada hacks off her long hair, restricts her food, exercises excessively, drowns herself in tequila, and cuts herself with fresh scalpels and shards of glass. “Anything, you see, that would make that pale secret flesh sing that bright mother color.” But this isn’t enough for Asụghara, who craves pleasure and sex and complete obedience. Ada begins to fade into the background of her own mind, struggling to find her individual sense of self amidst the dominating voices within her.
I read the part where Ada named her dominant spirit, Asughara, over and over again. “She gave me this name, Asụghara, complete with the gritty slide of the throat halfway through. I hope it scrapes your mouth bloody to say it. When you name something, it comes into existence—did you know that? There is a strength there, bone-white power injected in a rush, like a trembling drug.” It’s fierce. It’s haunting. And it’s downright electric. As a writer, I am jealous of its power and of the way it demands your attention. As a reader, I feel privileged to have read it.
Like Ada, Emezi is ọgbanje, and their breast reduction and hysterectomy are, they write, “a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ọgbanje; a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” Similarly, Ada seeks out procedures that will mark her as “other,” neither male or female. She lets a “masked man take a knife lavishly to the flesh of her chest, mutilating her better and deeper.” The desire to shed her assigned physical skin is the desire to reject binary notions of gender, ultimately becoming ọgbanje.
I was blown away by Freshwater’s raw beauty and sensuality. Even through the darker parts of the story, this shone through. Emezi’s style of writing is raw and honest, poetic and infatuating, and I fell absolutely in love with it. Each word is painstakingly and precisely chosen to illustrate Ada’s experience of a fragmented identity and it’s quite simply an extraordinary reading experience. So much so, that I intend on devouring everything Emezi has ever written. Freshwater, in all its sheer perfection, will leave you pondering what it really means to be spiritual.