When I picked up Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, I had no idea what I was getting into. I only knew the book was by yet another Nigerian writer sweeping up awards and accolades. (Why is Nigerian literature so good!?!) Like usual, I picked up the audio book from my library. As a real treat, this was narrated by Akwaeke Emezi. I don’t always love books narrated by their authors. Sometimes I prefer writers to write and leave the narration to professional narrators. But Emezi is a multimedia artist, and their narration is absolutely wonderful. I highly recommend the audio version, if only to get the proper lilt of “How can?” in your head.
The basic story in Freshwater follows a young girl, Ada, who is an ogbanje — an Igbo spirit born as a human. Usually these babies die young, but the spiritual gate didn’t shut behind her, and so she is stuck in the human world. Her god-mother, Ala, visits her as a toddler in the form of a python, but is chased off by her human father. After, she is visited by Christ and her Igbo spirit brothersisters, but not her mother. We read about her growing up and undergoing both traumatic and pleasurable events that awaken her spiritual self.
Eventually her self fractures into complete identities, one reckless, powerful spirit called Asụghara and a calmer, quieter Saint Vincent. As a young woman, Ada goes mad and, eventually breaks down. Over time, she learns to live with Asughara and Saint Vincent, and even comes to depend on them.
Without giving away the ending, Ada goes on a long journey to face truths about herself, her body, and her spirit and reunite with Ala.
You want to talk about voice in writing? Freshwater has some of the best voice I’ve read in awhile. It is told mostly from first person perspective, but liberally switches between Ada, Asughara and Saint Vincent, so there are three distinct voices in one.
Asughara’s voice is strong, stinging, and oh so powerful. I was swept away by it, just as the character Ada was. I found myself not trusting Asughara, but wishing I had an Asughara to protect me. I think that is part of the draw of this story. It takes a character who has descended into madness, and makes me wish that I had the company she has in her madness.
One thing I absolutely loved about this book was the way it combined Christianity and other Igbo spiritual beliefs. I realize this may be a common thing in Nigeria, but even in the Nigerian books I have read (so far) characters tend to favor either Christianity or tribal spiritual beliefs. I am guessing this is normal, but I really enjoyed the way Emezi not only held space for both, but blended them together. There was definitely favoritism towards the Igbo spirits, but Ada’s strong Christian faith felt quite real.
I know a lot of people around the world practice blended faiths, and I think this book works as a critique and acknowledgement of blended faith. It also works as a critique of both Christianity and Igbo spiritualism, as none of the gods were particularly nice to the humans.
The Final Stab
I wouldn’t say this book has a slow wind up. After all, we see Ala wrapping her python body around a three-year-old in the first chapter. From then on, there’s not really slow parts. But the ending just coils like a spring, going faster and faster until it stabs.
This will probably be a hard book for a lot of people to read. It covers a lot of trauma. To me, it was relatable, and I was grateful for the representation. But for others, it might be too much. I will say that the ending is happy, more or less, and there is a period of release and relief after that whirling stab of crisis. If you get to that part, it provides a sort of catharsis that I didn’t expect from a book. I found myself stopping by the river and watching the water flow by for quite some time as I just rested in the final chapters of the book.
Of all the books I read this year, this is the one that feels most personal to me. No, I am not Nigerian. Neither am I trans or non-binary. And yet, I felt completely seen and understood in this book.
Almost every book I read makes me think about something in a new perspective. But few books completely challenge and rewrite my basic schema. This one did that. I’m not about to identify as an ogbanje, that is out of my culture and out of my experience. But I can say I understood a lot about the splits in Ada’s psyche. While I don’t have multiple personalities, I very much identify with Asughara’s protective, destructive behavior, especially the self harm and suicidal ideation. I also have felt Saint Vincent’s gentle demand for self expression. This book definitely made me realize things about myself and gave me language to explore my experiences in a way I haven’t been able to yet.
For that, I am immensely grateful.