This was an interesting follow up to the fiction/auto-fiction debut novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which I thought was a stunning and original book, an unforgettable read.
Dear Senthuran is a collection of letters to what we might call Emezi’s inner circle, past and present.
Emezi was raised in Nigeria and is of Nigerian/Malaysian heritage; they are an ogbanje, a non-human Black spirit being, currently incarnated in human form.
If you read Freshwater, you understand the basis from which this comes from, the overlapping realities they inhabit.
I live there, inhabiting simultaneous realities that are usually considered mutually exclusive. What can we call the dysphoria experienced by spirits who find themselves embodied in human form?
The memoir is thus a record of the period in their life leading up to the publication of that debut novel, of a year spent in an MFA program and both the highs and lows of that experience. It is about world-bending, living in a way that is true to who they are, thus rather than being flexible to how the world works, it is like the opposite, bending the world to meet them.
Emezi lives in America but is not of that culture and it shows in this work, in how confident and fearless they come across, which is one of the reasons it was difficult to align with their student peers, many of whom held much self-doubt regarding their writing ability and expectations, common to their culture of origin.
I call this a culture because that’s what it was. I’ve seen it in several places: people bonding over insecurities and self-deprecation, constantly saying they didn’t think their work was good, looking to the faculty for validation, someone to tell them they were real writers, to give them direction and guidance and a map to where they wanted to go. Institutions love that, I think. It makes you need them. And all those feelings are valid, but the resentment and hostility when you don’t play along, when you don’t shit on your own work, when you don’t wear doubt like a blanket around your shoulders? That’s the part I have a problem with. It reminds me of that thing back home where people want you to “humble yourself” and sometimes their demand is quiet, sometimes it’s blatant, but either way, they make sure you feel it.
Emezi writes about the experience and feelings of being unsupported during some of the challenges they faced and about their determination not to compromise when it became clear the debut novel was going to sell.
There is much reflection on writing, the work, they are prolific, determined and have achieved success in a relatively short period of time, despite numerous challenges. They create and share a spell for storytellers, for those trying to create books. Clearly it worked!
With my spell, I drew a map of the future I wanted, then I took those defined lines and pulled them across time, dragging them into the present. Time bends very easily; you can fold it like this with little trouble.
Most of the letters are in appreciation and record events they do not wish to forget, that mark the rise.
One of the more memorable letters is to the late, great inspirational Toni Morrison. Emezi shares a quote, words she heard her speak in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. She remembers how Morrison’s work agitated many of the students, ‘because you wrote people who did horrific things, but you didn’t tell the reader how to feel about these people‘ and how delighted they were to discover you could ‘just show a terrible thing and let the showing be the strength of it’.
The words that changed everything for Emezi though were these:
“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.”
It is another of the spells they are using to become free.
Throughout the letters, there are references to ‘the magician’, at a certain point the reader asks who or what this presence is: a lover, a boyfriend and if one of those, is it going to endure for the duration of the book? It is a little mystery that eventually becomes a more direct subject of one or two of the letters, another record of events that transpire, of growth that occurs, of pain and hurt, of revenge even. Nothing is exempt in pursuit of the dream, to be the successful writer they desire.
A couple of the letters are to friends who are also human, non-humans, those in their life who totally get it without needing explanation, who accept their reality, with whom they can speak openly, fearlessly.
These humans are so loud in how they press down, in how they enforce their realities…It’s actually impressive, how someone can work so hard to crush a thing they can’t see.
Friendship provides a balm, and many of the letters, while they show the pain and suffering of someone growing into their adult self, lack the mature self-awareness that comes with age and wisdom. They demonstrate the importance of friendship and acceptance along the way.
In a letter To Kathleen on the subject of Worldbending they write:
The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that…We are safer with each other. We see the world’s we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells.
After the publication of Freshwater, Emezi buys a house in New Orleans and names it Shiny. It is part of the plan, part of the future they are dreaming into being. Not everything in their lives is how they want it, but fortunately there is now a therapist in their lives, some of the reflections come from the raised consciousness of being in that process.
The house felt too big for me; it felt wrong, like I should have bought it years into my career, not thirteen months after my first book. For weeks, I didn’t sleep well there, worried that God would punish me for being so bold, for bending the world like this. It was Ann who talked me down, who told me that the house was oversized precisely so I could grow into it, so I could have the space to learn to unfurl. I needed that much room, as vast as it felt.
Writing To Jahra, another human/non-human entity, in Home, Emezi describes a return to her birth country, on a pilgrimage to a shrine of their deity, Ala. At the site, they feel seen, the entity nourished.
In a letter To Ann, called Anointing they write of the power of naming themselves, a form of disempowerment of those who want to label, categorise, bully by naming.
People want to be the ones drawing the lines, building the boxes, making the names. Maybe because stories live inside all those structures, and if you’re the one controlling the stories, then you’re the one in power. So they get really angry when you name yourself, especially if you’re the type of thing they were expecting to name. You know how it works: they form a circle around you, point, and call you a name you’re supposed to flinch from, a name you’re supposed to deny and be afraid of. That way, their naming becomes a weapon and what you are becomes a shame, a sentence, a tire around your neck rich with fire. Witch. Demon. Ogbanje. When you name yourself, however, you take the power from the wet, foaming flesh of their mouths and mold it in your hand as if it’s nothing, swallow waiting to slide down your throat, slickened with the soup of your self-knowing.
I thought about this a lot with Freshwater – what it meant, first of all, to publicly name myself ogbanje.
Emezi writes for people like them, for people who might think themselves in the margins, as an example of how to live when that perspective is shifted, when the centre is moved. There are costs when you choose or move a centre, costs they are willing to bear. They have been taught how aggressive they need to be with their wellness in order to survive.
Let the world move over, you said, and I obeyed.
It is an astonishing memoir, written from a frank perspective that doesn’t care whether the reader understands or not, it is for those who understand or are curious, the open-minded. And while it may appear self-indulgent, at times arrogant, narcissistic even, their work is making a splash.
I gave a talk at Yale recently, and at the reception afterward, a woman told me about a paper she wrote on Freshwater, how she was taking it to a medical conference to argue for recognising indigenous realities in treating people. It made me so happy, because it felt like a ripple, you know? You make one thing, and someone makes something else from that, and from there the world is changed, one fraction at a time.
My review of Freshwater
My review of The Death of Vivek Oji
NPR: Letters Reveal Author’s Strength In A World Of Destructive Noise by Hope Wabuke, June 9, 2021
New York Times: Akwaeke Emezi: ‘Imagine Being Ogbanje, Like Me’ by Kim Tran, June 7, 2021
This sounds as if it’s a book that would repay the effort of reading it. And I suspect it could be an effort: full of ideas and thoughts from someone whose life experience is very different from my own. I’ll look out for it.
Loved this review as always uou hit the right points. Sadly I DNF-Ed Freshwater. I didn’t understand it. People always say it’s great but when I ask them what it’s about they can’t explain it. I read Vivek Oji and I was expecting so much more. It felt gratuitous in places and the ending was predictable. I don’t think this author is for me.
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Freshwater I thought was amazing (I did review it), it was a little like having an out of body experience to read it, and certainly it won’t be for everyone. But writing from the place of being an embodied Igbo spirit, if you run with that, it’s surreal.
The Death of Vivek Oji didn’t reach nearly the same heights, whereas this nonfiction work, shows signs of the earlier uniqueness, only let down perhaps by an overabundance of (human) resentments (from an “I am a God”ly perspective), but still, an honest portrayal of how it is/was for them on their journey to publication and life afterwards. I think their work may be interesting as they mature, if the commitment to writing stays true, rather than the distraction of having come into money so young.
They really believe they are an Igbo god though.😐
Yes, that doesn’t require the reader to believe, it’s the experience of reading inside that cultural/indigenous belief, and how they navigate the world from that place.
Interesting how Emezi sees structures and stories – I think of them the other way round, stories creating the structures we build for ourselves and change the ones we see ourselves in or others try to put us in. And the quiet strength of ripples to make change is so often unacknowledged or underestimated.
I’ve only read Emezi’s “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty”, which is quite different and less experimental and magic realist than their other books. I’m not sure how I’d get on with this and the other ones, I’m not sure I’m intelligent enough to appreciate them!
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This is a pretty straightforward read, being a memoir in the form of letters, covering the period of their life living in America, becoming a published author. It’s really only necessary to know that they have grown up in a different culture, so have a different belief system/identity than what most raised in a western culture will be familiar with. It’s the intersection of this with the known American culture that makes for interesting reading. A unique perspective, that makes no apologies, and one that is certifiably sane.
OK, that makes it clearer to me, thank you (although I was in no way suggesting it wasn’t valid or indeed sane: I’ve transcribed Emezi before now and was awed by their vast intelligence and struggled to keep up with the thought processes!).
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The ‘sane’ thing is an interesting reference to the book, because they had to see a psychiatrist for evaluation before an elective surgery, and given their honesty about being an obganje/God, it’s significant that in the 21st century, these indigenous belief systems are safer to express than they would have been a century ago. I found that quite empowering, the fearlessness of someone, with intelligence, superb articulation and vulnerability, overcoming a rigid medical system, being that honest and authentic, knowing it may likely invite judgement.