Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

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.

A Black Spirit Memoir OgbanjeDear 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.

Akwaeke Emezi Black Spirit MemoirEmezi 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.

f3toni morrison

Toni Morrison

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.

Shiny Akwaeke Emezi Godhouse

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

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.

Further Reading

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

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s Freshwater was an incredible read and a real insight into a cultural perspective, taking you inside it and experiencing it, so I was very much looking forward to this next work.

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureThough we learn that Vivek is dead from the cover and in the opening pages, the novel is in a sense a mystery as the details around the death are not revealed until the end. The novel is set in Nigeria, in a community of mostly mixed race families.

The narrative is multi perspective, told through the voice of Vivek, his cousin and close friend Osita and a third-person omniscient narrator. The first chapter is one sentence:

They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.

The market burning down provides a beginning, a middle and an ending, it features in exactly those places, here as a marker or a clue, in the middle as an observation by a previously unknown character whose wife runs a stall in the middle of the market and at the end, when Vivek’s final day is shared.

The first half of the book we get to know the families, Chika, his brother Ekene, married to Mary, then later Chika’s Indian wife Kavita, mother to Vivek. The narrative tells the story of their marriage, of how they try to raise their only child. Kavita is part of a group of women referred to as the Nigerwives.

She had learned to cook Nigerian food from her friends – a group of women, foreign like her, who were married to Nigerian men and were aunties to each other’s children. They belonged to an organisation called Nigerwives, which helped them assimilate into these new lives so far away from the countries they’d come from. They weren’t wealthy expats, at least not the ones we knew. They didn’t come to work for oil companies; they simply came for their husbands, for their families.

The Death of Vivek Oji Awaeke Emezi

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Through the friendships of the mothers, Osita and Vivek become friends with JuJu and Elisabeth. Among themselves, away from school or family and outside of society, they are already a group who is different, and with each other, they are accepting, able to express themselves, though they have each inherited varying degrees of conditioning from their mixed parentage.

Vivek is sent away to school, about which we learn very little, we know he is unhappy and bears scars.

The narrative explores the development of their friendships and sexuality, interspersed with the present day obsession of Kavita, determined to find out how her son’s body mysteriously turned up on their front veranda wrapped in a fabric.

Chika didn’t want to ask any question. Kavita, though, was made of nothing but questions, hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers.

Maybe it was intentional, but in creating the element of mystery, much about the character of Vivek is held back, perhaps to recreate the effect of what the parent might have experienced, but for me personally, I found it disappointing that the character of Vivek was compromised and an opportunity missed to inhabit that character more.

The deliberate obscuring heightens the effect of the reveal, but sacrifices the opportunity to share something more profound with readers. It’s difficult to develop empathy for a character, when so much is held back and when the potential is clearly there.

That was why they’d kept it from their parents, to protect Vivek from those who didn’t understand him. They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.

It’s a novel of secrets and lies and the debate of truth versus respect, in that belief that the two can’t coexist. And the safety inherent within a fear of judgement by some, versus the danger of a lack of fear in others. A theme that is likely to continue to be explored by Emezi.

“Look,” she said, “eventually all secrets come out. It’s just a matter of time. And the longer it takes, the worse it is in the end.”

As I read, I can feel what I am bringing to the narrative, where I want the author to go and by the end they do go some of the way, but not all. And that is on me, it is asking an already courageous writer to go further, to places that us readers, like sports fans, might never go ourselves, but from the benches we shout in encouragement. So I leave the last words to the author, as a reminder to us all of what this is.

I had to remember why I was making this work. I wasn’t making it for institutional validation. I was making this work for specific people — all the people living in these realities feeling lonely and wanting to die because they’re like, this world thinks I’m crazy and I don’t belong here. All the little trans babies who are just like, there is no world in which my parents will love me and accept me. There’s a mission to all of this. Akwaeke Emezi

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi

N.B. This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read, it describes an inner world, an occupied mind, from that inside. It puts the reader in a position of imagining, perhaps even to a certain degree understanding, what it might be like to have your subconscious and conscious mind occupied by other entities, entities with a voice, with personality, that from time to time take over the body, affect behaviour, talk to you and through you.

Reality is depicted from their perspective, giving full voice to the multiple entities, birthed (through traumas) at different times during the life of Ada (her name though her father told her just meant ‘precious’, in its truest form, meant, the egg of a python), who was born a girl (though doesn’t stay one) in Nigeria and educated in America, where much of the narrative takes place.

We become aware of their presence from the opening pages, before they are awakened within Ada, in a chapter that is utterly compelling as we come to realise who the ‘we‘ is that is narrating much of the story. And ‘we‘ is not the only non-human narrator.

These personalities inhabit a place (referred to in the text as the marble room) within the body/mind, they lie dormant until they are awakened, they keep each other company in that space, they co-habit this one body and constantly justify their existence and inclinations and sometimes act out on them, though they too seem capable of evolving, just as their human needs to and does. And just in case you think this is sounding like fantasy or science fiction, it’s not, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, much of it corresponds to the author’s experience and perceived reality of the world.

These multiple entities exist, they are not illusions or metaphors, they have names and characteristics that manifest into different behaviours through human ‘Ada’ who simultaneously suffers from them, is supported by them, at times is even dependent on them. They are one, but with many aspects that from the external perspective risk being judged as something labelled otherwise depending on the country/culture – such as personality disorder or schizophrenia due to our limited view in defining other states of being. When one entity is more present, Ada’s way of being in the world alternates between her human personality and that of the other presence, whether it’s we, Asughara, or Saint Vincent.

Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi

From the perspective of Nigerian ontology (philosophical study of the nature of being), Ada (as the author also self-identifies) may be perceived as ‘ogbanje‘, a child that usually doesn’t live long and is often reborn into the same family. It is believed that these children recognise the difficulty of living in this world and choose to leave it, only on arriving at the gates of heaven they’re denied entry, they’re judged as being lazy and indolent and are sent back to try again. When they are present in the world, they often have particular psychic abilities and/or an other-worldliness about them, they’re believed by some to be possessed, they don’t particularly enjoy the dense, limited human body and experience.

Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to ‘come and go’.

Only the child Ada is saved from a death that might have sent her back by her father, a modern Igbo man with medical training from the Soviet Union and years of living in London. He did not believe in anything superstitious that might have made him view the scene he rescued her from as anything other than death. In rescuing her, he prevents the entities from leaving.

He had no idea what he had done.

Akwaeke Emezi depicts these influences and describes being human as a temporary vessel for this other kind of presence which until Ada understands and accepts it, she will continue to suffer as if she is one and not all of them. The ability to make them so real to the reader, to create what feel like real characters from them, is astounding.

“All the madnesses, each and every blinding one, they can all be traced back to the gates. Those carved monstrosities, those clay and chalk portals, existing everywhere and nowhere and all at once. They open, things are born, they close. The opening is easy, a pushing out, an expansion, an inhalation: the dust of divinity released into the world. It has to be a temporary channel, though, a thing that is sealed afterward, because the gates stink of knowledge, they cannot be left swinging wide like a slack mouth, leaking mindlessly. That would contaminate the human world – bodies are not meant to remember things from the other side. There are rules. But these are gods and they move like heated water, so the rules are softened and stretched. The gods do not care. It is not them after all, that will pay the cost.”

At one point Ada seeks out a therapist and at first her entities don’t notice, they are not always present, but they’d told her to keep them inside her head, in the marble room, so no one could see them.

So when she started looking up her “symptoms”, it felt like a betrayal – like she thought we were abnormal. How can we be, when we were her and she was us? I watched her try to tell people about us and I smiled when they told her it was normal to have different parts of yourself.

The entities try to fulfill their destiny (to return to their spirit siblings) and thus sabotage Ada’s attempts to live a human life with minimal suffering. It’s a constant challenge to navigate life, until they learn to live in harmony and she understands her purpose after an encounter with a historian, who tells her what she needs to accept.

“The name that was given to you has many connotations, you hear?” He wore glasses and spoke in a rush of words. “The python’s egg means a precious child. A child of the gods, or the deity themself. The experiences you’ve had suggest that there is a spiritual connection, which you need to go and learn about. Your journey will not be complete until you do that.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “There is nothing more anybody can tell you. It’s important for you to understand your place on this earth.”

Truly an astounding, transparent work that takes an understanding of the being part of human into another dimension. The way it seamlessly moves from the material to the immaterial, combining human and spiritual aspects of selves, on a journey to assemble some way of living with them both, in a world where the majority live within and perceive only one aspect and dimension, a world indeed, where it can be dangerous to articulate this alternate reality.

I thought it was brilliant, definitely a 5 star read for me and truly deserving of being on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

A debut novel said to have an autobiographical slant, this is how Akwaeke Emezi brilliantly articulates what the writing of it meant to them in an interview with Ms. magazine:

I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through.

Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

New Yorker: A Startling Debut Novel Explores the Freedom of Being Multiple by Katy Waldman

Interview: The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and Finding Home by Taliah Mancini

N.B. Thank you to publisher Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy.

Buy a copy of Freshwater via Book Depository