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