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

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala TreesIjeoma was living with her parents in their yellow painted home surrounded by rose and hibiscus bushes,  immersed in the aroma of orange, guava, cashew and mango trees, in the village of Ojoto, where vendors lined the street and life had a slow, amiable pace when war broke out between Biafra and Nigeria.

She was just eleven years old when this catastrophe struck, provoking a sequence of other catastrophes in their lives, resulting in her being sent away for her own safety for a year, to a neighbouring village to stay with a childless couple.

‘We moved about in that unhurried way of the butterflies, as if the breeze was sweet, as if the sun on our skin was a caress. As if slow paces allowed for the savoring of both. This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.’

The 1967 war barged into their lives and all over everything, the quiescent ambiance of Ojoto replaced by the noise and brutality  of the war machine, armoured cars, bomber planes, men with guns and machetes, war chants disturbing the evening air.

Before the war, her father told candlelit stories, folktales about talking animals and old kingdoms, spoke of kings and queens, magic drums, scheming tortoises and hares.

In the second year of war, her Mama sent her off, when bold talk of Biafra beating Nigeria had dwindled, supplanted by:

‘collective fretting over what would become of us when Nigeria prevailed: Would we be stripped of our homes, and of our lands? Would we be forced into menial servitude? Would we be reduced to living on rationed food? …Would we recover?’

Chinelo Okparanta

Author, Chinelo Okparanta

As a consequence of war, Ijeoma is sent to stay with the grammar school teacher and his wife, in the neighbouring village of Nnewi.

It is here, she crosses paths with Amina, a Hausa girl who follows her home from the shop one day.

‘I found a large rock near where an udala tree stood and sat down there. I waited on the rock, hoping the shadow would continue along, but it did not. Instead, it sat across from me, on another rock, eyes brght, like a pair of light bulbs. She was no longer a shadow.’

Ijeoma is Igbo, but she is far from home and the grammar school teacher and his wife though initially disapproving, become used to her new homeless friend, who helps out and doesn’t cause trouble. They decide she hardly even looks like those they consider the enemy.

“Actually she is more Fulani-looking than Hausa-looking. Which means she could pass for Igbo.”

The grammar school teacher considered his wife’s words. “It’s true,” he said. “Some Igbos and Fulanis do have a certain similarity in their features. Their complexion for one thing.”

“And she appears to be a hard worker.”

Part 2 of the novel displays the changed relationship with her mother after the events of Nnewi. The first week she is back her mother does not speak to her, a week passes without a word between mother and daughter. Her mother then resumes speaking, as if the silence had not been. She informs her daughter that now she is settled in, they will make a schedule, to begin the important work of cleansing her soul. No more folktales or stories of Kings and Queens, her mother’s preferred teachings come straight from the Bible and will be poured into her like medicine.

LEVITICUS 18.

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.

Udala African Star Apple

“Udala” Ibo for white star apple is a feminine symbol of fertility and generosity.

Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is a journey of self discovery, a coming-of-age tale of a girl experiencing a sexual awakening in defiance of her mother’s and society’s expectations, one she half heartedly attempts to suppress, only to experience an even worse suffering. Ancient folklore, biblical interpretations, all is summoned and used by parents to guide the daughter towards the righteous path.

It is a courageous story to tell in modern-day Nigeria, a country that has criminalised same-sex  relationships. It also adds significantly to the growing literary works that use the Biafran conflict as their historical context and brings our attention to an interesting and outspoken literary talent.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie broke the mould in terms of writing about the Biafran conflict with Half of A Yellow Sun and then more recently it was addressed in the autobiographical work of Chinua Achebe There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, the book he published not long before his death, finally speaking out about what has long been considered a taboo subject in Nigeria’s past, one that the generations who lived it had seemed to wish to remain silent on.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.