A Spirit Born into a Human Body: Talking with Akwaeke Emezi

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An ogbanje is an Igbo spirit that’s born into a human body, a kind of malevolent trickster, whose goal is to torment the human mother by dying unexpectedly only to return in the next child and do it all over again. They come and go.

Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist Akwaeke Emezi offers this definition in a recent essay for New York’s The Cut. The essay chronicles the surgeries Emezi underwent to transition, procedures she calls “a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” Those realities include her identity as a non-binary trans person and as an ogbanje.

But the definition also applies to Ada, the main character in Emezi’s stunning debut novel Freshwater, released this month. When the story opens, Ada is an infant in southern Nigeria. An unusual child, she’s prone to violent bouts of anger and grief. With “one foot on the other side,” she experiences a fractured self. When Ada goes to America for college, these selves gain power after a traumatic event, and Ada’s life takes a dangerous turn.

Rooted in Emezi’s realities, Freshwater is part of The Unblinding, a multi-year, multidisciplinary series of self-portraits that also includes Emezi’s paintings and videos.

In this interview, Emezi talks about Freshwater, her public and private identities, and deciding when to translate culture for readers.

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The Rumpus: In your artist statement, you write about Freshwater as part of a multidisciplinary series depicting your progression as an ogbanje, “from unawareness to clarity.” How would you describe ogbanje, and why it’s central to your work?

Akwaeke Emezi: It’s a bit of a difficult term to describe, just because it’s not an English term. Most of the times it gets translated as a spirit that’s born into a human body. But I’ve been finding that people start thinking of it as a binary. They think, Is it really a spirit if it’s in a human body? And they start trying to divide it into two because the description splits it that way. Really, it’s not one or the other. It’s both at the same time. It can’t be split.

It’s part of Igbo reality. Part of the ontology of the culture where there would be these children who were called “born to die.” They get born, and they die repeatedly. And the point of it is allegedly to torment the mother. It’s central to my work because when I started doing this work, I’d been trying to understand suicidality, and Western lenses that were usually around mental health really weren’t helpful. And the only thing that sticks for me was going back and choosing a different lens, and ogbanje was the one that made a lot more sense than the “mental health” descriptions of what was going on.

Freshwater is an account of a contemporary ogbanje. The ideas that people have around ogbanje are usually precolonial. A lot of things from our culture, our reality, were colonized, so to speak. And then it became, “Oh, all these things you believe in aren’t actually real.” Because of Christianity, ogbanje are considered superstition or evil. So most accounts of ogbanje are older ones, or carried through stories, but it’s faded very much from how it used to be.

Rumpus: How long have you been telling stories?

Emezi: Probably [I began] as soon as I could read and write. I started writing when I was about five. Little books. The principal of my school would give me these blank jotters. I loved playing with stationery as a child. So she would bribe me with them, and say, “If you give me one that’s filled with a story, then you can get another blank one.” And so, I would fill them with stories so I could get a blank one. And she kept those, and I think she gave them to my parents.

Rumpus: When did you make the decision to formally study, to become a writer?

Emezi: I had been writing pretty much nonstop. Back in 2013, I was living in Brooklyn and had a couple of other Nigerian artist friends who read my writing. I think I had six blogs running concurrently.

I was very much in social media. I ran a natural hair blog for eight years. I ran several personal blogs. I ran a blog for queer Nigerians. And then, I had one that was just for my writing. My [artist friends] looked at that one and a couple of them sat me down, and said, “Why aren’t you doing something with this? You should focus on this full time.” At that time, I was working in a nonprofit.

So, I started applying for grants. I had a Google document that is actually still running today, where I would list all these opportunities I could apply for. And I would go down the list and apply for everything. I applied for MFA programs that year, in the fall of 2013, and in 2014 I got into a fully funded one. So that was when I left my job.

Rumpus: Were there certain inspirations for Freshwater, other novels or novelists?

Emezi: Actually, no. I’m writing an essay about that, because that was a problem for me. I looked for them, because it was scary to be writing something that was rooted not just in Igbo traditions but also in my life, and blending the two and also doing it as fiction. It was a very specific thing, and being my first book, it made me incredibly nervous. But no, there weren’t really examples of that.

The most popular example of an ogbanje in literature is from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which was written how many decades ago? And it’s written as complete fiction, set several decades ago. So it wasn’t really very helpful. I did a lot of research into where I could find examples of ogbanje in literature, and I found a lot of other interesting stuff. Entire textbooks written about the ogbanje in African-American literature. One that talks about Toni Morrison’s Beloved as an ogbanje. All of that was super interesting, but not particularly helpful for what I was doing.

Rumpus: Some writers talk about worrying about what their families are going to think, or their cultural communities. Did you have any of those concerns?

Emezi: A little bit. I had a lot more experience antagonizing my family through my writing when I ran my blogs. So I burned through all of that, so to speak. I wrote blog entries that were very upsetting for several family members who did not hesitate to let me know, and I kind of set a precedent at that point for being the troublesome writer who can’t keep her mouth shut. Which is actually a consistent thing since I was a child. The idea that, “Oh, she can’t keep her mouth shut.” So, in a way, I was prepared for that.

I had interviewed my mom for the novel, and she got to pick the name of her character in the book, so she was quite involved. But still, after I finished writing the book, she called me, and said, “I hope you didn’t write anything that’s going to be embarrassing for the family.” And I said, “I interviewed you. Would you tell me anything that was going to be embarrassing for the family? Maybe you should have thought about that before you told all your marriage secrets to me, knowing I would put it in the book!” And she read it eventually, and I thought she was going to have strong feelings about it, but I think she was honestly just grateful for that amount of insight into me, because it’s not something I would ever have shared with her in person.

Whenever you write something biographical, everyone in your family doesn’t share the same memory. So your version of the story is not necessarily their version of the story, and part of the flexibility in having it fictionalized is that there’s not really a need to adhere to the strict facts. Because everything is colored by memory, especially when you’re pulling from childhood memories. There’s a little bit of wiggle room. This is my story of these events, as I remember it, as I experienced it.

But despite having all that precedent, I was still terrified to write it. I was terrified about whether it would be published, or whether it would do well, whether people would want to read it.

I always thought of it—and it’s hard to say this without sounding like a little special snowflake—but I thought it was a very weird book. I thought, I don’t know who’s going to like this. This is a little odd.

There’s uncertainty when, again, you’re looking for examples of books that look like this and you can’t really find any. In publishing, they try to describe the book—if you mixed this book with that book, then you’d get this one. No one could do that for my book. Even as we were writing the copy, they said, “We actually don’t have references for this.” So that’s a little scary because as a first-time author, you want to try and predict how well the book is going to do and where it’s going to go, or how it’s going to be received. And when you don’t have references, you can’t predict anything.

Just in the past year, this ties into a larger life lesson I’ve been learning, which is that you can’t map everything. I’m a control freak and a planner, so I love mapping things. I love that I can control all my outcomes. And this has just kicked my ass. It’s just a massive reminder, even in the best of ways, that you can’t control or map anything, and you should stop trying.

Rumpus: How does your identity as a non-binary person influence your work?

Emezi: In the Cut essay, I talked about transitioning, not to non-binary specifically, but perhaps transitioning to an ogbanje, and what that looks like when you mix realities. A lot of times I feel like I’m having to translate my thoughts and my answers into two different languages. On one hand, there are all these classifications that make sense in a human context, like your race, your gender, your sexual orientation. All of these categories. I can say I’m Nigerian, I’m Black, I’m an immigrant, I’m non-binary. And they’re all categorizations that are useful in certain senses, especially in a political sense. But on the other hand, I’m just me. I’m not around my friends and they’re thinking, “Oh, you’re black. Oh, you’re non-binary.” You’re not thinking about that. You’re just existing. And so, when I work, I’m just working. When I write, I’m just writing as myself, and I’m writing from the reality that I know, that is perhaps more inclusive because I occupy so many spaces at once.

It’s like an insane little Venn diagram of all these labels. And so I suppose that Venn diagram shows in my work. I think I’m just writing from the place that I exist in.

Rumpus: For you as a writer, is it essential to be part of a community, or do you need to write in solitude?

Emezi: A little bit of both. Again, it’s the parallel realities that are running in my head where, in some ways, I am very much about solitude. I don’t like writing around people or with people. I can’t even write in cafes because there are too many other people. I always have to write at home with no one else around. It’s very distracting for me. I just prefer being alone. But that’s usually for the first stage of writing. At some point I have to loop in people, because as much as writing might be a solitary act, revising certainly isn’t.

At that point, I have to loop in friends who can act as readers for me and give me feedback, as I try to get what I’m trying to say to a more accurate place. I’m also very, very grateful for editors. Now, some of my work is skipping readers and just going straight to editors, which is a little more vulnerable for me, because, it means that editors are seeing a rougher version of my work than I would normally let them see. But again, I try to let go of that control thing. It’s all part of the lesson.

Rumpus: I assume you’ve worked with editors who just don’t have the knowledge of some of the things you’re writing about, where you have to translate for them.

Emezi: I’ve definitely had that experience. My thinking is, if I’m writing from a culture you have no experience with, you need to defer to me. But as a new writer—because I’ve only been a full-time professional writer for four years now—there’s this fear that everyone else knows what they’re doing more than you do. And there’s this urge to acquiesce to everything, because you are the editor, you’ve been in the industry longer, you know what you’re doing. But one thing I was fortunate to learn very early on was that you’re the only person responsible for your work. You are the advocate for it. It’s your job to protect it. It’s your job to say when it’s accurate or not. No one else’s years of experience can override your knowledge of your work, especially if the point of conflict is something from your culture.

So, I run into it a lot when I use Nigerian English. Editors will try and correct it because they don’t understand what a certain thing means. For example, in Nigerian English if you’re talking about traditional clothes that people wear, colloquially you just call it traditional. Traditional becomes a noun, not an adjective. And that’s confusing for editors because they say, “Oh, you’re missing a word here. It’s meant to be traditional garb, traditional something.” And I say, “I’m not missing a word. It’s a noun.”

I try to explain to people that Nigerian English is actually different from pidgin English. A lot of it just looks on the surface like it’s American or British English, but it’s not. So there are words that aren’t spelled any differently, they aren’t pronounced any differently, but they just occupy a different function. And if you’re not versed in that, you wouldn’t know that. So little corrections like that, I think I have to kind of be vigilant about.

Sometimes I make compromises, but ones that are not necessarily for the benefits of a Western audience. I was once at a book talk with Chinelo Okparanta and Igoni Barrett, and they were talking about using Igbo in their books and translating and this assumption that if you do that, you’re translating for white people. And Chinelo pointed it out, “I’m translating for the millions of other Nigerians who don’t speak Igbo. Or the millions of other Africans who don’t speak Igbo. Why is your assumption that I’m doing it for white people? There are other people in the world who don’t know what this means.”

So, if I can give a little more context in the writing, then that is valid. And sometimes there’s wiggle room. I don’t mind making little adjustments because, again, it’s a very big world and there are a lot of readers. But I also think writers have the right to opacity, if they so choose. It’s every writer’s choice how much you want to translate, or put in context. I did refuse italics and a glossary though.

Rumpus: Yes, that’s a form of othering. I feel that when I’m reading a book written about and by an author from a culture that’s not mine, it’s my work as a reader is to keep up. We should all be smart enough to use context clues and not rely on italics or a glossary.

Have you had to deal with any kind of categorization of your writing that you felt was limited?

Emezi: It’s the power of realities. There are these categories that I exist in. I’m a writer. I’m Nigerian. I’m African. In my private reality, though, it’s just me. But I would never reject those categorizations because I think what most people push back against is being restricted to one.

The only one I’ve been concerned about is being locked into a category of, “You’re an LGBT writer.” Because if you’re openly queer or openly trans, people expect you to become an activist, and that’s your thing. That’s what I’m weary about because I consider my existence to be activism enough. I’m alive! And I am choosing to disclose, or I’m choosing to be visible because I’m aware that it has political significance, where other people can say, “You are a Nigerian trans writer, who has a certain level of disability.” I don’t know any other one who occupies that space openly, and that kind of visibility is useful in terms of being able to find precedent for one’s existence in the world.

And I know because when I first came out, I was online for so long trying to find other people who looked like me. When I first moved to Brooklyn, and I met queer Nigerians, it was huge for me because I didn’t know we existed. Which seems like, in retrospect, surprising, but at the time if you don’t see examples of people who occupy the same identity spaces as you, then how would you know they exist?

Rumpus: If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?

Emezi: I might be working in websites and social media, because that’s what I was doing before I switched to writing. I got a degree from NYU in nonprofit management, and public policy, both of which are things I hated. But I had to get a grad degree because I had been in veterinary school before that and dropped out. My parents were like, you’re getting a graduate degree in something.

Rumpus: Wait, did you say veterinary school?

Emezi: That’s a whole other story that involves literally skinning cats and horses. [Laughs] But I graduated from NYU and ended up working in a nonprofit. My work actually had nothing to do with my degree whatsoever. At that point, I’d been on social media for several years. I knew how to run content management systems and basic HTML, but I was too lazy to actually learn how to code. I knew how to run templates, and I knew how to do some back-end stuff, but they had me running the back-end of a website there. So, I would probably end up doing social media management or something.

Rumpus: What are you working on now? What’s next?

Emezi: Oh! So many other books. I’m trying to get through a lot of books in advance. I wrote Freshwater in 2014 and 2015, and then in 2016, I was on a scholarship given by the Marland Foundation in London. And so I wrote my second novel in 2016. And then, I wrote the third novel last year. And I have a fourth one that I’m halfway through, that I actually want to finish before February, just because I’m an overachiever and I like the sound of saying that I finished four novels before my first one came out. Like, it sounds nice to me and it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, and also because I’m already halfway through it and I know what’s happening throughout the whole book, so.

And my theory was, when Freshwater comes out, either it’s going to do not as good as I thought and I’m going to be depressed and I won’t feel like writing. Or, it’s going to do better than I thought, and I’m going to be busy and I’m not going to have time to write. Either way, it really seemed like my writing time was going to be cut down afterwards. And you see so many writers talking about how hard it is to get momentum on their sophomore book. So my theory was, I can just get it done beforehand and just have a shelf of manuscripts. That way I don’t have to worry about it.

Rumpus: And just send them out!

Emezi: Yes! Like, preloaded! So, I’ve been slow on it because I didn’t realize was that the business would start before the publication date. I started traveling before the book came out. That kind of threw a wrench in my overachieving plans. But, I’m still going to push through. The book I wrote last year, I wrote it in two months. So, I feel like I can get through half a book in possibly a couple of weeks. The caveat is that all first drafts are trash. I took two months, and I wrote trash, and I am accepting of that. But at least it’s complete trash.

Rumpus: And now it can be polished.

Emezi: Exactly. Now we can make something out of it. But you’ve got to finish it first before you do anything. So, I count the finishing always as an accomplishment.

Rumpus: Do you read your reviews?

Emezi: I read a lot of my reviews on Goodreads, just because I am always fascinated by how readers tune into books. And writers tell you not to do that, especially not the Goodreads ones, because those are just for readers. And that’s why I read them. Because I feel like when people expect you to be upset about reviews, they aren’t talking about how much ego plays into that. I’m working on dismantling ego in general, so I don’t really mind if someone takes away from the book something I never intended, because that really has nothing to do with me, or the book actually. It has to do with the person. Everyone’s reading it through the filter of their own experiences, and that’s something I have no control over. So, it shouldn’t really matter.

And I think, also, what’s the alternative? If someone doesn’t like the book, then they should lie about it to spare someone else’s feelings? There’s this thing they say where, once you write the book, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the readers. And if it belongs to the readers, they’re allowed to feel about it however they feel about it.


Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →