Uncovering Buried Roots: Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater

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Freshwater, the debut novel by Akwaeke Emezi, tells the story of Ada, a girl of Igbo and Tamil heritage who grows up among her siblings and father in Nigeria before moving to Virginia to attend college. The novel then follows Ada into her twenties. In this sense, it could be seen as a coming-of-age tale, but from the outset, Freshwater is unlike anything I have ever read and this is why: twin spirits who speak in tandem are betrothed to a human body. They call her ‘the Ada’ and they are called ‘We.’ Even before we meet Ada, we meet them and they become part of Ada’s self. As the novel continues and time passes, we are introduced to Ada along with her other selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent, who we never hear from directly, comes toward the end, while Asụghara emerges in a moment of pain and vows to never let Ada experience that pain again.

In the West, there are names for having multiple selves or hearing voices. These names are infused with stigma, names like schizophrenia or mental illness. And yet, that’s not what’s happening here. Though sometimes referred to as a madness, what Ada experiences is considered almost entirely outside of the realm of mental illness, with the exception of the knowledge of what mental health professionals would do to her if they knew about the realities of her existence. In the novel, Ada is inhabited by gods. She is an ọgbanje, which in an essay for The Cut, Emezi describes as “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… if you are a thing that was born to die, you are a dead thing when you live.” This may be one of Freshwater’s strongest accomplishments: the fact that this novel comes to a Western audience while upholding Igbo knowledge that existed before colonization and how by way of existing, this novel helps to uncover buried roots and eschew narratives that decry these roots as backwards.

Even aside from her selves, Ada has much to contend with. Her life is filled with trauma, from the separation of her parents to the violence and incapability of men who claim to love her (her father, her brother, her boyfriends). To face these traumas, Ada makes do in the ways she knows how: she drinks tequila and cuts herself to subdue the spirits that vie for control within her. She starves herself. She becomes suicidal. Many of these methods are actively encouraged by the selves. Yet, as much as the selves exacerbate her problems, they also often help her through them. Asụghara, by her own admission, is “good at hurting people and leaving people, and [she’s] really good at hiding [Ada] so that nobody can get [her] again.” In Ada’s view, Asụghara is “the bright and shiny one” to her “damaged and broken one.” Asụghara provides Ada with a cruelty that she learns to welcome. Within Ada, Asụghara drives destruction and indulgence in what are typically considered to be vices: booze until blackout, sex without love, taking before something can be taken, and a general recklessness with those who Ada cares about. Saint Vincent is a quieter self, masculine and sensual. Usually he allows Asụghara to take the forefront, but when he emerges, he binds Ada’s breasts and dresses the body in men’s clothing. Often, what these selves offer is just as significant as what they take: Asụghara gives protection and a tenderness, despite her untender nature, while Saint Vincent gives an ability to see gender as something that is fluid—it may often be enforced on bodies, but it is not enforced on gods. Even outside of the realm of this reality, Ada’s predicament can resonate as one of being in an abusive relationship with your own mind: the ways it both hurts and protects you.

There are two ways to read Freshwater: there is the knowing and the unknowing. In the knowing, the reader has read about the author’s family. They know that Emezi is the middle child, as is Ada. They know that Emezi’s younger sister, Yagazie, was run over by a car as a child, something that also happens to Ada’s younger sister Añuli. They also know that Emezi’s essay for The Cut is about existing within the liminal spaces of gender as an ọgbanje. In the knowing, the reader recognizes these events as they exist within the novel and also within reality. In the unknowing, this is a story about a fictional person facing multiple realities. Just like the selves within the novel, both of these planes add important reference points.

In some ways, reading Freshwater is like looking fear in the face—fear of trauma, fear of blasphemy, fear of non-belief, fear of belief itself. What does it mean to believe that gods inhabit you? What does it mean to know that you are not of this world? In Ada’s mind, gods and spirits come and go as they please. The kinder of them sit with her in the home of her mind and offer her a drink. But even outside of the context of her mind, these gods exist. Spiritual without being religious, the text explores the gods we live with, the gods we meet, and the gods we make. From the beginning, ‘We’ warn us:

Humans often pray and forget what their mouths can do, forget that every ear is listening, that when you direct your longing to the gods, they can take that personally.

Even as gods live inside her, Ada’s relationship with Yshwa (or Jesus) is very important to her, and He often meets her in her mind. And even as the spirits within Ada literally know what it means to be larger than life, and she by extension also knows this, there is one particular human, named Ewan, that Ada builds up in this way through loving him. In all the ways that the story of Freshwater is extraordinary, the ordinary moments—of love, of small cruelties, and of traumas—also emerge, resounding.

In her journey, Ada is not alone. Aside from the obvious, she makes friends—“people who could see past flesh; people who prayed to gods, were ridden by them; people who heard transmissions even if they didn’t particularly want to listen in.” She meets those who see her, who understand what she is because they understand what they are. “I know how mad it sounds to call yourself a god,” Ada says in one of her few authored sections. “Believe me, I fought it at first.” The text never questions Ada’s narrative as anything other than true. What it does do, though, is show that the truth exists in multiple forms. There is not, nor can there be, solely one. And within this truth, somewhere, exists Emezi’s. Filled with beautiful, lush sentences, through Freshwater, Emezi offers us a lens into their world and creates a stunning landscape in the process. The novel explores the trauma of a life as worthy of being seen, and we should all be grateful for this contribution.

Abigail Bereola is a writer and the Books Editor for The Rumpus. On Twitter, @sherarelytweets. More from this author →