Review – Emezi, “Freshwater”

Akwaeke Emezi, “Freshwater” (2018) (read aloud by the author) – Readers and reviewers spoke of this book as a revelation. I didn’t find it to be that, entirely, but I have an advantage: I’m a genre fiction reader. The idea of a fractured self expressed through mythological/religious tropes isn’t a new one on me, or the juxtaposition of ancient belief systems and contemporary living. So when Nigerian author Emezi has their autobiographical stand-in, Ada, experience possession by multiple spirits – ogbanje, not exactly friendly, not entirely demonic – as a way of explaining what someone steeped in western psychiatry would call multiple personalities, I wasn’t as blown away as the sort of person who usually reads somewhat-experimental fiction given big pushes by mainstream literary publishers with pastel covers might be.

It’s still a decent idea, though. Ada starts her (the character uses she/her pronouns and mostly identifies as a girl and a woman, even if one of the spirits inside her is a man- Emezi is nonbinary, though doesn’t deny the autobiographical element here) journey with the ogbanje early in her childhood in Nigeria. She’s not just a third culture kid, she might be a fourth or fifth, with an Igbo Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother who raise her in a variety of places, even if Nigeria anchors her childhood and America her young adulthood. She’s sexually assaulted by a boyfriend in college (which she starts at sixteen) and that’s when some of the ogbanje come to more or less take over her body for extended periods of time, putting Ada in the backseat. 

Most of the book is written from the first person perspective of one or another of these spirits. They relate their perspective, the actions they either see Ada perform or foist on Ada, their conversations with Ada and sometimes with rival spirits inside of her. The spirits are insightful, dependent on their human host while somewhat contemptuous of her (but more so of other people), possessed of some virtues, like loyalty, but no morality to speak of- and hungry for blood and suffering. Ada appeases them mostly by cutting herself and by getting into bad relationships with men. Sometimes, Ada tries to destroy the spirits or rout them from her, other times, the spirits try to get Ada to let them loose into the spirit realm, i.e., kill herself. Neither succeed, and Ada eventually learns to live with the ogbanje, as well as other, less identifiable spirits who seem to have her welfare, or a version of it, more in mind. 

At some point, and maybe someone has started already, but someone will have to write about the impact of post-1965 US immigration policy, specifically as it relates to favoring highly-skilled knowledge workers and students, on literature. Immigration, sojourning, exile, etc. have always been themes in literature, and structural aspects of the creation of literary communities. I do think there’s a prominence to immigrant literature, and especially to the literature of immigrants from middle-class (or above) backgrounds today, of third- (fourth-, fifth-) culture kids, in contemporary English-language letters, that’s worth studying. Among other things, this may be the work of a contemporary black author that I’ve read that has the least to say about race, though it has a lot to say about Nigerian and Igbo culture. If anything, the spirits contrast Ada’s experiences and attitudes with those of black American schoolmates more than white people, though Ada does meet plenty of those- though, mostly it seems, international students from Europe, including her main love interest, a dreamy Irish fuck-boy named Ewan. Ada came to America when she was sixteen, and moves across oceans and continents perhaps not in perfect comfort… but her discomfort comes more from being inhabited by spirits and having bad interpersonal relationships than from bigotry, homesickness, dislocation, or the usual woes one associates with immigrant experiences. 

I wrote about this some when I discussed Jhumpa Lahiri a few weeks ago. I feel like foreign students and young professionals have been a part of my life more or less since high school or college, if not before, and are a fixture of life for most Americans who go through higher education, probably most inhabitants of the other rich countries as well. The paradox is that, coming from hundreds of different cultures all over the world, they’re the most heterodox bunch imaginable in some ways… but given the ways that schools and employers select, they tend to be much more homogenous in terms of class background, and of course, the experience of migration, of adaptation to the host country, of embedding in institutions that have now, in some cases decades hence, made adaptations to the presence of immigrants, migrants, guest workers and so on, has a certain group-making effect, too. 

Here’s a trope I see in both the literature and in conversations both had with friends and acquaintances from the sort of international-student/knowledge worker milieu and have overheard them have themselves: Americans are generally blander, less interesting, less emotionally-alive than “internationals.” The internationals live, the Americans (usually, but not always, white) kind of shuffle through life in a cloud of privilege and occasional disaster. This tracks, I’d say. Among other things, you have to have some initiative to bother schlepping all the way over here. Generations of life as the global hegemon will tend to make the upper-middle-class-and-above scions of said hegemony a little dull, I bet. Combine the aftereffects of WASP culture and the hollowness of consumer culture, and you get people who put their surface feelings up front for all to see (and hear!) but who you don’t really get to know, if there’s anything to know, for years or decades. I sometimes wonder if the real divide in the world is between people whose countries have meaningful historical memories of defeat and occupation, and those who don’t. The unflattering emotional depiction of Americans I just painted can be applied to the next most prominent group of people today who haven’t seen a military occupation for almost a millennium, the English, and inhabitants of its other settler colonies. You could paint it positively – people from countries that haven’t experienced that kind of defeat as more optimistic, or whatever – but it’s hard to sell that pretty much any time after 9/11. 

So, Ada lives in America but barely notices Americans. I don’t say this as a complaint, but I do think it’s notable, and I also think it relates to how Ada (and Emezi) treat the ogbanje. Every now and again Ada worries that she’s crazy. But less than you might think! She worries more that she’s in pain, she’s depressed, she has terrible relationships, she can’t find a place in the world. Yes, the ogbanje try to kill her- but they also protect her and give her an odd sort of power. This, whatever else it is supposed to be, is an interesting way to express how a young woman with one foot in a modesty culture and another in hook-up culture might experience her sexual power (and its strict limitations vis-a-vis extracting humane behavior from the men in her life). She doesn’t need to be rid of the ogbanje. That’d be American nonsense, the ogbanje would say, and which it seems Ada, and perhaps Emezi, would accept. Such is life for the alive international versus the dead single-culture and/or Anglo. 

The flip side is, in a story told by quasi-demons with little in the way of consistent framework beyond momentary sating of desire, there’s not a great need for continuity. Characters pop up, one of the ogbanje explain that they are very important to Ada, big stuff happens to them, and then they’re gone, for someone else to come along and reflect the relationship between Ada and the spirits for a chapter or two. On top of this, if you’re expecting anything particularly spectacular, even within Ada’s head, as she and her demons battle it out (including demons battling with each other), you’re going to be disappointed. A snake shows up in her bathroom as a baby, there’s some somewhat distended writing, the spirits and Ada argue in the “marble room” of her brain- a fancy waiting room, essentially, Basically, it does seem like the daring-concept tail wagging the literary-execution dog, at times. In keeping with the point I was making earlier, “international” navel-gazing, even from international rich kids, is generally better than the same produced in the Anglo-American world, but it only ever delivers so much without the injection of something more. ***’

Review – Emezi, “Freshwater”

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