Emerging Igbo Mythology, Godlings, and Dissociative Identities:
The Autobiography and Fiction within Akwaeke Emezi’s Debut Novel Freshwater
– Book Review by C.M. Nwanna –
Instantly, the first chapter of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi introduces a peculiar, dissociative predicament, “By the time she (our body) struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open…We were not conscious but we were alive—in fact, the main problem was that we were a distinct we instead of being fully and just her” (p. 5).
As a reader, I gravitate towards fiction. However, Freshwater’s identity as autofiction—an autobiography surrounded by mythological context, rebirthed spirits called ogbanje, and characteristics of dissociative identity disorder—challenges me. Amongst other potential books, other possible adventures, I chose this book to read because it embraces the Igbo language—my native tongue, a language I do not understand—and mythology.
According to Emezi’s intimate essay in the New York Magazine’s The Cut, and their website biography, the author is an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist. They identify as a non-binary transgender and ogbanje—a spirit of dead child rebirthed into the same family repeatedly: “spirit and human, both and neither” (p. 226). As Freshwater progresses, Emezi’s life aligns with their protagonist’s experiences. Like Emezi, Ada is also a person of Igbo and Tamil descent, an ogbanje, and shares similar physical and social attributes: dark hair and skin tone, tattoos, and queer and non-binary identity. Emezi and Ada undergo breast reduction surgery to appear more non-binary, not exclusively masculine or feminine. Emezi also undergoes a hysterectomy and bilateral salpingectomy; they remove their uterus and fallopian tubes because they do not identify as a woman.
Emezi harnesses Igbo mythology within the cryptic setting of the book (p. 14 – 17): “Ala” is a feminine earth deity, sacred python, and source of streams. The book title, Freshwater, refers to Ala, the source of streams. As a child of Ala, Ada embodies these traits. “Ogbanje” is a rebirthed spirit, born to the same family, not exclusively human or god. “The gate” is the opened path between the flesh—Ada—and the godlings’ spirit realm. “Iyi-uwa” is the oath of the world, which is a compound object binding the spirit of a dead child—Ada—to the world.
With a focus on Ada and her godlings, written in past tense and multiple points of view, the dialogue is limited compared to the lengthy and poetic descriptions in the book. Often, occurrences in the book are retold again by multiple selves to reveal new perspectives and connect them to proceeding consequences in Ada’s life. Sometimes the resulting content feels disjointed, too scattered, and other times I find myself impulsively, whimsically, gripping onto its shifting winds.
In Ada’s early life, there is an often one-sided relationship between her and Jesus, who the godlings within her call Yshwa. They retell moments when Yshwa admires Ada’s love and faith but he does not come when she needs him. However, after Asụghara takes control of Ada’s body, he materializes inside her marble-walled mind to talk to Asụghara: “He stood up, towering above me. ‘I’ll be here, Asụghara. Ada knows that.’…‘She has me.’ I couldn’t help snarling at him when I said it. ‘It’s enough’” (p. 86).
The godlings within Ada identify Yshwa, not as the son of a greater God, as Christians and the Bible suggests, but as a fellow godling who was gifted a human birth and death. Today, many Nigerians follow Christian and Muslim practices, so the clash of religion and mythology is interesting because it reiterates the forgotten folklore of the Igbo tribe.
The chapters retelling Ada’s sexual exploration, her loss of innocence, are the most difficult to read. Although Asụghara emerges at a critical time in Ada’s life, her form of protection and pleasure is immediately reckless and unfiltered, filled with brutal sentiments and language. Of course, I understand that I am not supposed to love the godling unconditionally. Her negative influence on Ada creates a challenging narrative, but as I persevere, Asụghara’s brutality diminishes; she begins to emerge as separate from the “we” when Ada needs and wants her strength.
Her godlings notice the seers in her life: “Those humans recognized us easily; it was as if they could smell us under the [sic] Ada’s skin or feel us in the air that heaved around her” (p. 88). They love her friend Malena because she smelled like them and godlings lived within her too; they love a Yoruba priest she visits in Umuahia, Nigeria, given the name Leshi, who radiated power. The godlings within her admire them because they exude power and knowledge, just like they do. But Ada settles her heart and mind on troubled humans and does not seek more intimate relationships with people like her, people with otherworldly experiences. Asụghara is aware of this problem and declares: “We should have saved her for a god” (p. 92). Freshwater is non-linear, cryptic, poetic, reflective, rhythmic. The elaborate descriptions of the godlings spiritual and psychological experiences prompt a peculiar admiration and perplexity, which justifies re-reading and decoding. But today, I close Freshwater, aware of my laboured breathing, content and awaiting Emezi’s next book.
About the Author – C.M. Nwanna
C.M. Nwanna is an upcoming graduate from the University of Toronto, who studied Digital Enterprise Management, Professional Writing, and Communication. She aims to share her stories, experiences, and self-reflection through various mediums.
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