Over the last decade, Nigerian writers have been at the forefront of an effort to rewrite the rules of the novel as a form. In her totemic Americanah (2013), for example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eschewed the politesse of the bourgeois voice, displacing and then transplanting her readers’ expectations and sympathies. In The Fisherman (2015), but most especially in his more recent An Orchestra of Minorities (2019) (a retelling of The Odyssey), Chigozie Obioma has striated the form’s allegorical and thematic sensibilities with layers of Igbo fable and morality. And in Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi takes on perhaps the most ambitious project of any of these: replacing entirely the underpinning logics and belief systems of the novel—its originating assumptions, or baseline preconceptions—with fresh cosmologies.
That Emezi opts to attempt this at all is impressive enough; that they choose to do so within a semi-autobiographical frame that also addresses gender, abuse, and mental health is nothing short of fearless. The novel helps itself along by adopting the patterns of the bildungsroman: this is a coming-of-age novel, a story about how a person finds themselves. It begins with the birth of a baby girl, and follows that individual well into adulthood. This comfortable chronology is the only concession the novel makes, however, to conventionality. Indeed, though it features spirits and other dimensions, it steadfastly refuses even to be seen as speculative fiction (about which I shall say more later, given that this is, after all, Strange Horizons): unlike SF&F, Freshwater is not conscious of its artificiality; it instead emphasises that its use of the ọgbanje of Igbo spirituality makes sense not as an analogy for or extrapolation of Western interiority, but instead as a simple representation of the base reality of Odinani belief.
“I wanted readers to be sure that it was not magical realism or speculative fiction,” Emezi insisted about their novel in an interview last year with The Guardian. “It’s what actually happened!” Like Adichie and Obioma, too, Emezi is not recreating the novel for fun, as a parlour game or for the benefit of jaded Western readers. Rather, they are retooling it to achieve new things—and to do so on behalf of other kinds of reader. Freshwater is about a person undergoing a range of gender experiences, but doing so within specific cultural and geographic contexts; the novel exists not just to express both the experience and the contexts as a unity, but to emphasise that unity, and to make the case for their continuities. Ten years ago, Leo Igwe argued at Black Agenda Report that, “Black homophobes often invoke ‘African’ culture to buttress their arguments against gay rights”; part of Freshwater’s project is to revivify the novel so that it may rebuke such ahistorical misreadings of at least Igbo culture (in which, as Igwe points out, same-sex marriage has for starters long been sanctioned, with one of the participants taking on the gendered role usually ascribed to the opposite sex). It is a novel of both pitch and moment.
The vitality of the novel is thus unusually rich—it nourishes on several levels. This is fitting for a novel so polyphonous: though Ada is its protagonist, its events are rarely imparted in her voice. Instead, the first chapter begins with the subheading We: “The first time our mother came for us, we screamed” (p. 1). These are spirits being torn from their world, encased and imprisoned in a human body, as ọgbanje are fated to be. Usually, this is a straightforward enough process: as the temporary opening that links the spirit plane with our own closes, only one, as it were, voicing of the ọgbanje remains in the unwitting host—and, in its separation from its own world, it fuses with the human identity. The two entities then proceed symbiotically through their life together (and, in the traditional form of the mythos, the host will die young—and the ọgbanje soon return to take another child from their parents in a similarly untimely fashion). In Ada’s case, however, something goes wrong:
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 should have been anchored in her by then, asleep inside her membranes and synched with her mind. That would have been the safest way. But since the gates were open, not closed against remembrance, we became confused. 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)
This ontological snafu has significant and long-term consequences: the self-aware polyphony remains within Ada, viewing her as if from a distance but also intimately involved in her every move. The relationship becomes almost antagonistic: the spirits’ teeming voices become so distracting that Ada is by her early teen years self-harming in order to keep them quiet, “to stop us from driving her mad” (p. 40). As she proceeds into early adulthood, however, Ada is placed under increasing pressure—and, immediately following her being raped by a fellow student at the US university to which she has travelled alone, the ọgbanje are cowed into silence by one of their own, Asụghara. This particular voicing of the spirit gestalt revels in the physicality that the polyphony from which she has emerged finds so limiting:
Humans don’t remember the time before they had bodies, so they take things for granted, but I didn’t. I remembered not being myself, just being a piece of cloud. I was careless with her body, sha, not thinking about the responsibilities of the flesh. (p. 75)
Even as Asụghara pilots Ada from one assignation to the next—“Six months before, Ada would never have been in Soren’s bed [… she] would still be the sweet and good girl [… b]ut I was here now and I was the world, lying in ugly entrails” (p. 80)—another voicing, Saint Vincent, sits, quiet and under-heeded, at the back of Ada’s consciousness. “Saint Vincent preferred to move inside Ada’s dreams,” the polyphonic narrative voice tells us, “when she was floating in our realm, untethered and malleable” (p. 122). Saint Vincent identifies as male, and as a young girl Ada had often been misgendered by strangers: “Ada had liked being seen as a boy. She felt like it fit, or at least the misfit of it fit, the wrongness was right” (p. 123). He also comes increasingly to take the front, but is never as proactive as Asụghara, less insistent upon action, less destructive of the alternatives to him. “You’re not a fighter, Ada,” Asụghara snarls at her host, even as Saint Vincent is occasionally permitted to take Ada to queer bars and dress her differently. “All these men just want to fuck you, and it’s my job to be there” (p. 143). This self-harming dogmatism comes to be seen as counter-productive by the collective ọgbanje consciousness within Ada, but despite their best efforts they fail to dislodge Asụghara.
Amid all this, Ada is not passive or unaware of the cosmos within her. Indeed, she begins to feel erased by the strength of its disputatious clamour. “In many ways,” she concludes, “I am not even real. I am not even here” (p. 94). As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clearer that the ọgbanje narrators are not omniscient: Ada is attending therapy sessions that at first remain invisible to them. Asụghara is the first to notice:
Ada wanted a reason, a better explanation. We were not enough. We were too strange. She had been raised by humans, medical ones at that. So […] she read lists of diagnostic criteria, things like disruption of identity, self-damaging impulsivity, emotional instability and mood swings, self-mutilating behaviour and recurrent suicidal behaviour. I could have told her it was all me, even that last one. (p. 140)
This, of course, is where the novel’s relationship with SF&F becomes most tense. It rejects science as an explanatory framework, and yet it also experiences as alien fantasy’s egress from the world. Instead, it treats as material fact the existence and efficacy of ọgbanje within and throughout the quotidian world. This is the manner in which the novel rejects a straight SFnal reading, and Emezi is, as we have seen, very keen that their readers do not bracket or marginalise Freshwater by dismissing it as mere magic realism. The responsible reviewer must take heed of this, and in truth I’m not convinced an SFnal reading is the most useful framing that a critic can place upon this novel. But at the same time it’s worth noting that Emezi’s work is not so different to, for example, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2006), which accepts as read vampirism as a real—not a mystical or supernatural—state of being, or Darryl Gregory’s Pandemonium (2008), in which we read the following: “Demons weren't rational. [...] They weren't people, they were archetypes—two-dimensional characters acting out a familiar ever-repeating script. Their goals were always the same, their methods unpredictable” (Pandemonium, p. 129).
It’s not that either Butler or Gregory weren’t writing SF; it’s that the genre’s effects of estrangement and emergence can be modally detached from its traditional trappings of invention or analogy. Freshwater’s ọgbanje are not wood elves or space bats; but they are literary depictions, and in this way Emezi has been forced to draw on a literary toolkit. In imagining their way out of restrictive contemporary mores to consider alternative understandings of a phenomenon, Emezi has inevitably adopted many of the techniques of the SF fabulist. (One might even suspect they know this—thus the fierce refusal to be subsequently pigeon-holed by the choice.)
Ada’s experiences are real, and viscerally so; but they are also supernatural, beyond the circadian. Her attempt to access Western medical science, for example, is frustrated by her spirits, whose goal at first remains to return to their own world (that is, for Ada to die). “It’s not easy to persuade a human to end her life,” Asụghara complains—“they’re very attached to it, even if it makes them miserable” (p. 150). We later learn, though, that Ada is also consulting therapists about making surgical alterations to her body—a mastectomy and a hysterectomy—that will help her, but also and inevitably the ọgbanje, better live and identify with it (“fertility was a pure and clear abomination to us” [p. 187]); even as the sprits take a different approach to accommodating themselves to physicality, however, Asụghara at least remains blind to this element of Ada’s journey. It is Saint Vincent, of course, who most understands.
None of this internal discourse is permitted to adhere to Western notions of mental health. Ada’s exploration of sex, gender, and her relationship to both instead continually revolves around Igbo cosmology. This is brought into clearest relief in her incessant struggles with Yshwa, another ọgbanje voicing who is an obvious cognate with Christ. Ada was brought up in the religion of the coloniser, and cannot understand why her prayers to that god are not answered with forgiveness or relief. “Because he’s a useless asshole,” Asụghara sneers (p. 170). But in reality it is, of course, because Yshwa is only one spirit amongst many, only one of the many authorities to whom Ada might appeal, from whom she may receive wisdom. In fact, so powerful is his empathy—so radically different is it to Asụghara’s—that the collective voice also craves to give way to him. “We tried to teach ourself to see humans as he did, with the same grace, to follow his example,” they say (p. 196); but Asụghara’s approach proves too potent even for Yshwa: “There was too much safety in sin, too much sweetness to walk away from” (p. 199).
This cosmological, this theological, battle is at the very centre of the novel, and of Ada’s existence: “I did not come from a human lineage and I will not leave it behind. I have no ancestors,” she intones towards the novel’s end, when she feels more wholly fused with her ọgbanje than ever before (p. 225). It is also an intensely involving and affirming expression of Emezi’s experience—“It’s an autobiographical novel—a breath away from being a memoir” they told the Guardian—and it is in this way, and not just in its luminous prose, a beautiful artefact. The ọgbanje put the importance of this sort of self-expression, this literary self-actualisation, appositely: “Understand this if you understand nothing: it is a powerful thing to be seen” (p. 213). This is a particular story of a particular individual (Ada or Emezi, Ada and Emezi), and that is important in a critical fashion that moves beyond other considerations. But it is also a work of fiction that treats its foundational ontologies—what in another work, one that identified more readily with speculative fiction, we might call its worldbuilding—as inviolable. What does this mean, then, for the novel as an artistic statement on gender? How does its insistence upon Igbo understandings export outwards? Should it? It is not Ada’s choice to be what she is—it is the ọgbanje who searched “for doctors to alter the Ada, to carve our body into something that we could truly call a home” (p. 188)—and that might to some feel like a narrative that is not entirely helpful beyond its own bounds.
Its own bounds, however, are the defining lines of Freshwater’s existence. It’s significant that Ada’s healing begins when she returns to Nigeria: “some things must happen on home soil if they are to happen at all” (p. 211). In “Burial,” the story that Emezi wrote at the 2015 Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop that they cite in their Acknowledgements as the place they completed the first draft of Freshwater, the protagonist—a young Nigerian girl whose father has died unexpectedly—is abused by her uncle visiting from London, and her mixed race leaves her alienated not just now from her body but also her community (“My country was the patch of grass in the front of my compound”). In this way, globalisation is experienced as trauma, the diaspora as a breach; Freshwater is an attempt to tell not a universal story but a specific one, to provide not a global explanation but a precise balm. “You have to know your place on this earth,” Ada tells us (p. 225).
The novel takes its name from the creation myth of its cosmos. The ọgbanje explain:
All water is connected. All freshwater comes out of the mouth of a python. […] Before a christ-induced amnesia struck the humans, it was well known that the python was sacred, beyond reptile. It is the source of the stream, the flesh form of the god Ala, who is the earth herself, the judge and mother, the giver of law. [… T]he egg of a python is the child of Ala, and the child of Ala is not, and can never be, intended for your hands. (p. 9)
Very well, then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. If, in its exploration of one such miraculous egg, Freshwater dwells almost deterministically on trauma, it does so in the course of depicting the near-irresolvable pressures at play in the experience of a single Nigerian trans person. To do so, it remakes the form of the novel and reforges the techniques of speculative fiction. It is a searing achievement, in all its uncomfortable interstices.
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