Finding Self: Of Gods, Contestation and Containment Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater

Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, is a macabre and jarring tale of contestation and containment. Grounded in Igbo cosmology, the novel is narrated by the gods and spirit beings that inhabit an Ogbanje child and daughter of Ala, the Earth goddess. Freshwater is a dark story about recognizing and coming to terms with the many fragments of our being, our multiple personalities (and the often-destructive impulses of these personalities); as well as the diverse disembodied spirits that inhabit the mind and drive both the conventional and unconventional actions that invariably lead us to becoming the being we are destined to be.

Freshwater, therefore, operates within the spirit realm where gods, goddesses and spirits alike contest not only for the soul of the Ada, the novel’s central human, but also for her body. Theirs is a contest that begins with the name to be given to Ada at birth. Although her second name given during her Christian baptism satisfies church protocol by translating to ‘God answered’, it is her first name, Akwaeke, which translates into the python’s egg; a most rare, treasured and precious item that resonates and invokes the stamp of the ancient gods on the child as theirs. Her life, consequently, is marked for continuous and concurrent dialogue between this world and the other world.

From this perspective, Freshwater is not simply the story of the Ada, but, more so, that of the spirit beings that reside in the human form of the Ada. The Ada being the Ogbanje child born to die and return over and over again, unless her iyi-uwa (the covenant stone binding her to her ndi otu, her ‘brothers and sisters’ in the spirit realm) is severed. Contrary to established Ogbanje protocol, which requires death before puberty, the Ada thrives and the spirit beings clinging to her vagina, womb, shoulder blades and mind are trapped, with an increasing propensity for mischief and a longing for home. They are unable to return as long as their host lives and unwilling (suicide is against the ethics of their patron goddess, Ala) and unable (despite an Asụghara-induced suicide attempt by the Ada) to kill her to channel themselves home, as death is their only key to the gate back home. These vagrant and volatile spirits, thrust into uncharted territory without an operational manual, can only be expected to be disruptive of all norms, ethics and boundaries.

Yet, Freshwater is also the story of the Ada, carrier of a pantheon of Igbo gods, goddesses and spirits in a contemporary dispensation. Emezi describes it as a tale of ‘disruption of identity, self-damaging impulsivity, emotional instability and mood swings, self-mutilating behaviour and recurrent suicidal behaviour’; all these being modern psychological terms that seek to contain and explain the Ada’s torturous reality in a world with little tolerance for those with one foot on either side.

As a story of the other world and otherness, Freshwater is replete with mythical contestations for territorial delineations and power sharing, which ultimately determine the Ada’s gender profiling and sexual preferences. There is the loud, lewd, cheating, brash and abrasive Asụghara; the reticent Saint Vincent whose preference for girls pushes the female host to breast reduction after initially contemplating cosmetic mastectomy. Also, there are the slithering Shadow and Smoke of indeterminate gender, who seem to be mere observers. Finally, there is the Christ, whom the Ada loves, worships and elevates to her moral compass but who never really comes through for her. It is also a puzzling testament of the limitations of her supposed guardian spirits as they fail to protect or defend her from sexual abuse and rape. Instead, they watch as these violations unfold; detached, uninvolved.

Readers familiar with the mythical malevolence of Ala know she strikes those that transgress her ethics with the ferocity of her totem, the python. They are, therefore, bound to wonder how Sorenis left to roam freely with no retribution—no matter how surreal the sexual encounters were—after violating the daughter of Ala. Freshwater, thus, explores the power and the limitations of these gods, goddesses and inhabitants of the spirit realm. In this, Emezi also shows the conflicts and contradictions that come to play in the novel. Especially as the Ada, the host, negotiates these limitations and challenges to embrace the self by a homecoming to the peaceful waters of her totem goddess.

The unsettling embodiment and blurred identity nexus of the Ada distinguishes Freshwater as a novel characterized by dizzying fluidity. Emezi’s is a narrative within grasp yet slithery, defying conventional labels as their narrators twist and turn, each spirit seeking its place in the sun. Is the Ada the sum total of the beings that inhabit her body or separate from them? If the spirits indwell, control, manipulate and overwhelm their host, whose story is it? Would it be fair to judge the human host by the hunger and unwholesome appetite of her inner demons?

Perhaps most of all, Freshwater is about containment—metaphorically represented by gates. Ordinarily, gates indicate access and exclusion, regulating who receives access or exclusion on the basis of certain protocol and conventions governed by gatekeepers. Gates also signal the containment of the valued guests who have been screened and have indicated their willingness to play by the rules. The conflict that arises when a gatekeeper mindlessly leaves a gate open to vagrants is the kernel that the Ada wrestles with as she seeks to come to terms with the spirit beings within who rage against conformity and strain against containment. Hence, Emezi uses gates as a metaphor for the uncharted, unconventional and non-conforming moments of both entrance and exit.

Emezi’s Freshwater is not a light-hearted read as the sombre turbulence of their literary world is consistent through the novel. Rather, the trauma of the tormented leaps out and grips the reader; unrelenting as the human vessel wrestles to make meaning and find balance as the swift and harsh currents pull. This novel is not for the fainthearted—readers may need to brace themselves for a vortex of troubling encounters but will be rewarded with rich content and context for seminal discussions and academic inquiry, particularly for cultural studies on ancient belief systems and traditional practices. Freshwater will undoubtedly stir discourse for a long time

Akwaeke Emezi
229 pp. Grove Press, 2018.
New York.

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