The Nonbinary Author Centering African Narratives Erased by Colonialism

In her hotly anticipated debut "Freshwater," author Akwaeke Emezi uses the ogbanje—an Igbo spirit—to explore metaphysical identity and resist the binary split between spirit and body.
February 21, 2018, 3:32pm
Photo of Akwaeke Emezi by Elizabeth Wirija.

An ogbanje is an Igbo spirit of which there is no direct English translation. Born into a human body, it arrives from another world and floats through human mothers' wombs before their fleshy babies come out. Ogbanje come and go; they are here and yet they are not. In her debut novel Freshwater, one of the most hyped books of the season with good reason, Igbo and Tamil writer Akwaeke Emezi puts ogbanje front and center.

Freshwater is about a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who is successfully prayed into existence by her father, and develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” She is human, but she is also not. Emezi writes: “When the transition is made from spirit to flesh, the gates are meant to be closed. It’s a kindness. It would be cruel not to.” But in Ada’s case, for some reason—“perhaps the gods forgot; they can be absentminded like that”—the gates are left open.

The novel is narrated by a chorus of voices, at alternating times between funny, cruel, and magnanimous; always raw and always perceptive. It starts with a plural tense, as two ogbanje take the narrative reins, and they later pass them on to other spirits or selves who inhabit Ada’s body, and occasionally to Ada’s own voice, or what is left of it, if “Ada” even exists. One of her selves, Asughara, wakes during a traumatic sexual event Ada has in college, and she experiments with Ada's body as she gets more and more power and agency over it—making her starve herself, or carelessly using people for sex, trying out the tastes of hedonism and revenge.

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“You can’t really blame me—it was my first time having a body," Asughara says. "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 a cloud."

It’s appropriate that Emezi’s various internet bios say she “lives in liminal spaces.” In the novel, she plays masterfully with in-between states, with the multitudes that we all contain—in Ada’s case, quite literally. The myriad narrations charge forward and push the reader forward like a snake swimming down a stream. Freshwater starts in south Nigeria, but most of the story is set in America, where Ada moves for college and comes of age.

Emezi wrote the book during her MFA, and when she met Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at a creative writing workshop, the Nigerian author told her: “Ah, so you’re an ogbanje.” Indeed, Freshwater is “the process of figuring out what I was,” Emezi tells me over the phone. She is also a video artist, and Freshwater is framed as part of a wider project called The Unblinding, “depicting an ogbanje's progression from unawareness to clarity around its nature”—the first part of which was a series of self-portraits, and the second part is the novel.

She has recently written, on an essay for the Cut, about being a nonbinary transgender person, and how her breast reduction and hysterectomy were “a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ogbanje; a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” (Emezi uses pronouns they or she.) She writes that the possibility that she was an ogbanje occurred to her around the same time she realized she was trans, “but it took me a while to collide the two worlds.”

The book also touches on gender identity directly. One of the selves within Ada is Saint Vincent, whose appearance is a gentle surprise to the main ogbanje narrators: “He was strange; we could never quite place him, where his parts came from. (…) He belonged nowhere, except maybe to the Ada”. He represents Ada’s masculine self, one that perhaps “had been there all along and we just never noticed, we were so young,” they say.” Ada likes being seen as a boy: “She felt like it fit, or at least the misfit of it, the wrongness was right,” until her period comes and “the hormones redid her body, remaking it without consent from us or the Ada [sic].”

With the book, Emezi re-centers African narratives erased or silenced by colonization. "Thanks to being colonized, most aspects of Igbo tradition aren’t really accessible or, if they are around, they’re framed as evil. So when that happens is people aren’t going to talk about it, teach their kids about it, and that aspect of reality dies off slowly. So I didn’t have that much access to [Igbo stories] growing up. I had to do a lot of research to fill those gaps in my knowledge."

There is no Western equivalent for ogbanje, a concept perhaps was already familiar to many readers thanks to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Emezi says: “It resists a binary. There’s a binary of ‘spirit and human,’ and usually we try to separate the two, or put it together in a way that makes sense to us. But the Igbo word 'ogbanje' does not have that separation, it embodies the paradox of being spirit and human at the same time.”

For her, the language of the book is less about gender identity and more about metaphysical identity and conveying “the sense of what is it to actually be in a body, what is it to have that dissonance with a body, when you don’t identify as and don’t feel human, the paradox of being a non-human entity occupying human flesh.”

Emezi gets asked all the time why she didn’t write a straight-up memoir but, of course, one of the beauties of fiction is the flexibility it allows. “Everyone in my family is a storyteller. There are times where you adjust elements of a story, because you want to make the feel of it more accurate. A story can be true without necessarily sticking straight to the facts.”