Arts, Culture and Sport
Non-binary transgender author Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel explores multiplicity
“Freshwater”, the debut novel of non-binary Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi, is a book that tackles multiplicity in an autobiographical account of the author’s reality and identity. “I am a village full of faces and a compound full of bones, translucent thousands.”
Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist who is pushing the boundaries and thresholds of identity and gender expression. Their (the chosen pronouns of the author are they/their) debut autobiographical novel Freshwater is the story of Ada, who has always been “unusual”.
As an infant in southern Nigeria, she is a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents successfully prayed her into existence, but something must have gone awry, as the young Ada becomes a troubled child, prone to violent fits of anger and grief. But Ada turns out to be more than just volatile. Born “with one foot on the other side”, she begins to develop separate selves. When Ada travels to America for college, a traumatic event crystallises the selves into something more powerful. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these alters—now protective, now hedonistic—move into control, Ada’s life spins out in a dangerous direction.
This story of a woman with fractured selves competing within her is rooted in Emezi’s own experiences. When asked by The Guardian newspaper if Freshwater is indeed biographical, they answered, “It’s an autobiographical novel – a breath away from being a memoir. There are chapters in there that are my journal entries which I copied and pasted.”
“Second, I wanted to make clear that it was autobiography, otherwise it would be considered fantastical. I wanted readers to be sure that it was not magical realism or speculative fiction. It’s what actually happened! I’m using fiction as a filter for it,” they added.
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Identity and gender
Emezi came out as a non-binary transgender person, i.e. not a man in a woman’s body but just not a woman – a realisation they came to five years ago. They have since undergone surgeries to change themselves physically, like removing their uterus and reducing their breasts.
As in the book, they use Igbo cosmology to explain their identity. They describe themselves as an “ogbanje”, telling the online literary magazine Brittle Paper, “Ogbanje are intruders in this cycle (lineage); unwelcome deviations. They do not come from the lineage; they come from nowhere. As such, it’s important for an ogbanje never to reproduce: If it did, it would contribute to the lineage and, when it died, its spirit would join those of the humans, participating in their reincarnation loop.”
About this brave reality, they told Brittle Paper, “I exist separate from the inaccurate concept of gender as a binary; without the stricture of those categories. I don’t even have to think about my gender. Alone, there’s just me, and I see myself clearly.”
Audience and inspiration
Aside from the visceral storytelling that readers can find in the book, the question that has been asked in several interviews is, who is the book for? Emezi told the literary magazine Granta that they not only had a particular audience in mind but also wanted them to share in the experiences through the book:
“I wrote the book for people like me, who have been inhabiting realities that aren’t considered valid unless they’re pathologised in Western or religious terms as mental illness or demonic possession.
“I wrote the book for people like me, who have been inhabiting realities that aren’t considered valid.” – Akwaeke Emezi
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“I wanted those readers to feel less alone, to know that there are other people living in worlds like these, non-mainstream worlds, and that our worlds are valid. I hoped it would help with the terrible isolation and depression that often comes from having a reality you can’t share with anyone else.”
“I hoped Freshwater would help with the terrible isolation and depression that often comes from having a reality you can’t share with anyone else.” – Akwaeke Emezi
Speaking on authors that have inspired them, they told Granta that Helen Oyeyemi was an influence for “making odd worlds and sharing them, which helped me feel like I could as well. Fran Ross, for challenging me to shatter form. I haven’t done that as well as I know I could – not yet.”
Freshwater is currently a finalist for the 2019 Lambda Literary Award and the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award. It was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. The novel is also on the longlists for the Carnegie Medal of Excellence, the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize, the Aspen Words Literary Prize and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. In the latter case, this will be the first time in the 27-year history of the prize that a non-binary trans author has been nominated.