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Freshwater is an electric debut novel from a major new talent

Akwaeke Emezi’s first book is steeped in Igbo cosmology.

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi Grove Press
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Reading Freshwater, the extraordinary debut novel from Akwaeke Emezi, feels like watching the beginning of something big: The book is so shivery, so electric, that the first coherent thought you can put together as you read is that you’re watching a major new talent beginning to carve out a space for herself.

Steeped in Igbo cosmology, Freshwater tells the story of Ada, a young girl who is ogbanje: She houses a spirit in her body, and she was born only to torture her mother by dying. But Ada does not die. She grows up and goes away to college in the US, and over time the ogbanje in her mind — an incoherent cloud of malevolent glee that refers to itself as we and narrates much of the novel — becomes stronger and stronger. It drives Ada to act out against those around her, to scream in uncontrollable rages, to cut herself: “First duty, feed your gods,” it instructs her. “If they live (like we do) inside your body, find a way, get creative, show them the red of your faith, of your flesh; quiet the voices with the lullaby of the altar. It’s not as if you can escape us — where would you run to?”

Eventually, after Ada is sexually assaulted by her boyfriend, parts of the ogbanje split off into their own personalities. Ada names the dominant one Asụghara. She is female and feeds off sex and rage, and she considers Ada “mine: mine to move and take and save.” The other personality is male, and “gentle and soft as a ghost.” Ada names him St. Vincent and only rarely takes him out walking.

Emezi has written at the Cut about her gender dysphoria and how she experiences herself as ogbanje. Her surgeries — breast reduction and a hysterectomy — are, she writes, “a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ogbanje; a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” For Ada, the ogbanje manifest not only as gender dysphoria — although Ada, too, gets a breast reduction at the ogbanje’s insistence — but as suicidal ideation. Ogbanje are born to die, and Asụghara in particular wants Ada to die with her.

But Freshwater, ultimately, is not a book about giving in to one’s demons, but about living with them. It’s about finding a home within liminal spaces — between genders, between life and death, between god and human — and finding a way to play within them.

And Emezi’s voice is enormously playful, playing with the rhythms of sentences and the conflicting and contrasting voices in Ada’s head. Most striking of all is the “we” voice of the ogbanje, which skitters frenetically across the page, all id and godlike grandeur: It’s just alien enough to sound like a foreign presence in a human being’s head, but human enough that its resonances linger.

Beyond all her verbal pyrotechnics, Emezi’s ability to literalize the experience of a fragmented identity is astonishing: It’s affecting without venturing into pathos, and hopeful without becoming saccharine. And she’s just getting started. One of the most exciting things about this book is imagining what Emezi will bring us next.

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