Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

by Akwaeke Emezi
Grove Press 2018 (US)

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The bold premise of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel is that it is primarily narrated not by Ada - the girl whose coming-of-age tale is at this novel’s centre - but from the perspective of multiple deities and cosmic forces that inhabit her. Ada, the daughter of Saul, a Nigerian Catholic doctor, and Saachi, a Malaysian nurse, is an ogbanje, a child spirit destined to be born and die multiple times and a child of Ala, an Igbo deity. As such, she doesn’t exist as a singular individual, but as a plurality of selves encased within one being.

Ada’s life is plotted out from birth to young adulthood, rendered by the many spirits who reside inside her. The narrative alternates between a collective “we” and singular spirits who appear over the course of her life, especially Asughara who first materializes around the time of Ada’s puberty. These entities plot and scheme from within her, influence her actions, strategize to protect her and act as bemused witnesses to Ada’s human concerns. This radical choice in perspective demands that the reader, rather than interpreting them as the imaginary manifestations of a troubled girl, accepts their presence as a reality. In doing so, this courageous and inventive novel challenges Western assumptions about identity.

Being ensconced in the perspectives of these spirits creates a curious distance from the central character. This is exacerbated by frequent references to the main character not simply as “Ada” but “The Ada”; clearly, the spirits see Ada as a mere physical vessel who will only temporarily house them before they move on. Consequently, Ada is both central and secondary within the story, or as she states herself: “In many ways, I am not even real. I am not even here.”

Ada experiences many issues which other novels might expand upon in great detail such as self-harm, sexual abuse, an eating disorder, suicidal tendencies, bisexuality and being transgendered. However, rather than view these as conditions which need counselling or treatment, the narrative lists them as effects that arise out of Ada being inhabited by multiple spirits. This may frustrate readers who aren’t accustomed with considering issues in this way or having them treated so glancingly.

Ada’s development is centered more on her being able to accept and coexist with these entities rather than seeking to suppress, ignore or dismiss them. The novel traces how she names these spirits which inhabit her and adopts different identity labels which best suit her because:

“When you name something, it comes into existence-did you know that? There is strength there, bone-white power injected in a rush, like a trembling drug.”

It’s refreshing how Emezi approaches a story of fractured national and racial identity quite differently from recent books that deal with similar themes. Whereas novels like We Need New Names by Noviolet Byawayo or Adiche’s Americanah focus on the struggle of young women caught between two cultures, Emezi’s book charts the way in which Ada comes to trust her inner reality rather than adjusting to what the external world wants to impose upon her.

The supernatural state of being portrayed in Freshwater might be classified as an offspring of magical realism if this were not a term that has become so politically complicated and fraught. In his novel Augustown, Kei Miller wrote powerfully about the way this genre has become linked to Western views about supernatural stories that come from cultures deemed by some to be ‘primitive’. Emezi is forthright and unambiguous about the way she posits Ada’s story. It’s not a question of believing in the supernatural parts of her story, but in respecting the integrity of someone who comes from another culture.

Less convincing is that fact that the novel doesn’t deal with morally complicated aspects of the Nigerian culture that Ada eventually identifies and reconnects with. Given the fact that Nigeria actively legislates against LGBT rights and by the end Ada identifies as transgendered, it feels troublesome that discussions of potential clashes don’t ever arise. Nor does Emezi address how female circumcision was also used to correct individuals who were thought to be ogbanje. Certainly, these laws and practices don’t encompass the beliefs of the entire country, and Igbo culture has a distinct tradition of same-sex couples. But nevertheless, it feels like the belief systems that Ada adopts after returning to Nigeria are somewhat idealized without allowing any room to question certain practices.

One can also take issue with the way Ada’s brief forays with same sex desire are expressed solely through the creation of another entity that inhabits her and whom she names Saint Vincent. When Ada tries to kiss a girl, it is not with her own lips, but it is the male spirit who ‘uses’ her lips. That same-sex desire can only be realized through the mediation of gendered identities feels oddly regressive for a novel that in many other ways respects the integrity of the individual.  

But despite these reservations, the impassioned point of view and inventive writing in Freshwater is something worth celebrating.

Eric Karl Anderson is an author and blogger, living in the UK. His novel Enough won the Pearl Street Publishing First Novel Award and his writing has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He has been a judge for the British Book Awards, the Green Carnation Prize and the Lambda Literary Awards. He created the book blog LonesomeReader in 2013 and is a contributing editor for Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies. For more information: