Freshwater (Emezi)

Akwaeke Emezi, 2018
240 pp.

Ada 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 crystallizes 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 spirals in a dangerous direction.

Written with stylistic brilliance and based in the author’s realities, this raw and extraordinary debut explores the metaphysics of identity and being, plunging the reader into the mysteries of self.

Unsettling, heart-wrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice. (From the publishers.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 6, 1987
Raised—Aba, Nigeria
Education—M.P.A., New York University
Awards—Commonwealth Short Story Prize-Africa
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York City

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and artist based in liminal spaces. Born and raised in Nigeria, she received her MPA from New York University and was awarded a 2015 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. She won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Her work has been published in various literary magazines, including Granta. Freshwater (2018) is her debut novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Remarkable and daring.… Poetic and disturbing.… Rooting Ada’s story in Igbo cosmology forces us to further question our paradigm for what causes mental illness and how it manifests. It causes us to question science and reason.
Tariro Mzezewa - New York Times

A witchy, electrifying story of danger and compulsion … Freshwater recounts the "litany of madness" suffered by Ada in a serpentine prose that proceeds by oblique, hypnotizing movements before it sinks its fangs into you.… As striking and mysterious as the ways of the gods who narrate it.… The latest standout in this exciting boom in the Nigerian novel.
Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal

The novel is based in many of the realities of the writer’s life, but the prose is infused with imaginative lyricism and tone.… The journey undertaken in the novel is swirling and vivid, vicious and painful, and rendered by Emezi in [sharp and glittering] shards.… Emezi’s lyrical writing, her alliterative and symmetrical prose, explores the deep questions of otherness, of a single heart and soul hovering between, the gates open, fighting for peace.
Susan Straight - Los Angeles Times

Freshwater is sheer perfection: sexy, sensual, spiritual, wise. One of the most dazzling debuts I’ve ever read.
Taiye Selasi - Guardian (UK)

Akwaeke Emezi is a name you will want to remember, because surely it is one you will be hearing again and again.… A stunning and disorienting story about a broken woman trying to overcome the pain of her human life while straddling "the other side,".… Freshwater is unlike any novel I have ever read. Its shape-shifting perspective is radical and innovative, twisting the narrative voices like the bones of a python.… Emezi has not only made a rich contribution to Igbo mythology, she has crafted a novel so unique and fresh, it feels as if the medium has been reinvented.
Safa Jinje - Toronto Star

Akwaeke Emezi’s bewitching and heart-rending Freshwater is a coming-of-age novel like no other.… For anyone who has experienced life as a misfit or outcast, this is a resonant rendition.… For all its sheer invention, Freshwater feels more like an interpretive journey through uncharted territory with an experienced guide. Potent and moving, knowing and strange, this is a powerful and irresistibly unsettling debut.
David Wright - Seattle Times

A startling debut novel explores the freedom of being multiple.… Igbo spirituality, Emezi radically suggests, has as much to offer as any [Western] schemas when it comes to decrypting human folly or transcendence.… The book would have made grim sense through a mental-health lens; instead, it is an indigenous fairy tale.… The book becomes a study in dysphoria—not precisely the distress of being misgendered but the more nebulous pain of being imprisoned in a physical form, of losing your wraith-like ability to evade categorization.… There is something self-defeating about trying to trace a self that is defined by indefinability; one achievement of Emezi’s book is to make that paradox feel generously fertile.
Katy Waldman - New Yorker

Akwaeke Emezi parts the seas of the self in her engrossing debut novel, Freshwater.
Sloane Crosley - Vanity Fair

Part magical realism, part meditation on mental illness.… Ada’s struggle provides a thought-provoking and visceral exploration of life with an altered state of mind.
Harper’s Bazaar

Gods torment the young woman they inhabit in Emezi’s enthralling, metaphysical debut novel.… Though some readers may find the correlation between mental illness and the ogbanje limiting.… Emezi’s talent is undeniable …an impressive debut.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Madness is often described in terms of different selves, but Emezi does something absorbingly original … showing that [gods] creep into human beings at birth.… [R]ichly conceived yet accessible to all. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

[M]ind-blowing.… Emezi weaves traditional Igbo myth that turns the well-worn narrative of mental illness on its head, and in doing so she has ensured a place on the literary-fiction landscape as a writer to watch.… A must-read.

Akwaeke Emezi’s standout first novel, Freshwater, is a riveting and peculiar variation on coming of age.…. The poetics of Emezi’s prose enhance the mythology she evokes. As enchanting as it is unsettling, Freshwater tickles all six senses. The chorus of voices narrating Ada’s life achieves a remarkable balance between cruel machinations of cavalier deities and deep empathy for the distressed vessel they inhabit.
Shelf Awareness

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for FRESHWATER … then take off on your own:

1. Discuss/describe the various personalities that the ogbanje unleashes inside Ada. Clearly, Asughara is the most formidable—what about the others?

2. How submissive, or passive, is Ada to the commands of the spirits? To what degree does she resist? Can Ada even claim to have a personality of her own?

3. In the author's world, the "insanities" were born with you "tucked behind your liver." Why might Emezi have portrayed mental illness as the result of magical spirits inhabiting us rather than  psychological or neurological disorders? Is her imaginative depiction troubling to you in that it negates the thousands of years it took science to make progress in understanding mental illness? Or do you find her personification enlightening, seeing it as an "otherness" that, at times, many of us feel overtakes the body and sabotages our lives?

4. Follow-up to Question 3: How much do we in the Western world understand mental illness, medically and scientifically?

5. In one of her narrations, Ada says, "I am a village full of faces and a compound full of bones, translucent thousands." What do you think: are our personalities fixed for all time, indivisible and unchanging for life? Or are we sometimes multiple people depending on circumstance? (Or does that way lie madness?)

7. How do the spirits respond when Ada's parents take her to Catholic Mass? What do they mean when they say…

We knew him….Yshwa too was born with spread gates, born with a prophesying tongue and hands he brought over from the other side…. He loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering.

8. Talk about Ada's decision to undergo surgical breast removal, which she describes as letting a "masked man take a knife lavishly to the flesh of her chest, mutilating her better and deeper."

9. Does it affect how you think about Freshwater knowing that the novel is, to a fair extent, autobiographical—that the cutting, attempted suicide, and breast removal surgery are based on Akwaeke Emezi's own life?

10. Is there wisdom in the collective "we" of the spirits as they say, at the end: "When you break something, you must study the pattern of the shattering before you can piece it back together"?

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