GROVE PRESS, 2018. 240 PAGES. ISBN: 978-0-8021-2735-8
By Patti Wahlberg
Akwaeke Emezi’s gorgeously disquieting debut novel Freshwater appears at first to be the coming-of-age story of a young Nigerian woman’s descent into mental illness. Born “different,” Ada is possessed of uncontrollable rages and grief as a child, which alarms her parents. Rather than learning to crawl on all fours like most babies, she slithers across the floor like a snake. After witnessing her younger sister Anuli’s violent accident, Ada develops a burgeoning hunger for the sight of blood, which eventually leads her down a path to cutting of her own flesh. “You must understand that Anuli’s accident was baptism in the best liquid, that mother of a color…a scrambled look at mortality and the weakness of the vessel.” Soon the reader is carried beyond a story of mental illness, and into a fascinating journey through oceans of unearthly possibility.
According to the Igbo culture of southeastern Nigeria, some humans are born inhabited by malevolent spirits called ogbanje—or as Emezi puts it, “born with one foot on the other side.” The ogbanje are children of the python, who is “…the source of the stream, the flesh form of the God Ala…the earth herself, the judge, the mother, the giver of the law.” The ogbanje’s purpose is to torment a family over and over by destroying the child they inhabit—usually before puberty—only to return with the family’s next child to do the same. Woven throughout with haunting Igbo language, this is the story of Ada, born with one foot on the other side.
Ada survives puberty and enters young adulthood, attending college in the United States. This is when the ogbanje voices become stronger, reverberating in the “marble room” of Ada’s mind. When a young man she dates overpowers and rapes her, some of the ogbanje split off into separate entities. One entity, whom Ada names Asughara, is a powerful female spirit filled with lust and anger, and the first chapter she narrates begins with the Igbo phrase "Obiara egbum, gbuo onwe ya," which translates to these chilling words: “Take a weapon, kill yourself.” Asughara determines that the best way to avenge the wrongs done to Ada —the best way to save her—is to destroy her. She takes over Ada’s body as she hunts, seduces, and breaks men, compelling Ada to starve and cut herself, eventually pushing her to the brink of suicide. After Asughara destroys Ada’s brief marriage, a benevolent spirit named St. Vincent lures Ada into relationships with women. St. Vincent convinces her to cut her long, luxurious hair, and further mutilate herself by undergoing breast reduction and full hysterectomy, masculinizing her, eventually rendering her genderless.
The narration drifts between the collective ogbanji who refer to themselves as “We” and Asughara, with only three passages narrated by Ada, herself. Emezi pulls no punches in her exploration of age-old philosophical topics and current cultural concerns such as morality, self-harm and the meaning of gender. The author questions the true source behind these concepts—madness, the gods, or both?
Within the first few chapters, the ogbanje tell us:
This is all, ultimately, a litany of madness—the colors of it, the sounds it makes in heavy nights, the chirping of it across the shoulder of the morning. Think of brief insanities that are in you, not just the ones that blossomed into taller, more sinful versions of yourself, but the ones you were born with, tucked behind your liver.
Ada’s self-destructive behaviors could easily be attributed to bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, or schizophrenia. Hearing voices is a common manifestation of all three. At times Asughara takes over Ada’s body, leaving her completely unaware of her choices. But later in the work, the ogbanje retract their original claim: "Earlier, when we said she went mad, we lied. She has always been sane. It's just that she was contaminated with us, a godly parasite with many heads, roaring inside the marble room of her mind."
Here is where I let go of my preconceived notion that this was simply a story of mental illness, complete with voices, hallucinations, and self-destructive behavior, and allowed the narrative to carry me into the land of the metaphysical. In one of her few narratives, Ada tells us, “The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it.” Madness melds with spirit. The ogbanje say, “We’ve wondered in the years since then what she would have been without us, if she would have still gone mad.” Are the gods a manifestation of Ada’s madness, or is Ada being driven mad by the gods? Perhaps the two are intertwined, inseparable, two sides of one coin. If the reader believes there could be worlds beyond what our five senses perceive, this question becomes impossible to answer.
Akwaeke Emezi’s prose is lyrical and brutal, beautiful and dangerous, just like the voices of the gods inside Ada’s head. Freshwater asks important questions about mental illness, gender, spirituality, and the ultimate question that brilliant works frequently evoke—what is real? Emezi’s voice electrifies the reader into a state of inquiry and curiosity as Freshwater explores the separation and convergence of human madness and otherworldly divinity.