‘Freshwater’ gives fresh language for body and spirit

4-panel digital art by Tucker Lieberman

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (available from BookPeople) tells the story of someone whose identity has always been defined by multiple spirits, the ọgbanje.

“So we were still caged inside the Ada, with the grainy memory of charcoal coating the back of her throat. She was more isolated than ever and we were chafing at still being flesh, so the only thing left to do was hunt. If we were trapped in a body, then we would do bodily things. We painted the Ada’s mouth and lined her eyes with night, and we went out with Asụghara on a long and relaxed leash.”

The physical world, especially the human body in relation to it, and Ada’s body in particular within this novel, is called an “oath.” It serves as a reminder that spirits belong in the spirit world; hence, it is a promise made to those spirits who have stopped in and bound themselves to the physical world only for a time.

“With a force like ours, we dragged other things along — a pact, bits of bone, an igneous rock, worn-out velveteen, a strip of human hide tying it all together. This compound object is called the iyi-ụwa, the oath of the world. It is a promise we made when we were free and floating, before we entered the Ada. The oath says that we will come back, that we will not stay in this world, that we are loyal to the other side. When spirits like us are put inside flesh, this oath becomes a real object, one that functions as a bridge. It is usually buried or hidden because it is the way back, if you understand that the doorway is death.”

Emezi has achieved something special in their book. This is a powerful way of speaking about gender, personality, embodiment, culture, authenticity and fidelity to oneself, and the conflicting emotions and inner forces that pull us. Their website: akwaeke.com

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