Lewis Hyde, in his seminal cultural study Trickster Makes This World, writes that “a trickster is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. He is the character in myth who threatens to take the myth apart. He is an ‘eternal state of mind’ that is suspicious of all eternals, dragging them from their heavenly preserves to see how they fare down in this time-haunted world.”
Akwaeke Emezi, the author of the debut novel Freshwater, is a literary trickster, an Afropolitan who glides between US and Nigerian cultures, mores, and faiths. Her bio says that she is an “Igbo and Tamil writer artist based in liminal spaces.” Freshwater itself exits in such an in-between state. It is a novel “based on the author’s realities,” a novel that moves between a traditional Western coming-of-age novel and a non-linear West African praise song, with a heroine who resists the gender binary and is simultaneously human and inhabited by Igbo gods. To enter Emezi’s world, you not only need to decolonize your mind, but also free yourself from patriarchal and binary ways of viewing the world.
According to traditional Igbo beliefs, all children are born open to the spirit world. Then, after birth, the gate separating the temporal and spirit worlds shuts so you don’t go crazy. But when Emezi’s heroine is born, the gate is left open and she is inhabited by an Ọgbanje (literally “children who come and go”), an Igbo spirit that’s born into a human body. The Ọgbanje is a kind of malevolent trickster whose goal is to torment the human mother by dying unexpectedly, only to return in the next child and repeat the cycle.
Her oblivious Nigerian father gives her a name colloquially meaning “precious.” But it literally means “the egg of python,” and in Igbo cosmology the python is the messenger and agent of the most powerful deity, the earth goddess Ala, from whom all things flow—“all freshwater comes from the mouth of a python.” The spirits do not dare call her by her name, but call her “the Ada,” which means daughter of Ala. The Ọgbanje that inhabits Ada is actually multiple spirits fighting for control of their human vessel. It is these “brothersister” spirits who tell the story of Ada, whose Tamil mother protects the sensitive daughter as she grows up in the troubled city of Umuahia, in southeastern Nigeria. A “We” chorus narrates as the mother dreams of more opportunities for her precocious daughter and travels alone to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid, saving up enough money to send Ada to Virginia for college.
The gods, naturally, are restless in their mortal vessel. “Forgive us, we sound scattered. We were ejaculated into an unexpected limbo—too in-between, too god, too human, too halfway spirit bastard,” the “We” narrator tells us. Inside Ada they struggle for supremacy until a violent sexual encounter enables the vengeful spirit Asụghara to take over. “Flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into weapon, the weapon over the flesh. I was here. No one would ever touch her again.”
With the strong-willed and often cruel spirit acting as protector and mask, the previously chaste Ada unleashes herself sexually, taking what she wants, inside and outside of college. Yet she still cuts herself to try to feel fully in control, repeatedly slicing her forearm with shards from smashed mirrors.
Many coming-of-age novels feature variants of this struggle to define one’s identity, to decide “which internal self is the true me,” but in Freshwater they are given explicit voices by the competing gods. They constitute the driving force of the novel, powered by tough, beautiful language:
“She gave me this name, Asụghara, complete with the gritty slide of the throat halfway through. I hope it scrapes your mouth bloody to say it. 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.”
Ada resists the amoral Asụghara, occasionally wrestling the narrative away from her dominant spirit, touching base with the buried spirit St. Vincent, a queer god who understands her attraction to girls and disapproves of Asụghara’s drive toward punishing straight sex.
Ada herself feels like a trickster, who “could move between boy and girl, which was freedom.” As the spirits struggle within and unsettle Ada, she tries praying to Jesus, known to the Igbo spirits inhabiting her as Yshwa. She also tries drugs, alcohol, and therapy. But, as Asụghara explains to Ada, “We’re the buffer between you and madness, we’re not the madness.”
This celestial battle plays out against the familiar, terrestrial struggles of a sensitive young woman in a small liberal arts college and her fraught relationships with dislocated young men: a Dane via Eritrea, an older Irishman, and a Christian Nigerian family friend in Georgia. It is hard to care about any of these relationships as they are only instruments in the internal struggle, all information about the men filtered through the spirits. As “We” puts it about one of the young men: “Besides, he was only a beautiful blip in the crazed timeline of embodiment—he mattered so much, and yet, not at all.”
After college, when she moves to Brooklyn, lets St. Vincent take over, and starts dating women, Ada’s encounters with mortals still don’t matter much to the spirits. The drama lies in whether Asụghara will re-emerge or whether Ada will find peace recognizing all of the competing voices inside her. Anyone even slightly familiar with Integrative Psychotherapy will empathize with this struggle to get the balance of one’s personalities right, a struggle to be seen, as Walt Whitman put it, as containing multitudes.
The great trick of this novel is that we want not only peace for Ada, but also for the troubled spirits inhabiting, and one with, her. Reading Emezi’s unfolding integration of fictional forms and modes of thinking—spiritual, analytical, historical, cultural, clinical—you feel like you are witnessing a talented and emotionally astute writer finding her voice(s). Freshwater is a dazzling, problematic debut that promises so much more.