Debut Author Snapshot: Akwaeke Emezi

Posted by Goodreads on January 31, 2018
Akwaeke Emezi
In the debut novel Freshwater, a young Nigerian named Ada struggles with reality and embodiment. She starts developing separate selves as a child, and after moving to America for college, a traumatic incident crystallizes them into something more powerful. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves—now protective, now hedonistic—move into control, Ada's life spirals in a dangerous direction.

Akwaeke Emezi describes herself as "an Igbo and Tamil writer based in liminal spaces." She was born in Nigeria and began writing stories as a young girl. Her love of animals led her to veterinary school after college, but eventually she decided to get a Master of Public Administration at New York University instead. Then, four years ago, she started writing full-time. In addition to writing, she also makes video art (you can see her work at akwaeke.com).

"Freshwater is my debut novel, and, quite frankly, it's been surreal watching it go out into the world, knowing I made a thing other people can now procure and read," says Emezi. "It's also surreal that, thanks to this book, I was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the February 2018 issue of Vogue! I'm spending this month on a happy cloud off that alone (and, clearly, telling everyone)."


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Goodreads: What sparked the idea for your debut? How did you come up with the idea of fractured selves?

Akwaeke Emezi: A few years ago, I was doing research on Igbo naming traditions and how most of them are rooted in our traditional religion. Those links have faded with time because, thanks to colonialism, Igbo people are now predominantly Christian. My name, for example, isn't a popular one precisely because it has a direct connection to a powerful Igbo deity. For people of color, there's so much about our cultures we've been distanced from, so I wanted to make work that centered Igbo reality instead of framing it as superstition. Freshwater places Ada, the main character, as the child of a deity and combines that concept with others based in Igbo ontology, specifically the ogbanje—spirit children who are born to die.

Freshwater is also a fictionalized exploration of my own realities, so fractured selves were just something I'd lived with for most of my life. In writing the novel, though, my understanding of these realities expanded. I had started by thinking of the self as broken, hence the fractured alters, but it's actually whole. It's more like multiple selves existing at once, the singular blurring into the plural.

GR: Why did you decide to have the different selves take turns narrating the novel?

AE: Since I was writing about inhabiting multiple realities, it was the only way to tell the story accurately—the shift in narrative perspectives simply reflects the shifts in the lived experience. The catch was that it's quite challenging to write these realities in a way that's legible to the reader, and here's where I profusely thank my editor, Peter Blackstock, for helping Freshwater achieve that.

GR: How do you address the idea of identity and mental health in your novel?


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AE: Freshwater focuses on Ada's metaphysical identity—namely, her struggle with being embodied. The dissonance she experiences from being an ogbanje, a non-human entity living in human form, is at the core of all her subsequent experiences. The side effects of that manifest in ways that could lead people into thinking the ogbanje story line is a metaphor for mental illness, but mental health isn't the center of this work; being an embodied non-human is. The symptoms Ada experiences are caused by her primary predicament: existence. And the book shows how madness can develop from being stuck in a metaphysical paradox, i.e. living in a human body when you're not one.

GR: Your book is dedicated "to those of us with one foot on either side." Explain what that means to you.

AE: A large part of choosing to center Igbo reality and ontology in Freshwater was to emphasize that such realities are valid and to reject the idea that only Western-approved worlds are real. This was a concept I first read in Malidoma Somé's book Of Water and Spirit, where he points out that colonialism replaced indigenous realities with Western ones. When I was still working up the courage to dive into Igbo reality and write Freshwater, I went back home to Nigeria and spoke to people about it. I discovered that I wasn't alone, that there were others who inhabited these marginalized realities and couldn't talk to anyone about it because we all knew we'd be considered mentally ill or, in Christian cases, possessed by a demon. There's a dangerous isolation attached to that, one that hurts people, one that can make us want to stop living. From seers to sangomas, there are countless people who exist in multiple realities spilling into the spiritual realm. We're valid, even if we occupy spaces others don't consider real. So yeah, I wrote Freshwater for us.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in Freshwater?

AE: You know, years ago, I used to worry that my writing was too lyrical. I thought it was meant to be all stark and minimalist, but then I read Toni Morrison and had this moment of 'Ah, you can use lush language, and it's OK!' That was huge for me, and I think it definitely shows in Freshwater.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

AE: I'm currently reading a collection of Adrienne Kennedy's plays, Adrienne Kennedy in One Act, which was a gift from a magician who loves me. The format of a play as a vehicle for storytelling separate from the stage is something I'm excited to explore as a reader. I've been recommending Fran Ross' 1974 novel, Oreo, to my friends because most of them are also writers and I think she does spectacular structural things in that work.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

AE: Much to my delight, I have a young adult novel, PET, forthcoming in 2019 from Make Me a World, Christopher Myers’ imprint in partnership with Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. It’s about finding monsters in a world that claims they don’t exist anymore and the protagonist is a young girl of Nigerian and Trinidadian heritage named Jam.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Boubakeur (new)

Boubakeur Khellil She is a creative writer and this shows that thanks to her continuous efforts she was able to be of high status and strong will and this is thanks to the continuation of her work is wonderful and distinguished and excellent .... Boubakr Starter writer writes the story for children and theater as he likes writing social articles Achieved the success of 2012 when he won an award abroad The contestants from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and here is today looking for the one who helps him Thank you ... Abu Bakr Algeria east


message 2: by Boubakeur (new)

Boubakeur Khellil She is a creative writer and this shows that thanks to her continuous efforts she was able to be of high status and strong will and this is thanks to the continuation of her work is wonderful and distinguished and excellent .... Boubakr Starter writer writes the story for children and theater as he likes writing social articles Achieved the success of 2012 when he won an award abroad The contestants from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and here is today looking for the one who helps him Thank you ... Abu Bakr Algeria east


message 3: by Boubakeur (new)

Boubakeur Khellil Traduire

أنها كاتبة مبدعة وهذا يدل على وبفضل جهودها المتواصلة استطاعت أن تكون ذات مكانة عالية وصاحبة إرادة قوية وهذا بفضل الاستمرار عملها رائع ومميز وممتاز ....بوبكر كاتب مبتدئ يكتب القصة للأطفال والمسرح كما يحب كتابة المقالات الاجتماعية حقق نجاح سنة 2012 حينما نال جائزة خارج الوطن وكان المتنافسين من تونس ومصر وليبيا وها هو اليوم يبحث على من يساعده شكرا لكم ...أبوبكر الجزائر شرقا

388/5000
'anaha katibat mubadaeat wahadha yadulu ealaa wabifadl juhudaha almutawasilat aistataeat 'an takun dhat mkant ealiat wasahibat 'iiradatan qawiat wahadha bifadl alaistimrar eamaliha rayie wamumayaz wamumtaz ....bwbkr katib mubtadi yaktub alqisat lil'atfal walmusrah kama yuhibu kitabat almaqalat alaijtimaeiat haqaq najah sanat 2012 hinama nal jayizat kharij alwatan wakan almutanafisin min tunis wamisr walibia wha hu alyawm yabhath ealaa min yusaeiduh shukraan lakum ...'abubakr aljazayir sharqaan
She is a creative writer and this shows that thanks to her continuous efforts she was able to be of high status and strong will and this is thanks to the continuation of her work is wonderful and distinguished and excellent .... Boubakr Starter writer writes the story for children and theater as he likes writing social articles Achieved the success of 2012 when he won an award abroad The contestants from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and here is today looking for the one who helps him Thank you ... Abu Bakr Algeria east


message 4: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Pilkington "I had started by thinking of the self as broken, hence the fractured alters, but it's actually whole. It's more like multiple selves existing at once, the singular blurring into the plural."

I love your concept! I will pursue reading your work, and look forward to following your career.


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