Freshwater, published in 2018, is Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel. They have since gone on to collect various prizes. Their first YA novel PET made a splash in 2019, and their novel The Death of Vivek Oji was dubbed one of the most anticipated books of the year 2020 by a number of publications. By all indications, Emezi is a young writer to watch. Freshwater draws on Emezi’s own biography and, like (one of) the lead characters of Freshwater, they were born in Umuahia and grew up in Aba, Nigeria. They are an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist.
What makes Freshwater exceptional and so valuable as a literary intervention is the way it turns Western epistemologies of mental health on their head. Ada comes into the human world as a bridge between this realm and the next. She is half god-child, daughter to python-goddess Ala, and made up of no singular self, but of multiple brothersisters, for whom a singular pronoun is untenable.
Ada is born to the human parents Saatchi and Saul, and is left, thanks to an unhappy marriage, by her mother early on. As a young woman, she goes to the US for her university studies – where she is raped by a fellow student. The resulting trauma causes one of her other selves to establish herself more dominantly – splitting off more clearly from Ada and the other brothersisters, and acquiring her own name: Asụghara. Asụghara is strong and pitiless, her only interests seeking out partners to slake her appetite for sex and cruelty, and protecting Ada from having to experience ever again the trauma that resulted in Asụghara’s own crystallisation. Perhaps as the other side of the coin, another brothersister emerges to be named too: the gentler Saint Vincent, an embodiment of Ada’s queer facets.
The novel is written from the different perspective of Ada, Asụghara, and the we of the brothersisters. These brothersisters yearn to return to where they truly belong, and where they are not beholden to the fragility and the meaty contemptibility of an enfleshed life. It becomes clear that what they are yearning for is the suicide of Ada – not in order to end her and themselves, but in order to return together to the realm that is properly theirs, and where they needn’t endure the senseless suffering of a human life.
As such, the novel gives a vivid alternative framing of what Western medicine would diagnose as Ada’s schizophrenia and suicidal tendencies. This is a genuinely compelling reconfiguration of how it is possible to conceive of mental illness. More than that, it seemed to me to indicate the generative potential of that plural pronoun housed in Ada, and the queerness of those voices. These aspects suggest what a possibly fertile terrain Emezi opens up with the book, and made me think of the plural pronoun narrator of Namwali Serpell’s mosquitoes in The Old Drift. Both novels intimate the potentiality of the internally-fractured but nonetheless somehow-whole we-narrator.
At the same time, though, it seemed like the bulk of Freshwater’s narrative was given to an endless recounting of Asụghara-as-Ada’s prolific romantic and sexual encounters. And this, at some point, began to seem somewhat adolescent. The litany of lovers and sexploits was infinitely less interesting than what the novel seemed like it might actually have been capable of. I struggled to enjoy the whole as much as I was taken by the premise.