Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater by Akwaeke EmeziI’m pretty sure I would have liked this more if it had been more speculative fiction and less MFA.

Thing is, it’s an entirely worthy book. If it wasn’t for Freshwater, I would have no idea what a non-binary trans person is, and I’m richer for having found out. But I didn’t find out from the book itself. Gosh, so this is a bit of a rabbit hole: starting from the information that Saachi, our protagonist’s mom, is from Malaysia, I felt compelled to dig more into Akwaeke Emezi’s life, and found a wealth of illuminating essays they’d written on-line as to their upbringing and journey to becoming who they are. And that made the narrative click into place for me, of a person named Ada, born a young girl but really possessed of separate (divine) selves that would, as she got older, come to the forefront as needed, couched in Nigerian Igbo mythology. It’s based on Emezi’s life, and I hesitate to say this but honestly feel that it’s a culturally Nigerian explanation for dissociative identity disorder and body/gender dysmorphia. This doesn’t make it any less valid, of course, but it also didn’t make it terribly interesting. I’m glad that Emezi is telling their story, and their Own Voices perspective is necessary, and introduces some really intriguing cultural aspects to their narrative, but augh, Freshwater is just so fucking MFA.

It’s hard for a coming of age book, especially one born from great pain, to not take itself incredibly seriously but when it’s both “serious” and “arty,” I just lose all patience. Towards the end, especially, the speculative fiction facade falls away and the narrative lies formless, liminal almost, a word the book never tires of invoking. I mean, if an even more navel-gazing Waiting For Godot in novel form is your jam, then you will probably thrill to this novel. Personally, I wanted more mythology, especially in relation to the ending, which would have been lovely had it had a stronger underpinning from the preceding text. I was also annoyed at the sentimentality of the conversations with Jesus, or Yshwa as he’s referred to in these pages. He’s considered a god like the ones inhabiting Ada’s body, only different, which only works for a little while before collapsing from a lack of intellectual rigor. Which, I get it, faith is personal and fungible, but the way it was presented in this book forced me through theological contortions that I found especially annoying because I’m neither Christian nor Igbo and so shouldn’t have to care this much about none of it making sense. I found myself incredibly exasperated and can only imagine how someone who is actually Christian and/or Nigerian would feel.

Anyway, Emezi is a terrific essayist and you should read those works before coming to Freshwater, which is alright if you can stomach the MFA-style writing that predominates towards the end.

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