I was originally drawn to this book by the cover, which is gorgeous, and then by the description. I am always fascinated to read about beliefs that are different and foreign to my own, specifically in how they look/play out in real life. In addition, this sounded like a really fascinating personal exploration, a book born of the authors’ own experiences with self, and I do get really into fictional accounts of non-fictional events/lives. As a surprise benefit, after checking out the audio version from the library, I realized it was read by the author, which is absolutely one of my favorite things. And this was no exception – the accent and emphases placed throughout the reading added an extra depth that I loved. All in all, this was a lovely listening experience.
“Understand this if you understand nothing: it is a powerful thing to be seen.”
Freshwater is the story of Ada, born of her parents’ prayers to whatever gods would listen, and thus marked by those gods who chose to answer her parents prayers with her birth. As Ada grows, she is what would, perhaps, be called a troubled child. And that part of her is only exacerbated over time, developing into entirely separate selves within her single body that are solidified into something even more powerful after a traumatic experience as a young adult. From then on, Ada struggles with these separate parts of herself, sometimes in control of them, and sometimes retreating behind their control. Spanning continents and years, we watch as Ada deals with this conflict of identity within herself, and how that conflict manifests itself physically/emotionally.
Well, this book is something. It’s something deep and ferocious and frightening and confusing and so, so, intense. The duality of religious/spiritual belief and mental health in this novel is one of the most gorgeously woven double-meanings in literature that I have ever read. This entire novel could be read as an exploration of traditional beliefs, focusing on old gods and spirits (ọgbanje), and the beliefs around them and how they inhabit a body, a mind, and turn it into something evil. On the other hand, it could be read as completely metaphorical, with the ọgbanje as a symbol of the imbalance experienced with mental illness or lack of clarity of personal identity. But I think, personally, that the best way to read this is a combination of both – submitting to the traditional beliefs that explain any kind of instability, as well as accepting that the outer signs of that will naturally, now, be read as scientific/medical interpretations of mental illness. It’s a powerful cross-over that makes for an incredibly unique, but also fairly mystifying and complex, telling. This is a case in which I would recommend the reader not necessarily focus on the meaning behind each word or phrase or statement, but rather the concept, tone, atmosphere or feelings behind the words. I had some trouble truly getting into the story, buying into the telling, until I let the specifics go. Forget trying to remember what parts of Ada’s life different characters are from, which are friend and which have hurt her, or to keep a timeline or inventory of events – just let yourself get lost in the message. That’s not a normal reading style for me, so as I said, it was difficult, but it was absolutely worth it. Once I was able to do that, I became much more invested and appreciative of what I was reading. And the significance of the story, which is profound, hit me that much harder for it.
In addition, some major themes of identity are explored in depth throughout this novel, with a focus on gender and sexuality. I have never, that I know of, read something by a non-binary and bisexual (pansexual?) person that is so clearly autobiographical, and the insight was everything. With lucidity and precision, Emezi illustrates a sensation and process that is anything but lucid and precise. The way that she is able to convey the journey to take her separate identities and do anything from fight them to submit to them to unite them to accept and give them all “air time” is discerning and instructive. Although this is by no means an easy read, intellectually, it is one that I think is essential. If you’ve dealt with anything like this, identity-wise, it will show you that you are not alone. If you’ve never been through anything similar, it is insightful and educational.
*Similarly, and of note, there are many trigger warnings that should accompany this statement. If you have ever been through sexual assault or abuse, self-harm, suicide ideation/attempts or disassociation from reality of any kind, you’ll find a kindred spirit in this book. If you are looking for that, please read this. If you are not ready for that, definitely stay away until you are emotionally prepared, as there is no holding back, no euphemism, no obfuscation.
Although at times this personal journey is told in a sort of detached or metaphysical way, the focus on sense of self and personal acceptance is told with a raw, devastating voice. Tough to read at times, both in regards to language and subject matter, this is a debut that does not shy away from thorny, challenging realities. Emezi shines a haunting light on so many crises of identity and their courage in sharing parts of their own story in this way is admirable. This is one that I would definitely recommend, but with a warning to come with an open mind to storytelling style and a readiness for philosophical (and supernatural) introspection.
There were many quotes and moments throughout this book that rang deep and true. Here are a selection:
“The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it.”
“When you name something, it comes into existence – did you know that?”
“…I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing.”
“The worst part of embodiment is being unseen.”
“Many things are better than a complete remembering.”