Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Explore mental illness through Igbo mythology in Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I read Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi during a recent trip to Nigeria and needed time for the story and the magnitude of the message to sink in.

The novel is narrated by a collective she/they who live inside the “the marble room” of Ada’s mind. Ada is a young Nigerian woman who was born “with one foot on the other side.” She is human, but she belongs to the gods and is an ọgbanje.

In Igbo folklore, ọgbanje’s are “children who come and go.” They are believed to be evil spirits who constantly die and are reborn in subsequent children. Their presence will plague any family with pain and misfortune. Usually, ọgbanje’s die as children, but Ada is able to appease the gods through self-harm and goes on to attend the University of North Carolina.

We meet Asụghara, one of Ada’s multiple personalities, after a gruesome sexual assault; and later meet Saint Vincent, a male personality who is gentle and soft. Asụghara is a dominant female who believes that her role is to “move and take and save” Ada. At times this means sabotaging Ada’s medications and visits with her therapist.

As the story progresses, Ada finds it had to live with fractured selves, and eventually attempts suicide.

Ada’s journey is astonishing.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for Ada and at the same time anxious that Asụghara and Saint Vincent will overcome her.

The book is dark, mysterious, and haunting; and at the same time, it is soft, poetic, and humorous. The story explores Ada’s fragmented selves, identities that are based on the author’s experiences.

The best part about the novel is that the author tracked Ada’s life from birth to adulthood and merged Igbo folklore, Christianity, and Western medicine to tell a moving story about mental illness.

While reading this book, I had to take occasional breaks because I felt like I was in Ada’s world. In this novel, Akwaeke Emezi takes us into her world and raises important questions:

  1. Why are Western schemas about mental illness how we define who is mentally ill?
  2. What role did colonialism play in ensuring that Western science supersedes Igbo mythology and tradition?

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi crosses the boundaries of worlds and countries, both physical and spiritual, and challenges readers to explore their “other selves.”

This was a brilliant and beautifully written novel.

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