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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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma Took My Breath Away

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is set in the 1990s in Akure, a small town in Nigeria; and centers around four brothers who commit to fishing at the forbidden (and cursed) Omi-Ala River.

Their father, Mr. Agwu, wants his sons to be juggernauts—children who will “dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers.”

Things change when Mr. Agwu is transferred out of town for work and the brothers realize that they can evade their mother’s attempts to keep them at bay. The brothers start to skip school to embark on fishing adventures.

Despite warnings by a priest, and beatings by their father after he learns about their visit to Omi-Ala, they continue with their fishing expeditions. After all, they are fishermen, not juggernauts, as their father would say.

As time goes on they encounter the madman, Abulu, who speaks a prophecy that is destined to be fulfilled.

The youngest brother, Benjamin, narrates the foreshadowing.

There is grief, chaos, and healing; but more importantly for the Agwu family, redemption.

This story took my breath away.

From the beginning until the end, I was under a hypnotic spell of carefully worded sentences and descriptions. The writing is as poetic, as it is, mystical and vivid.

The best part of the novel is the interweaving of folklore with the realities of a country, family, and sibling relationships. The author succeeds in capturing pieces of the political chaos that marked Nigeria in the 90s.

Overall, a stellar debut novel and one of the best books I have read in a long time.

In 2016, Newsweek published an interesting article about the author, Nigeria, and his plans for a future novel. Available here.

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Who Is the Bearer of History and Who Gets to Tell the Story?

Bukuru, the “madman,” and Femi, the journalist, are both memorable characters in Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe.

In this novel, a prostitute has washed ashore, and the only person who can provide information about what happened is a man who everyone believes is mad.

The story that unfolds merges the fictional history of Madia, a country that is reminiscent of Nigeria, with the biographical anecdotes of the madman.

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Chinelo Okparanta Explores a Taboo Relationship in a War-Torn Nigeria

In her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta explores sexuality in a war-torn Nigeria. Two girls, Ijeoma and Amina, must reconcile their feelings for ea

ch other within a culture that only values heterosexual relationships.

Although the Biafran War does not take center stage in the novel, the war’s background presence mirrors the personal, familial, and socio-political conflicts that the characters face.

Under the Udala Trees was an overdue novel for a country that criminalizes same sex relationships. This story had to be told.

Learn more about the author.

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Is Love Still Love If It Is Entangled With Violence From a Parent?

In Speak No Evil, Uzodinma Iweala highlights some of the realities of growing up in a Nigerian immigrant household in the U.S.

Things get real for the Ikemadu family when Niru’s dad, Obi, discovers Niru is queer; “It is an abomination!”

The novel tells the heartbreaking story that unfolds.

Uzodinma does a brilliant job of capturing Niru’s intersecting identities along with the themes of power and voice. Everyone who reads this novel will decide for themselves whether “love” that is entangled with violence from a parent is still love.

Speak No Evil is essential reading for second generation Nigerian parents who long to hold on to their parents values but recognize the need to do things differently.

The two teenagers in this story are from privileged backgrounds, yet their experiences are vastly different. The contrast between Niru and his best friend Meredith, a white female, comes to bear in the final chapters of the book.

This story pushes readers to consider several questions.

  1. Who gets to speak?
  2. Who has the power to speak for other people?
  3. Whose experiences are silenced?
  4. Whose experiences are honored?

Ultimately, there is always a “who” that does the speaking, a “who” that does the silencing and a “who” that determines the value of experiences.

The story is set in present day, Washington, D.C. and the sequence of events is not far from what can happen in any U.S. city.

I enjoyed the emphasis on intersectional identities; especially those identities that individuals can’t turn on or off when it benefits them.

I picked up this book because “Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation (book adapted into a Netflix film)” was on the cover. I knew that I could expect characters that were full of depth and complexity. In the end, I was not disappointed.

I look forward to reading many more by the author.

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