“I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central … and let the rest of the world move to where I was.” – Toni Morrison
These words describe the way in which Akwaeke Emezi intentionally shows up in the world as a storyteller. Since 2018, the Nigerian non-binary transgender author has published four books: Freshwater, Pet, The Death of Vivek Oji and, most recently in June, Dear Senthuran – A Black Spirit Memoir.
Self-described as an ogbanje, an “Igbo spirit that’s born to a human mother, a kind of trickster that dies unexpectedly only to return in the next child and do it all over again”, Emezi deeply reveals the way they resist marginalised narratives and create a map of themselves and their experience, in which Igbo ontology and cosmology are central. In doing so delicately and defiantly, Emezi challenges the reader’s ideas and beliefs about the boundaries where spirit and flesh begin and end, while endlessly trespassing and muddying the borders around gender, sexuality and spirituality.
Emezi has carved a firm position for themselves as a prolific writer whose imagery, form and content are subversive in the way they challenge dominant themes around religion, sexual orientation and mental health.
Dear Senthuran is written in the form of letters to other artists, friends, family, Toni Morrison and an elusive lover named only as “the magician”. In a magnificent display of honesty that accosts the reader and forces them to reconcile with their most sinister of thoughts, Emezi lays bare their truth in a manner described as the continuation of their literary debut, Freshwater.
Misreading Emezi’s terrain
When Freshwater was published in 2018, readers were overwhelmed by the terrain in which this story exists. In attempts to seek comprehension, they often tried to understand the ideas rooted in Nigeria’s Igbo spirituality through Western lenses and binaries.
Freshwater is a narrative about the spiritual embodiment of the protagonist, the Ada, who is inhabited by multiple selves. Nigerian author Ayòbámi Adébáyò wrote that “this bildungsroman about a character whose essence is rooted in Igbo cosmology begins by inextricably linking her consciousness with cosmic forces that existed long before she was born”.
The Ada has been accused of having a psycho-social identity crisis, an eating disorder, among other things, as a form of pathologisation. The reader is often stuck within their own conceptions of embodiment, which limit their understanding of what the novel is actually about. Although the book touches on gender presentation and mentions how flesh is altered to fit spirit, Freshwater is not a book about being a transgender person. Instead, it is about “embodiment as an ogbanje”, Emezi recently tweeted. In other words, Freshwater is a biographical fiction that wears a mask.
In conversation with author and scholar Saidiya Hartman to launch Dear Senthuran, Emezi states that Freshwater could never have sold as an autobiography. As Hartman points out, for some audiences reading fiction requires a suspension of belief in order to be ushered into the world of the subject. “It was already incredibly hard to get it published as fiction. They all liked the writing, but they did not know how to publish it. I don’t know any publisher who would have published it as non-fiction,” Emezi says.
Setting storytelling free
“There is a need for our narratives that are grounded in their realities.” In an interview with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Emezi states that the premise of Freshwater is that everybody has a spiritual embodiment of sorts, but with the Ada they happen to be multiple. The function of Emezi’s storytelling transcends representation, but also seeks to disturb what has been represented as “normal” for those who are silenced by society as a result of their “otherness”.
In Dear Senthuran, in a letter titled “Anointing | Dear Anne”, Emezi considers the demonisation they may face from transphobic Nigerians and others who consider themselves gatekeepers of this spiritual knowledge.
“I knew that other Nigerians would call me a liar, claim I was making it all up as a publicity stunt, something white people would find interesting … To self-name as an entity breaks the rules, because then it means we’ve taken the naming and storytelling power, to wield it for ourselves.”
Emezi has carved out a space for themselves where storytelling belongs to all and cannot be veiled behind any culture of discretion. Highlighted multiple times in the memoir is the right to owning their narrative, and literally splitting themselves from skin to tendon is an important act of honesty.
The memoir is incredibly visceral in the way in which Emezi raises bruises that are ugly. With “a mouthful of blood”, they describe quite graphically the violence that has stained them. The weight of storytelling is visible to the reader as Emezi expresses their wanton desire for death at times. Suicidal ideation plagued Emezi during the book tour for Freshwater, and the angst and discomfort expressed by the author are felt by the reader, who is allowed access into the self-sacrificial element of producing art.
Emezi writes in Dear Senthuran: “This book, this thing I had turned myself out for, was breaking away from me and spinning up power I couldn’t imagine. I felt very strongly that I needed to die. It would be in service to the work.”
The burdens of visibility
In Dear Senthuran, Emezi presents the possibility of two things being true: the importance of representation and visibility, and the burden that comes with it. One thing that is clear about Emezi’s work is that they present to the world as a Black person, as someone born to an Indian Tamil mother and Nigerian father.
The memoir allows insight into how the decisions made throughout their career consistently consider how a work is received by a lily-white publishing world. The pressure of a work that arises from its existence and reception in the world appears to present some anxieties for the author.
The appearance of money, recognition and fame cannot mitigate the lingering thoughts of death that exist. “None of this will save me – money, the recognition, the brilliant work and the fame. It makes me both hypervisible and unseen. People can’t imagine that I can have all the things they want and still not be okay, still be so fast, it’s incredible,” Emezi writes.
Hypervisibility is a double-edged sword, particularly for people who are on the margins of society. As a hypervisible person on the internet, Emezi expresses the way in which they are exposed to the way the world does not want them to exist. The comments on the internet do not represent scattered strangers, but rather speak as a collective of people who are transphobic and bigoted in their belief systems. This hypervisibility puts into prominence thoughts shared by their family, who are unable to accept the way in which Emezi exists outside of their own spiritual recognition, as the author reflects in the memoir.
In continuing where they stopped in Freshwater, moving from fiction to the realm of autobiography, Emezi has written an exquisite memoir that splits open our conceptions of the author to reveal rage, vulnerability and the restlessness that exists within their fleshy bag of bones. With their fourth book, Emezi continues to always remain resolutely honest about their existence and their right to self-determine, while crafting personal, poignant and spellbinding sentences that centre their way of being.
This book is a testament to Emezi’s writing acumen and their capacity to alter the way in which we see the world. Their manner of writing is reminiscent of the words of James Baldwin, who states in a conversation with American poet Nikki Giovanni: “If you’re a writer, you are forced to look behind the world for the meaning … you’re responsible for what that word means.”
Emezi goes beyond this by ensuring that the words they pen are responsible for changing the lens through which we view the world, spirituality and identity. Their writing is a portal in both the way it transcends ordinariness and charts paths for other writers to follow.