In 'Freshwater,' A College Student Learns To Live With Separate Selves

Feb 17, 2018

Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel, Freshwater, is the lyrical, nonlinear story of a woman named Ada, born in Nigeria with, as she puts it, "one foot on the other side." Several "selves" exist inside of Ada, and they identify themselves as "we." When Ada comes to America for college, a traumatic event causes the "we" to take over, and Ada struggles to control her own body.

The author, who won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, says she pulled from her own experiences.

"I wanted to see what it would be like to look at a life through the lens of a different reality — something that was centered more in Igbo spirituality than in Western concepts of mental health, for example. And so, I used my life as the skeleton, chronologically at least."


Interview Highlights

On interpreting her experiences through different lenses

I had tried to make sense of them in different contexts. I was raised Catholic, and so I had tried to make sense of it from a Christian point of view; I had tried to make sense of it from like a mental health point of view. And none of those approaches and none of those lenses really clicked for me. They didn't really help. So I did a lot of research into Igbo spirituality. I went back home to Nigeria before I wrote the book, because I was very nervous about immersing myself in this reality. It was very foreign to me and I was afraid that if I immersed myself in it, I would enter a reality that I wouldn't come out of.

On accepting multiple realities

I think everyone's centered in their own reality, you know. I think part of the thing that's a problem, really, in the world today is this inability to acknowledge multiple realities, and this insistence that there has to be one dominant reality, and everything that falls outside that reality is false and untrue. And that's how colonialism worked in great part — people came in and enforced a reality and said, "Well, if you believe in anything else, if you believe in your indigenous deities, if you believe in these spiritual entities, then you're ignorant and you're backwards, and it's only because you haven't been educated by the West." And you know, there's this [thought that] everything that is outside the dominant reality becomes something that's pathological. And with my work, I'm not really interested in trying to convince anyone to shift their center, I'm just refusing to shift mine.

On how Emezi feels after writing the novel

I have a lot more clarity about things. I also have a clarity around just a multiplicity of being, I think. I had someone ask me after I finished the novel, and they read it, and they were like, "Oh, so when I'm talking to you, which self am I talking to?" And I understood the question, because if — the way it's written in the book, it is that separate. But by the time I was done with the book, and I think something that Ada comes to closer at the end of Freshwater, is an acceptance of what's happening and a bit of, like, she loses that impulse to try and separate it out so much. And for me, now when I think of having a multiple self and what that feels like, I describe it as a boiling cloud. Like that's the image I have for it, is like a cloud of selves that are shifting, and occasionally one or two will precipitate out. But when people ask who they're speaking to, I'm like, "I don't know; it's shifting." I'm not trying to control it anymore. I'm not trying to assign names or separate them. I just allow them to move however they want to move and morph. And yeah, I've learned a lot about surrender since writing the book.

Sophia Schmidt and Lauren Hodges produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel is a lyrical, nonlinear story of a woman named Ada born in Nigeria with, as she puts it, one foot on the other side. Several selves exist inside of Ada. They identify themselves as we. When Ada comes to America for college, a traumatic event causes that we to take over, and Ada struggles to control her own body. "Freshwater" is the title of the book. Akwaeke Emezi, who won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

AKWAEKE EMEZI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I've read that you describe this novel as autobiographical. Help us understand how.

EMEZI: When I was writing the novel, I used my life as an archive. Basically, I wanted to see what it would be like to look at a life through the lens of a different reality - something that was centered more in Igbo spirituality than in Western concepts of mental health, for example. So I did lots of research into Igbo spirituality. I went back home to Nigeria before I wrote the book because I was very nervous about immersing myself in this reality. It was very foreign to me. And I was afraid that if I immersed myself in it, I would enter a reality that I wouldn't come out of.

SIMON: I can think of no better way to begin to appreciate what you're trying to do here than to ask you to immerse us in a particularly lyrical section of the book if you could.

EMEZI: Yes. (Reading) We came from somewhere. Everything does. When the transition is made from spirits to flesh, the gates are meant to be closed. It's a kindness. It would be cruel not to. Perhaps the gods forgot. They can be absent-minded like that - not maliciously, at least not usually. But these are gods after all. And they don't care about what happens to flesh mostly because it is so slow and boring, unfamiliar and coarse. They don't pay much attention to it except when it is collected, organized and sold. By the time, she, our body, struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open. We should have been anchored in her by then, asleep inside her membranes and synced with her mind. That would have been the safest way. But since the gates were open not closed against remembrance, we became confused. We were at once old and newborn. We were her and yet not. We were not conscious, but we were alive. In fact, the main problem was that we were distinct a we instead of being fully and just her.

SIMON: What can you tell us about the we that's inside of Ada?

EMEZI: So I chose to have the we be this part - especially this part that I just read, that transition from spirits into flesh. And I realize in retrospect that I was working on this theory that when a person is born is the moment in which their spirit integrates with their flesh. So in the case of Ada, there is a connection to the spirit world, per se, that isn't severed the way it should be.

SIMON: Now I have to ask this, with respect, because I think there are people who will hear this conversation and say look. I'm sorry. Somebody who creates separate identities in themselves - believes there are separate beings within themselves has a problem.

EMEZI: Yes, there are people who would say that.

SIMON: What do you think?

EMEZI: I think everyone's censored in their own reality. You know, I think part of the thing that's a problem really in the world today is this inability to acknowledge multiple realities and this insistence that there has to be one dominant reality and everything that falls outside that reality is false and untrue. And that is - that's how colonialism worked in great part - was that people came in and enforced their reality and said, well, if you believe in anything else, if you believe in your indigenous deities, if you believe in these spiritual entities, then you're ignorant, and you're backwards. And it's only because you haven't been educated by the West. And, you know, there's this - everything that is outside the dominant reality becomes something that's pathological. And with my work, I'm not really interested in trying to convince anyone to shift their sensor. I'm just refusing to shift mine.

SIMON: Some of the sections of your books that are hardest to read is when Ada harms herself.

EMEZI: Are they?

SIMON: Yeah.

EMEZI: I did not know that. I think for me it's - the thing that feels the most brutal for me is the act of existing in a body in the first place. And with this kind of displaced embodiment, I think - well, I know a side effect of that is a certain detachment from flesh. So the impact of things that are done to flesh, such as cutting, is dulled, I think.

SIMON: How do you feel now that you've done the novel?

EMEZI: I have a lot more clarity about things now when I think of having a multiple self and what that feels like. I describe it as a boiling cloud. Like, that's the image I have for it. It's like a cloud of selves that are shifting, and occasionally one or two will precipitate out. I just allow them to move however they want to move and morph. And, yeah, I've learned a lot about surrender since writing the book.

SIMON: I hope I don't say the wrong thing when I thank all of you for being with us.

EMEZI: Thank you. I appreciate that (laughter).

SIMON: Akwaeke Emezi - her new novel, "Freshwater."

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