Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to “come and go.”
Born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigera, Akwaeke Emezi is a self-described Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. Currently engrossed in THE UNBLINDING—a seven-year long project Emezi describes as “an autobiographical series about an ogbanje, which is an Igbo spirit born into human form with the express intention of traumatizing its loved ones by dying unexpectedly”—Emezi makes work that is, most notably, transgressive. Her debut novel, Freshwater, which comes out tomorrow, is the second of three self-portraits in THE UNBLINDING.
An articulation of “the ogbanje figuring out what it is, [and] ascribing legibility to itself,” Freshwater explores spiritual embodiment and fragmentation of self—and it works to reverse the tide of hegemony’s historical amnesia. Emezi’s work pushes against the outer limits of what we collectively understand as reality—and, importantly, pushes back on colonialism.
Ms. talked to Emezi about her commitment to Igbo ontology and truth-telling, metaphors versus alternate realities and the ogbanje.
To start, what is home to you?
Honestly, home exists in a nowhere kind of space for me. Writing Freshwater helped me process the fact that my desire for belonging was never going to be fulfilled in the ways I’d imagined it would—finding a seaside bungalow to live in, finding the right country that would feel like home. It was all wrong. For me, home is a reality rooted in a void, so to speak. It’s an exercise in deconstructing one’s self towards nothingness, it’s understanding how to be here and not here at the same time. That emptiness feels peaceful, so perhaps home is peace.
What is Freshwater’s role as the second of three self-portraits in your project The Unblinding?
So, THE UNBLINDING is an autobiographical series about an ogbanje, which is an Igbo spirit born into human form with the express intention of traumatizing its loved ones by dying unexpectedly. The series was created over seven years and details the ogbanje’s progression from unawareness to clarity around its nature as an embodied spirit. I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through. Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like. The third self-portrait in THE UNBLINDING is a collection of video art that engages with ritual and performance—intentional depictions of the embodied spirit in a state of self-clarity.
Being an autobiographical novel, Freshwater intimately deals with your personal demons. On a day to day basis, what does keeping track of your selves look like? How do you manage your own mental health?
It’s an autobiographical novel—the novel part is rather important. Freshwater is a story that functions as an archive of a contemporary ogbanje, but once I finished writing it, my day to day moved a little differently. I’d just written a whole book processing this metaphysical identity and for me, the state of articulating what you are is very different from just being the thing that you are—the latter is far more quotidian. There’s a quiet that hunting down that level of clarity will give you. So now, I’m very clear that making work is the crux of my wellbeing, and I’m basically a bit cutthroat about removing anything that impedes my ability to do that. I stitch together a world with peace and quiet, and I make work within it.
In many ways, the narration of the book mirrors the tumultuous embodiment that Ada experiences. How did you use the ogbanje as literary tools to describe Ada’s split sense of self and liminal identities?
It’s a little difficult for me to think in terms of literary tools. The story is told the way it is because that’s the accurate way to tell it. There is no demarcation between ogbanje and the Ada because the Ada is an ogbanje. So it’s not so much about literary tools as it is about telling the story correctly. The multiple narrators exist because in this story, multiple realities exist. Another choice might have been to remain centered in one reality and narrate the rest from that singular perspective, but then it would’ve be a different and stunted story that sacrificed the truth of multiple realities for the stricture of just one. It was challenging to maintain those multiple realities in written form and I’m endlessly grateful to my editor Peter Blackstock for working with me to get the balance right. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out in the end.
It really did turn out incredible. And, this seems to be an important point: the ogbanje are not just metaphors and, throughout the story, you treat the ogbanje as very real beings.
Agreed, they’re not metaphors. Or they’re metaphors if one accepts that a thing can be both a metaphor and real. Freshwater is grounded quite heavily in Igbo ontology and ogbanje are a significant part of that reality. It’s impossible to consider their existence without factoring in how colonialism affected indigenous realities, i.e. by taking things that had been real for generations and violently attempting to render them not-real. Part of why I wrote Freshwater was to insist on the existence of these marginalized realities, to show readers that there are more options than what we’re taught about when it comes to the realities we inhabit.
You write very viscerally about being broken by men—the book exposes links between abuse, isolation, and madness. What do you hope to share with readers by writing about assault in the way you do?
I think framing assault as ‘being broken by men’ is a narrative I’d like to be excluded from. Men are not that important or powerful in my world or in my work. For the Ada, the root of her trauma is being a not-human thing existing in a human world. That’s what isolates her, that core dissonance in realities is what gets parsed as madness, and the additional brutality of the human world is what amplifies her displacement. Even when she thinks she’s broken or fragmented, she’s not, not really. The fragment is not a fragment—it’s a layer. It’s not one reality shattered, it’s multiple realities pressed together. I think realizing that is a significant part of her growth in the book.
Freshwater also tackles gender by rejecting the binary. You write about Ada’s transition to present more masculine (and the way in which Saint Vincent champions this decision) which presents gender not as finite or real but instead as a myth subject to our nuances and multiplicities. How do your perceptions and experiences of gender influence the stories you tell?
With storytelling, I’m interested in things that are true, and the invalidity of the gender binary just happens to fall into that. My perceptions or experiences aren’t necessarily related to the fact that we live in a world where people have an incredible range of identity and expression when it comes to their gender. The responsibility of telling a story accurately means that I make work that reflects this reality, so my stories can remain centered in what is true. In Freshwater, I thought a lot about the Ada’s shifts through gender in relation to her existence as an ogbanje—can you apply any gender norms to a being that’s not even human? When people talk about the work and describe the Ada as a young woman, it’s not technically true. She’s an ogbanje, not a woman. But I’ve accepted that there’s a sacrifice of accuracy in getting this book out and moving in the world, plus it’s generally inefficient to try and control how the work is interpreted.
How do you approach the writing process? How much of yourself do you allow to seep into the pages?
The writing process is always about telling stories. I’ve been doing that since I was a child, and I think a certain amount of shapeshifting helps with it—to step into the skins of the characters and puppeteer them around a bit. When it comes to making the work, the concept of a self is surrendered to the story. So it doesn’t matter who I am in that moment; I don’t have a self that’s fixed enough to seep. What I have is a story, my job is to write it, and there’s not much beyond that within the process.
Lastly, do you have any advice for young people who dream of becoming writers?
Write! That’s honestly one of my favorite things about being a writer, you pretty much just have to do the thing, and doing it makes you a writer, so that’s nice and straightforward. Writing doesn’t even have to include putting down words—a lot of my writing is daydreaming because that’s where I put my stories together before I transcribe them. Flex your imagination. And read a lot—that’s another important part of writing. Don’t be afraid to create crappy work, you can always make it better in revision.