We talked with Akwaeke Emezi about their debut novel, Freshwatera story of spirit selves known as  ọgbanje , birthed into a child’s body. From her youth in Aba, Nigeria, to her adult life in America, Ada merges with spirit selves within her after she faces a terrible assault.

Akwaeke Emezi spoke about their writing process, inspiration and who they had in mind when writing.

 

Read an extract from Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater

 

Shode: 

What inspired the title of your novel?

 

Emezi: 

It comes from an Igbo proverb, ‘All freshwater comes out of the mouth of a python.’ It’s another way of saying that all life comes from the deity Ala, whose avatar is the python.

 

Shode: 

How would you describe your experience and process writing Freshwater?

 

Emezi: 

Honestly? I had several emotional breakdowns while writing it. The novel is autobiographical, so I used my life as a chronological skeleton for the story, which meant revisiting a lot of things that were immensely painful. It was also a process of discovery – I had no outline for Freshwater, no idea how it was going to take shape, but it built itself as I was writing it.

 

Shode: 

How did you learn about the ọgbanje ? Was this through your own personal interest/discovery, or have you had any knowledge given to you by family or friends?

 

Emezi: 

It’s a significant part of Igbo culture, which I was born and raised in.

 

Shode: 

Do you worry about how ọgbanje and Igbo ontology in general will be interpreted by the reader?

 

Emezi: 

I’m painfully aware that I can’t actually control how the reader interprets the work, no matter what kind of guidance I provide. However, it delights me when people engage with the book as a literary work about metaphysics, because that’s very much what I wrote, and I think it’s radical for Igbo ontology to be taken seriously in a world that often invalidates non-Western schools of thought.

 

Shode: 

Did you have an audience in mind? If so, what did you want these readers to experience?

 

Emezi: 

I wrote the book for people like me, who have been inhabiting realities that aren’t considered valid unless they’re pathologized in Western or religious terms as mental illness or demonic possession. I wanted those readers to feel less alone, to know that there are other people living in worlds like these, non-mainstream worlds, and that our worlds are valid. I hoped it would help with the terrible isolation and depression that often comes from having a reality you can’t share with anyone else.

 

Shode: 

You have said elsewhere that your novel is loosely based on your own life; your feelings and experiences of feeling disassociated and isolated. Have you found a space in which you are accepted?

 

Emezi: 

I’ve learnt to build a bubble around myself, one that protects me as much as it can from the violence of being embodied in a world like this, to have people in it who are like me, who understand how important tenderness is to staying alive.

 

Shode: 

Which authors have inspired your writing?

 

Emezi: 

Toni Morrison, for showing me it was okay to write lush sentences. Helen Oyeyemi, for making odd worlds and sharing them, which helped me feel like I could as well. Fran Ross, for challenging me to shatter form. I haven’t done that as well as I know I could, not yet.

 

Shode: 

Which book can you always return to when you are having challenges with your own writing?

 

Emezi: 

When I’m a little stuck, I always go into books that remind me why I love reading stories, why I love writing stories. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is full of those, storied worlds to escape into. I wish my other favourite speculative fiction writers would give me forty books in one world! I’d be ecstatic.

 

Shode: 

What advice would you give to those who are just starting their writing journey?

 

Emezi: 

The secret is really to just keep writing, over and over again. Do it as much as you can, and read as much as you can. I think making that part of a disciplined practice helps immensely.

 

Shode: 

What writing practices do you regularly return to?

 

Emezi: 

Daydreaming, actually. I can’t tell you how much of my work was created by telling myself stories in my head during daydreams.

 


Akwaeke--Emezi_Freshwater_cover

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is out now with Faber in the UK. 

Feature image © Elizabeth Wirija

The Woman Dies
Freshwater