Raw, unforgiving story of 'otherness'

Peter Stupples reviews Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater, published by Faber & Faber. 

Ada, the central character of Akwaeke Emezi's story, experienced childhood in Umuahia, in southeast Nigeria. Her mother, Saachi, was a Tamil from Melaka (Malacca) in Malaysia, married to Saul, a Nigerian doctor trained in the Soviet Union but who had worked in London, where the couple met and married before shifting back to his homeland. From the first page we are aware of the tensions and fissures of post-colonial cosmopolitanism, with the underlying calls to "home" yet the addictive seduction of "otherness".

Ada's parents are not able to handle these tensions and her mother leaves her children and husband to work as a nurse in Saudi Arabia for seven years, where she is able to earn enough to pay for Ada's education in the US at schools and universities where there are fellow students from around the world, many carrying the scars of painful dislocations.

As a Nigerian child, Ada has grown up in a Christian household, but with knowledge of the spirit world of Igbo ontology. Her body is used by these African immortal "brothersisters" for their own amusement, spirits who became locked into her body by their struggle with Western medicine at her birth. The story that follows is told largely by these brothersisters and kindred spirits. When Ada becomes sexually aware and active in the US, the more malignant Asughara (Dagger), less tolerant of her Christian moral upbringing, takes over her body (as well as some chapters of the narrative), a body already subject to cutting, while childhood traumas, as well as cultural and family rifts, bring about emotional moments of acute pain and suffering. The spirits need placating by sacrifice, by the offering of Ada's blood.

Halfway through the story, Ada herself takes over the narrative from the spirits for all of two pages, to assure us that they are giving us the most authentic account of what it is to be Ada: "the world in my head has been far more real than the one outside - maybe that's the exact definition of madness ... It's all a secret I've had to keep, but no longer, as you're reading this."

Ada only takes over the story again once, towards the end when she has experienced a series of relationships, but concludes that love "forever" is an illusion: "don't get me wrong. I still want forever ... But I've learned that you can't force forever on the wrong people. They belong exactly where they are, giving exactly what they want to. I don't ask for anything more. I figure I shouldn't have to." This is the most poignant chapter of the book as Ada directly confesses her need for freedom from forever.

Struggling to contain the tensions in her body and her life Ada turns finally to Yshwa (Yaweh/Jesus), a more forgiving spirit, similar to the Christ figure from her childhood years before being taken over by more malignant spirits. She ceases the struggle with her chi (the Chinese "life force") and settles down to write the story of her painful journey.

Emezi's tale uses non-Western concepts to relate Ada's story, one that expresses the struggles that so many migrants experience in cross-cultural tensions, in the pain and suffering that the 21st century is bringing in its wake. It is a raw and unforgiving story.

Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago.

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