The Black Syllabus
Syllabus | Freshwater
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
“How do you survive when they place a god inside your body?”
Emezi, A. (2018). Freshwater. Grove Press.
Summary & Review
Freshwater is a powerful, deeply moving piece of work. This book has opened my mind to new perspectives on spirituality and origin, identity and gender, and mental health. Imagine having a personality “disorder” or mental “disability,” and that “disorder” taking a pen and writing your story from their perspective. The Ada is simply a vessel for the ogbanje (gods/spirits) who were chosen to occupy this human/earthly realm. The ogbanje’s relationship to this world is complicated as Ada continues to grow and experience the world in human form, developing her own human personality, desires, interests, relationships, etc. Ada’s attachment to her humanity conflicts with the fact that she has “one foot on the other side,” and is in constant conflict with the ogbanje and how they use her body for their own interests and desires. She spends a lot of time trying to reclaim agency over her body, but also relies on the ogbanje to take over when she needs to check out. This story is incredibly layered and complex, and Emezi does a fantastic job at keeping the reader engaged through alternating narrators and time periods. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a fresh perspective through the lens of a unique culture.
An Igbo spirit that’s born into a human body, a kind of malevolent trickster (Emezi, 2018b).
An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to “come and go.” (Mancini, 2018).
Identity, queerness & the gender binary
Mental health & personality disorders
Spirituality & origin
If Asughara, Saint Vincent, and the other ogbanje (“We”) existed in a physical location in Ada’s body, where would they be?
We know about the marble room, but are they confined to only that space in her head, or are they free to roam?
Were you more drawn to Ada’s human experiences or the ogbanje’s experiences? How would you distinguish between the two?
In the beginning of the book and throughout, Ada is described as not having full agency over her body. The ogbanje seem to have control over certain parts of her personality and take full control of her body when needed (sometimes without her consent or knowledge). At the end though, it becomes clear to Ada and the reader that she does have agency over her body as the ogbanje take a step back and grant Ada the autonomy she seeks. “Ah, we have always claimed to rule the Ada, but here is the truth: she is not ours, we are hers."
Do you have any additional thoughts on how agency & autonomy (or lack thereof) show up in this book?
Agency: the capacity to act
Autonomy: a social relationship whereby one is recognized as having rights to agency
What are your thoughts on Ada’s full identity? Does Ada exist without the ogbanje? How much of Ada is made up of her human experiences as opposed to her lineage as a god? What parts of her will cease to exist once her human life ends?
Freshwater has been applauded for “[pinpointing] the nebulous pain of being imprisoned in a physical form” (Waldman, 2018).
What do you think of the perspective that we are all spirits having a human experience? Do you think this is a universal truth?
What are some other cultures that challenge this notion of humanness as the norm, and the belief that any existence outside of this world is just a possibility? How would the world be different if this were universally acknowledged?
What does “having one foot on the other side” mean?
For those of us in euro-centric cultures influenced by colonization, consider how we are raised; we are taught that human life is the center of all existence. It’s hard for many of us to challenge that belief because humanity is tangible for us. It’s easy to accept without question what we see/experience on the surface as the norm/the only. Consider that lack of connection with spirits/gods is a result of white supremacy and colonialism; the belief that (certain) humans are superior, and what we produce on this earth for our consumption is all that matters/is all that is real.
What are your thoughts on Ada’s trans identity as more of a rejection of humanity altogether, rather than a transition from one gender binary to another? “My surgeries were a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature” (Emezi, 2018b).
Emezi states that “the legend of the ogbanje helped [them] comprehend why [they were] drawn to suicide” (Waldman, 2018), and we clearly see the connection between the ogbanje and suicide in Ada’s life as well. “It is a promise we made when we were free and floating, before we entered the Ada. The oath says that we will come back, that we will not stay in this world, that we are loyal to the other side.” Draw or write about what you anticipate experiencing in the afterlife. What will it look like? What physical form will you take? Who will be there? What parts of your human self will come with you?
How has your perspective on mental health &/or personality disorders changed after reading this if at all?
What is your relationship with your inner spirits/the voices in your head?
Who or what is inside the “marble room” of your mind? What would you name them? What is their gender (if any)? What parts of your personality/your self can be attributed to them?
What happens when the voices in your head are given a name? “To be named is to gain power.”
Alvarez, M. (2019, February 8). Already changing its mind: Possession as protection. The Times Literary Supplement. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/we-igbo-mythology-possession/
Emezi, A. (2018b). Transition: My surgeries were a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature. The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/writer-and-artist-akwaeke-emezi-gender-transition-and-ogbanje.html
Ikpi, B. (2019). I’m telling the truth but I’m lying. HarperPerennial.
Mancini, T. (2018, February 12). The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and finding home. Ms. Magazine. https://msmagazine.com/2018/02/12/ms-qa-akwaeke-emezi-debut-novel-freshwater/
Waldman, K. (2018, February 26). A startling début novel explores the freedom of being multiple. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/akwaeke-emezi-startling-debut-novel-explores-the-freedom-of-being-multiple
* All blue italicized quotes are directly from Freshwater.