I devoured Freshwater in 2020 – it was one of the most original stories I have ever read. As a work of auto-fiction, it drew heavily from Emezi’s life experiences and their own ontology. While it hit the beats of many books written about humans, especially human females as they encounter the world, Freshwater was entirely different because Emezi is neither human nor female. They are an embodied minor deity, born to human surrogates. They understand writing to be their work, and their devotion to it has paid off. Emezi is a gifted, explosive writer, unlike anyone I have ever read. I didn’t love The Death of Vivek Oji as much as Freshwater, but even so I still thought the writing was incredible. Last year, in addition to publishing this memoir, Emezi also got into some high profile social media feuds with other well known writers – chief among them Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, a fellow Nigerian writer that Emezi once studied with. All of these factors together led to my interest in this memoir – I wanted to understand more about how Emezi understood their own self, their position on the world.
Each chapter is a letter to other humans or embodied spirits or deities – but, as Emezi admits, all of the letters are also written just for Emezi. These are notes from the inside. Despite being an embodied god, they are still subject to utterly human elements of life – falling in love, breaking up, disappointing and being disappointed by your family of origin. Emezi focuses on the years when Freshwater was being published, detailing very explicitly the impact of receiving life-changing amounts of money for subsequent novels (naturally, an embodied god uses that money to create a sort of hipster paradise, replete with bespoke household furnishings, vegan snacks cultivated from an extensive backyard garden, and designer dresses). Each letter expresses Emezi’s full range of emotions – as you might expect from someone who looks human but is actually a deity, these emotions are powerful.
Because of how Emezi understands themself to be non-human and in fact, divine, they have the ability to write about elements of life that are familiar to many of us – falling in love, experiencing desire, sometimes for people we cannot have, experiencing betrayal – as though they are happening for the first time in the universe. One pleasure of this book was the way that the relationships between and among the recipients of their letters becomes clear. Emezi writes to and about “the Magician”, or Kanninchen, and other friends and beings in their world – drawing us in, so that when we finally read about the demise of that relationship it’s as cathartic as the chorus of “You Oughta Know”. As each chapter began, Emezi let us understand a little bit more about their relationship to the person or institution they were writing to or about. Their growing awareness of self was evident – who doesn’t learn more about what they want from life in their late 20s? Emezi writes candidly about modifying their physical self in pursuit of better matching their spiritual self.
I find it fascinating to contemplate this notion of divinity that Emezi embraces fully. I’m not so tied to Western metaphysics that I cannot see the beauty or truth in considering an origin to our personality that is not entirely based on encoded genes or environment – I am open to a third option beyond nature and nurture, something more spiritual that drives us. Although I was raised Catholic, I find a lot of how I feel about what Higher Power exists is probably more closely related to non-western traditions. What I’m saying is that I think there’s room in the world to take this concept of spirit seriously. I should also add here that whether I or anyone else sees Emezi as an embodied god is immaterial – that isn’t for us to decide. What I can react to is what it opens within me. For me, I was both attracted to this idea of the spiritual made manifest and also – ah, I cannot explain it well with words, but perhaps in some ways put off by Emezi themself. They are explosive and powerful, admirably true to their own self, fighting battles and generously pulling back the curtain for us to see that life. It takes strength and courage to do that. But still, maybe because they are still a bit young, despite having been through so much, it felt like there was still more room for something else to emerge. I don’t know if I think this was published at the wrong time – just, perhaps, that in reading this there’s a striking depth and also, maybe a slight immaturity that I cannot fully explain. Maybe a self-seriousness that I understand and admire, but also have trouble accepting is fully earned (which, again, I know isn’t mine to decide – so this reaction must say something else about something half baked within ME more than Emezi).
Anyway, if you’re a fan of Emezi’s work, this book is well worth your time. If you’re new to their work, I highly recommend reading their novels first – I’m eagerly awaiting their new novel coming out later this year.