Explore mental illness through Igbo mythology in Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I read Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi during a recent trip to Nigeria and could not write about the book after reading it. I needed time to process the story and grapple with the questions that the book raised.

The novel is narrated by a collective she/they who live inside the “the marble room” of Ada’s mind. Ada is a young Nigerian woman who was born “with one foot on the other side.” She is human, but she belongs to the gods and is an ọgbanje.

“The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside, maybe that’s the exact definition of madness…”

In Igbo folklore, ọgbanje’s are “children who come and go.” They are believed to be evil spirits who die and are reborn in subsequent children. Their presence will plague any family with pain and misfortune. Usually, ọgbanje’s die as children, but Ada is able to appease the gods, through self-harm, and goes on to attend the University of North Carolina.

We meet Asụghara, one of Ada’s multiple personalities, after a gruesome sexual assault; and later, meet Saint Vincent, a male personality who is gentle and soft. Asụghara is a dominant female who believes that her role is to “move and take and save” Ada. At times, this means sabotaging Ada’s medications and visits with her therapist.

As the story progresses, it becomes hard for Ada to live with multiple personalities, but Asụghara and Saint Vincent are determined to make their presence known.

Ada’s journey is astonishing.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for Ada and at the same time anxious that Asụghara and Saint Vincent would take over.

Freshwateris dark, mysterious, and haunting; and at the same time, it is soft, poetic, and funny. The story explores Ada’s fragmented selves, identities that are based on the author’s experiences.

The best part about Freshwater is that the author tracked Ada’s life from birth to adulthood and merged Igbo folklore, Christianity, and Western medicine to tell a moving story about mental illness.

In this novel, Akwaeke Emezi takes us into Ada’s world and raises important questions about Western medicine:

  1. Why are Western schemas about mental illness how we define who is mentally ill?
  2. What role did colonialism play in ensuring that Western medicine supersedes Igbo mythology and traditional practices?

Freshwater crosses the boundaries of worlds and countries, both physical and spiritual, and challenges readers to explore their “other selves.”

It was a brilliant and beautifully written novel.

Read more about the author here.