With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
The author, Akwaeke Emezi, calls herself trans but also Ogbanje, a spirit depicted in Igbo culture as inhabiting a newborn baby soon to die, though possibly allowing it to live. These are dark conceptions already, embracing fatality and negotiating both intrusion and malevolence, and they contribute as themes to Emezi's highly regarded first novel, Freshwater (2018).
Transgender narrative this may be, but it's far removed from Western, U.S.-based definitions in spite of its primary location in the U.S. The story follows the young life of Ada, a Nigerian child who travels to America to study, but her whole life involves psychical interaction with the indigenous spirits who vie for control of her. Is Ada Ogbanje too? By the end, she appears to embrace this self-conception as an offspring of the Universal Creator Ala, visualized as cosmic python – the source of the spring from which all freshwater comes from its mouth. Yet Ada for almost the novel's entirety is also the human, engaged in an uneasy relationship with otherworldly spirits who inhabit her mind, visualized in turn as a room of marble, perhaps not unlike the Kaaba of Mecca. The most powerful, possessive, and controlling of the spirits is Asughara, occasionally presented as Ada's pernicious alpha. At times, Asughara blocks out Ada from consciousness, either to protect or punish Ada.
Madness, perhaps unavoidably, is a key theme: Ada readily acknowledges her fragile mental state, while Asughara denies Ada's reasons for guilt or self-doubt, claiming to protect Ada from insanity. Yet Ada's psychical condition as Ogbanje has material consequences: Ada's self-mutilation recurs throughout the tale, to Asughara's obvious pleasure. Asughara in fact desires Ada's suicide so they may return together to the spirit world. The relationship with transgender identity is accordingly fraught: Ada desires to be a physical manifestation of gendered neutrality and undergoes breast reduction surgery to achieve it, but gender dysphoria is of marginal presence in the story overall. What dominates is Ada's engagement with her external environment and internal spirits; sometimes she relents and welcomes the interaction, other times resenting it and seeking support from the white Western services of uncertain therapists or useless lovers.
Engaging with this text in turn is an uncomfortable but mesmerizing experience; in acknowledgement of my own white intersections, I felt horror at an experience it was not my right to judge. In white, colonizing terms, I couldn't help thinking of Ada's psychical conflict and self-mutilations as manifestations of Deleuze's idealistic schizoanalysis, or of the Freudian processes at war of the Id versus ego, and perhaps most of all Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection: of the preservation within us of pre-socializing forces which beg for transgression, expressed here in modes of darkness through the violence of self-abuse and dissociative fugue-states.
Yet to analyse too deeply with such analyses is perhaps to miss the point. Freshwater is arguably Emezi's attempt to seize control of her transgender experience with her own indigenous language, torn away from the colonizing impact of white Western pathologies and identity-labelling. In a revealing interview in The Cut, Emezi in fact reveals the dual evolution in her twenties of her transgender identity, simultaneously developing an understanding of herself as Ogbanje. Freshwater embraces these intersectional clashes and fluid melding of American and Nigerian/Igbo intersections to produce a representation of gender identity both viscerally apparent and bewilderingly distant, throwing the reader out of their comfort zone. The result is a disturbing, remarkable piece of imaginative fiction that should be on anyone's list of transgender fiction, even as this label barely satisfies the complex intersections driving the story.
Image taken from: https://www.akwaeke.com/freshwater