Photography by Cansu Korkmaz
Akwaeke Emezi is not one for human labels. Describing themself as “based in liminal spaces,” the writer and artist has spent much of 2018 both creating original, exciting work from between binaries and staunchly defending the legitimacy of such a position to those who don’t get it. Their debut novel, Freshwater, which follows the difficult life of a child born from the gods but left in a human body, is a prime example. These are ogbanje, Nigerian spirits who thrive on mischief and curse their mothers with endless funerals, always dying only to be reincarnated in the family and resume the process all over again.
Within the book, there is lyricism and wanton destruction, beauty and vile abuse, all filtered through the amorphous eyes of Igbo deities. For some, the book’s steadfast spirituality poses a challenge: Freshwater is a living thing that rears back against mainstream attempts to label it a metaphor for mental disorder. But for others, those “with one foot on the other side” as Emezi writes in the dedication, the book is a welcoming embrace, evidence of being seen and proof that they are not alone.
Speaking on the phone with Emezi, it is clear they refuse to be pigeonholed. Moments of misunderstanding and clarification when human words didn’t quite seem to fit came together for a conversation that touches on everything from colonialism and transphobia to the existence of alternate realities. With two more books on the way—PET out in the fall, and The Death of Vivek Oji going into copy edits—Emezi shows no sign of slowing down. It’s just up to the rest of us to keep up.
Imagination and having the freedom to envision worldviews outside of the mainstream have been a big part of your journey. You’ve spoken about how Catholicism and Western science on mental health never quite clicked for you but Nigerian ogbanje did. What was that process like of finding these other ontological avenues and trusting yourself to go down them?
Honestly, that point was writing Freshwater. Freshwater, itself, was a book that I had no idea what it was going to be when I started it. I was completely clueless. I was just like—well, I know I’m using my life as a chronological skeleton, I know that I’m using Igbo ontology as the lens to look over it, and that's as far as I’ve gotten. And so it was in the process of writing it and going over my life in such fine and granular detail that that kind of clicked for me. Which is interesting, because it’s not what I set out to do—I just set out to write a book. [Laughs] I didn’t really set out to have my entire worldview changed by that book, but it’s what happened. So far, I think one of the most gratifying things for me has been hearing from readers who have been experiencing similar shifts, who have been pulled to more indigenous faith traditions but really didn't feel like those were valid options, because in most circles, they’re not. In most circles, if you're living in an alternate reality like that, you’re either possessed by demons or you’re mentally ill. I wanted Freshwater to be for other people what it was for me, which was a different way of being.
Reading Freshwater felt so refreshing because of this different perspective you decided to take, very anti-colonial. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about there being any kind of cultural ownership with these ontologies? I’m not sure, but especially since cultural appropriation has been such a hot topic?
I don’t know either, honestly. I do think it matters who’s trying to reconnect with indigenous ontologies, because you can’t erase history. There are a lot of very old, historical power dynamics in terms of colonialism and white supremacy that I don’t think should be ignored. It's not a buffet where people get to just come and pick whatever, you know? But mostly I try to stay out of stuff like that because my view is, if you’re someone who’s inappropriately, whatever that means, trying to make a spiritual claim to something, then that’s between you and the spirits, and good luck.
Talking about this idea of found ontology is very reminiscent to me of the idea of found family, which is very queer. Could you talk about those points of intersection between this anti-colonial resistance and the LGBTQ community? I know you’ve said Ada from Freshwater is trans.
All of this runs on two separate but parallel tracks actually. On one hand, there's the human track which is LGBTQ stuff, all the labels that humans ascribe to each other. The other track is the track that Freshwater is centered in, which isn't about human stuff but an ogbanje, a non-human entity. Every time I talk about it, it ends up being a little glitchy because I think people often try to marry the two tracks and really, it’s two different worlds, and two different languages. Ada in the book is an ogbanje, period. She’s not even human, so human labels don’t apply to her. But when I’m having to do PR around the book, I map it onto human language or map it onto something that’s more accessible for mainstream and say, well she’s trans, and that’s a thing that people can see and identify with clearly. When you dig into the ontology under that, it gets a lot more complicated. It becomes a more metaphysical conversation of—well, she’s trans because she’s not the gender she was assigned at birth. She’s trans because she’s a spirit. Now we’re getting into something that’s more tangled for people.
I will say that a lot of people I know who are also non-human, who are also embodied spirits, so to speak, living within these ontologies, usually are deviant in human terms of gender and sexuality, deviant from the mainstream. Part of it is because they are just not mapped onto these things. Also, there’s just so much of these labels and identities—they’re very useful, don't get me wrong—but there’s so much of them that’s specifically Western. And the book, myself, and my work are just not centered in Western lenses of things.
You were named as one of them.’s Queeroes of 2018 and that’s just one part of the visible impact you’ve had on the LGBTQ community. Can you talk a little about how that’s been for you?
One of the things that has been most gratifying about the past year is, in flesh terms, being able to have the year that I've had with this book as someone who’s openly trans and openly queer and African and Nigerian, Black, all the little venn diagrams of identity. I think for me that’s a lot because I didn’t know that it could be done. I remember being really nervous in February before I published the essay that I have out on the Cut.com about my surgeries because, first of all, I actually wasn’t even meant to publish that essay. My publicity team and I had come up with a list of essays and I had been like—okay, cool I’ll go write those and then I did not. I went and I wrote this essay. I was nervous about everyone's reaction but my team was immensely supportive and then we published the essay and the response was, again, overwhelmingly supportive. Definitely some transphobia that showed up on my social media pages, and I heard through the grapevine, even within the queer community. That was the hard part, is hearing the transphobia from other queer people of color. Most people are so used to binaries. And the idea of being nonbinary and still identifying as trans is something that I think people have trouble with, oddly.
But I was also nervous about publishing the essay because I didn't know how it would affect my career. I couldn't think of another trans African writer who was successful, period. I just don't know any. I'm not saying there aren't, I'm sure there are trans African writers. I just knew there was a level of, quite frankly, career success that I wanted to reach, and I didnt know if I could reach that level while being openly trans. I knew if everyone kept thinking of me as a woman then of course, there are several examples of successful cis Black African women writers. So when my career didn't crash and burn as a result, I was incredibly relieved because it means that the next young trans Black African writer might not feel like it’s impossible. I’m not eliminating the structural obstacles that exist, but I think so much of my work and so much of my transparency is about introducing ways of being, just the possibility of different ways of being. I know that I could have done with some possibility when I was starting out so I just hope it’s something that I can pay forward and be like here, here’s some possibility for you.
Speaking of possibility, I think people need more of it considering the conservative shifts happening around the world. Do you see your work offering some hope in relation to today’s politics?
When it comes to questions about the moment that everyone’s in politically, for me it’s always hard to answer because it's been like this for a lot of people for a long time. For a lot of people, this is not new. Even my voice, as a trans African writer, is so limited in its usefulness. This is not doing anything for trans people back home who are getting killed. We don’t even have statistics on that. All the statistics we have for trans people and life expectancies and all the morbid sides of that are specifically in the West. But you shift the census to somewhere like Nigeria, with the laws that are in place, and it’s a far more dangerous setting to be deviant in when it comes to gender or gender expression. So for me, I don’t know. I feel like I’m trying to do my own little part. I recognize the limitations of it.
My point is, this is not a moment. This is a lot of people's lived reality that has been progressively worse. There’s this idea where people think we’re toppling into a dystopia. No, dystopia defies time, it defies its own definition actually, because it’s so many people’s present and history rather than just a scary future that some people are looking into. I don’t think I have a positive spin on that other than things are really bad for a lot of queer and trans people around the world and have been really bad and I think it's helpful if we stop thinking of it as something new or something that’s coming down the barrel towards us and recognize that for a lot of people they're already in it and they’ve been in it and a lot of people have not survived this.
Last question, any resolutions for 2019 you’d like to share?
My New Year's resolutions are how to not burn out from getting the life that you said you wanted and how to keep pace with it and survive it. A sobering thought that occurs to me when I’m trying to beat myself up (as capitalism urges us all to do, you know: “Why are you not doing enough? You could be doing more.”) is that although I’m quite privileged in terms of not being at high risk for homicide as a trans person because of how I present and because my presentation is not particularly deviant, I am still at incredibly high risk for death by suicide. That’s something I try to take seriously because it cropped up a few times this year with the pressures of having a book out and I’m trying to figure out how to take better care of myself so I can decrease that risk moving forward. Also because I want to be well enough to continue making my work and to enjoy the career that I've worked really, really hard to build for myself.