‘The First Madness is That We Were Born, That They Stuffed a God Into a Bag of Skin’
- This article has been updated to reflect Akwaeke Emezi’s preferred pronouns, they/them
Usually, when reading, I am either entertained or impressed by technical mastery. It is rare for me to say a book changed my life, or even that it moved me. But Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, affected me deeply.
The Ada, the protagonist, is an ọgbanje child. Within Igbo ontology, ọgbanje are malevolent spirits that inhabit some human children from birth, but are also always trying to return to the spirit world. This return often happens before puberty, where their human vessel meets their death, ‘the doorway is death’, only for the spirits to be born within another child, to the same mother, causing constant grief.
The novel is autobiographical. On their Instagram page Emezi describes themselves as an ‘ọgbanje embodiment paradox’. They exists in liminal spaces.
Within a Western psychiatric framework, the Ada could be described as someone with a mental illness.
This was certainly not Emezi’s aim. They have been vocal about how the novel is not in any way a metaphor.
But as someone diagnosed with a mental illness, I could relate to the Ada’s experiences. The arguments with Asụghara —one of the spirits— are very similar to my own internal monologue during times of crises. Reading about the Ada’s experiences, her behaviour and reactions in certain situations —actions attributed to the ọgbanje, but which could also be read as symptomatic behaviour— was to really see myself and my history laid bare.
Asụghara’s presence is more pronounced when the Ada is in the midst of a painful or negative incident; it is during a particularly violent experience that they (Asụghara) first manifest, and as the novel continues, they continue to come to the fore to, sort of, take the blows during whatever it is that is happening (especially sexual encounters) and shield the Ada from what she could feel as a consequence.
About this, Asụghara says,
Ada was never there. I had already promised she would never be there/ I had her put her pain with me because I could use it as fuel, I could do things with it that she couldn’t.
Susan Sontag speaks of madness as a defence against terror, madness as a defence against grief, and it is easy to understand the sometimes destructive behaviour we give in to during periods of psychic terror, where we might, at times, allow that malicious inner voice to choose whatever brings relief.
I think of the times I have cut off my hair on what seems to others as a whim; dressing androgynously to appear handsome — rather than beautiful, an attempt at neutrality as identity disturbance takes hold.
All of these seemingly impulsive, along with body modification — tattoos, piercings etc. — are an attempt to reflect externally what is happening internally.
As the other ọgbanje say,
this is all, ultimately, a litany of madness—the colors of it, the sounds it makes in heavy nights, the chirping of it across the shoulder of the morning. Think of brief insanities that are in you, not just the ones that blossomed as you grew into taller, more sinful versions of yourself, but the ones you were born with, tucked behind your liver.
The Igbo proverb Ebe onye dara, ka chi ya kwatụrụ ya is the epigraph of the fourteenth chapter. It translates to, Where one falls is where his god pushed him down. Essentially, it means that trials are part of your destiny, they are part of (your) god’s plan for you.
Personally, the only god I can conceive of, in the sense of an entity or strong influence that has any control over my life and its trajectories, is mental illness. My brain’s wonderings and wanderings dictate how any given day (and months and years) will turn out.
The proverb is a reminder to me that when I fall, when the anxiety and depression take over and render me unproductive or unable to function, I am not a fuck up; it is my god that pushed me down.
The Ada only speaks as an individual —if that can even be said—in four of twenty-two chapters. This is reflective of how difficult it can be to vocalise any sort of singular experience when you inhabit the three worlds of the Igbo belief system: the spirit world inhabited before birth, the physical plane of human life, and the world of the ancestors. These are not worlds one traverses in a linear fashion, they coexist at all times.
The Ada’s first words in the novel are I don’t have the mouth to tell this story.
How can we tell our stories, our lives, when the world at large discriminates against any experience that does not fit in with social norms? I sometimes think of mental illness diagnoses as a way for the world to categorise those of us who do not fit into prescribed boxes; a way to pathologise what are essentially human experiences. There is a battle within me between accepting this diagnosis as an absolute, objective truth, or recognising it as just a different way of being; a way marked by feeling more than most people do (what is the measure of sadness, of rage, of loneliness, that is socially acceptable?)
And so, how we tell our lives should be as layered, perhaps, as contradictory; as multiple as they are because, as the Ada says, whatever they say will be the truest version of it, since they are the truest version of me.
- Katlego is an editor, primarily interested in fiction. She is based in Pitori, mahlanyeng. She’s currently operating off-the-grid.
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