Akwaeke Emezi On Writing Even When You’re Scared

Her debut novel ‘Freshwater’ is out tomorrow

When I speak with writer Akwaeke Emezi, it’s less than a week before her debut novel, Freshwater, comes out. “It’s been a lot more stressful than I would’ve anticipated,” she tells me. “It's weird to have this goal in your life that you look forward to, and you think it's going to be this magical ‘all my dreams are coming true!’ moment, and really, it's… it's that, but it's also very difficult and it hurts.” She laughs and continues, “Which was unexpected.”

When I ask whether she thinks the hurt will fade or increase once Freshwater is available for public consumption, she’s unsure. “It’s one of those things where it’s uncharted territory for me. You can’t predict anything, you have to surrender to a lot of unknowns. I’m not particularly good at surrendering to unknowns.”

In a recent piece for BuzzFeed, Emezi ruminates on doubts she held that the novel would even have a future. It’s not about the “immigrant experience,” nor does it look like what other popular African writers have done before her. It’s an internal experience that uses traditional Igbo religion as its lens. Not many Americans are exposed to that, and so she thought not many would embrace it.

The book has been received beautifully so far, though, and that’s because it is beautiful. It follows a young woman, Ada, from childhood to adulthood, from Nigeria to America. After a traumatic event on campus, she retreats into herself and separates into the different selves present since she was a child. As such, the book is layered and dark and complicated. Trying to describe it doesn’t do it justice, it must be experienced. Emezi dedicates it to those “with one foot on the other side,” the people stuck in a reality not of their making. Though Freshwater is fiction, it weaves in many real-life experiences of Emezi's, and she considers herself a part of those people "with one foot on the other side." Specifically, she refers to herself as an ogbanje, a term from the Igbo language that refers to a “spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” She recently wrote about this in a piece for The Cut, explaining that she discovered this about herself around the same time she came out as trans. And she’s been reinventing, rediscovering, and evolving ever since.

Ahead, we talk to the author about what she uncovered while writing Freshwater, the complications of reading reviews, and how the work has changed her life.

Have you always been a writer?

I started writing when I was five, and I wrote nonstop through that. I wrote a lot more poetry before I switched over to prose, but I started writing my first novel when I was 14. Not because I was like, "Oh, I want to write a book," but it was just a thing that I did. It wasn't really offered as a viable career path—because, Nigerian immigrants—[so] I never considered doing it full-time until 2013 when a couple of friends told me that I should. And then I started applying to MFA programs and writing opportunities. I made the major pivot in 2014 when I left my job and then switched over to writing.

You wrote on Twitter that you started as a blogger in 2006. Were you mostly writing shorter fiction and prose and poetry during that time?

No, I was writing a lot more nonfiction. I was really just blogging about my life a lot. Which is interesting now, because people are like, "Oh, you're so open, and you're vulnerable, and you talk about intimate things on the internet." I laugh a little bit, and I'm like, "Oh, this is nothing." I used to put all my business out there, like all my business [laughs]. I bear in mind that the internet lives forever, and some of that stuff will probably surface, and it's like completely cringe-worthy and terribly written, but it taught me a lot about how to deal with being on social media and how to deal with the backlash. So even now when, like, there's backlash from my essay on The Cut, I know how to deal with that pretty well. I've had backlash about way more personal things and caused a lot more drama in my family with what I wrote online than whatever I'm doing now.

Have the reactions to The Cut piece made you more excited or nervous about the book coming out?

I haven't actually been nervous about the book coming out in terms of reader reception. The responses to The Cut piece were expected—from the really good ones to hate speech. People are predictable, mostly. My editor in the Nigerian edition of the book had tweeted: "Wow, y'all are having a fit over this essay, I can't wait for you to read the book." I think the thing that I forget sometimes is that the book is… I don't know what the word is. The book is a lot for some people. And that's interesting because, for me, it's clearly not because I wrote it. This is my normal, this is my baseline. So, I have a couple of West African readers who will specifically refer to it as blasphemy, and that's super interesting. A lot of the Goodreads reviews, they're like, "Oh, it's about mental health," but a lot of them also keep talking about trigger warnings, and they keep talking about how brutal the content is.

When I read about these people being shocked by things in the book, I'm like, "Oh, there are people for whom this level of violence and pain is actually not a part of their life." There are people who don't live with this and who never had to live with this. And, to me, I know so many people who have had to live with more pain and violence than what is depicted in the book, so the book doesn't even seem extreme to me. So when people write reviews, and they're like "the sexual violence is extremely traumatic" or "the child abuse is traumatic," for me, I'm like the whole being alive part is way more traumatic than all of those things.

I actually read your piece on The Cut after I read Freshwater, and I almost wish I did it the other way around because, I think, it’s a good precursor to the book. Because it does give you information about ogbanje and gender and transitioning, which is explored throughout the novel. Would you recommend that to readers?

I'm not sure, I don’t try very hard to curate people's experiences of the book. I read the reviews on Goodreads, and there was a girl who had written a review of Freshwater, and she didn't finish it but I loved the review because it was very honest, and she engaged with the book, and she wanted me to come to D.C. so I could do an event. But the reason she didn't like it or finish it was because she followed me originally on Instagram and she thought that my book was going to be like my Instagram account, in terms of being positive and a bit uplifting. Then she read Freshwater, and I was like, "Oh, honey, it is not like that" [laughs].

Someone else on Twitter kind of critiqued her expectations and they were like, "Before you read Freshwater, you might wanna look up other things that Akwaeke has written, so you can get a feel for what that is," which is useful advice. But for me, it's just interesting seeing people coming into the book from all kinds of directions, with or without a bit of foreknowledge of what the content is going to be. I had this understanding that the book doesn't quite belong to me once it's out there—I can't really control a reader's experience of it—but I can correct things. A bunch of people on Twitter keep summarizing the book inaccurately, and I was like, "Okay, we need a little bit of a guide, so we can stop prescribing facts in a way that is not true." I do care about the book being represented accurately to an extent. I know that I can try to guide people a little bit, but I can't control it. I think that's the distinction.

You mentioned once that your mother has always been wary of you writing anything memoir-ish because she's been nervous about telling family stories. What's been her reaction to the book?

I actually interviewed my mom for the book, and she got to pick the name of her character. I interviewed her because I didn't know a lot of my childhood stuff, I don't remember a lot of my childhood, and we talked about the blank spaces. A lot of the book—especially the first couple of chapters—is based on direct stories that she told me. She would spend evenings writing out the stories and emailing them to me so I could use them for the book. When I was done with the first draft, she called me and said, "I hope you haven't written anything that the family wouldn't like." I was like, "Woman, I hope you didn't tell me anything you didn't want out there because it's based on what you said." She read the finished book and I really thought she was going to have a problem with it, but she loves it. She sent me an email talking about how much she loved it, and I'm not sure which bits of it she decided were fictionalized and which bits were not, but she seems fine with it.

The book feels very present, like you're uncovering things as you go. Were there any new discoveries and things that surprised you in the writing of it?

The entire book was difficult. I had no idea what the book was going to be when I started writing it. I knew that I would go in chronological life order, so that was the skeleton of the book—follow these events that happened and use that as the framework for it. That was the thread I followed, but everything else that goes on top of that was a complete discovery because the book is also based in this very specific Igbo reality, and I wasn't in that reality before I started writing the book.

In the acknowledgments, I mention a conversation with my sister in which I said I was hesitant to write the book because I did not want to step into that reality because I had a feeling that it was going to suck me in. I was scared because I'm already marginalized in human terms on so many different axes. There are already so many things that, when I meet new people, I have to tell them about my life: "You're black, you're African, you're queer, you're divorced, you have these ‘mental health’ issues." It's all these things that make you "other." I didn't want to add one more where it's like, "Oh! You don't even live in this reality." It seems like a lot. But my sister said to treat it like Method acting, where you have to step into the reality and get the work done. So, I did that.

So the writing of the book was the thing that made the book exist. Even the idea of the book didn't exist until the book was being written. It very much came to life. It very much was spun into existence. The book and I discovered each other at the same time, so to speak.

What do you think writing the book has given you?

Clarity, for one. I used to say there was the "me" that existed before the book, and there was the "me" that existed after the book. And I understand why it had to be the first book I wrote. Because the books that I have afterward aren’t like this book; they weren’t transformative for me. They’re lovely stories, but this one, in particular, was a book that fundamentally changed how I saw myself, and the clarity that it gave me quite literally changed my life. It’s a weird thing to write a book where you understand so much about yourself only because you wrote the book, and understanding a lot about how what I was dealing with was because I was located in the wrong reality. And in order to have a better quality of life, I needed to be in the one that was more accurate. And the book was what helped me literally ascribe legibility to my existence and find my way through the reality that’s accurate.

I also wrote it for other people who are where I was. I know that feeling of being trapped in the reality that you’re not allowed to think is real, that everyone else tells you is crazy. What ends up happening is that you just have a bunch of really isolated, really depressed, really suicidal people. It’s not fun. So, if I can help people shift realities a little bit into one that gets them a better way of being, a better quality of life, and helps them feel less choked, then hopefully, it’s gonna give to someone else what it also gave to me.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is out February 13 and available for purchase here.