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Akwaeke Emezi has been enjoying a moment in the literary limelight since the publication of their first novel, Freshwater, in 2018. The book received excellent reviews and was nominated for many literary prizes, some of which it won. It was followed in 2019 by Pet, a YA novel about a transgender teenager; the next year The Death of Vivek Oji went straight on to the New York Times bestseller list. This year, Emezi’s memoir, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, has been released. They make other writers who manage to squeak out a book once every three or four years look like slackers.
How do they do it, where do they get the time? Especially since they often seem to be on social media arguing with other writers (see the recent row with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), former friends or literary prize organisers. Emezi clearly knows the value of high-profile social media fights: they get people talking about you.
Dear Senthuran reads in part like a series of continuing fights, all carefully curated and presented to readers in book form. It is written in short, punchy chapters, which bear all the characteristics of tweets: brief, sharp, audacious and controversial. There are fights with their father, mother, professors and classmates, their ex-husband, friends, lovers ... A chapter in which the author documents a breakup with a former lover is narrated almost entirely in boxing imagery: “Do you think throwing me in the ring was less an attempt on my life than if you had held me down with one hand and beat me senseless with the other, till my cheekbones cracked, till my eyes swelled shut, till my lips split and teeth fell out, blood over your skinned knuckles, over and over, until I was limp in your grasp like the corpse you’ve imagined me to be?”
Dear Senthuran is written in epistolary style, each chapter addressed to an acquaintance – Senthuran is a friend, a writer and translator. There’s a chapter, “Dear June”, addressed to their mother, and another to Jesus, who they call Yshwa and recognise as an “older brother”, because Emezi sees themself as “a god”. Not in a metaphorical sense, literally a god. The whole book could be described as the author’s battle to be recognised for who they are. And who are they? An embodied spirit, an ogbanje.
Ogbanje, in Igbo ontology, are spirit children who are born only to die over and over in an endless cycle, plaguing their human parents with misfortune and heartbreak. It is a belief prevalent among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, and also the Yoruba of south-western Nigeria, whose name for it is abiku. This was a traditional, pre-scientific society’s attempt to explain natural phenomena through myth – children born with sickle-cell anaemia, a hereditary disease common in that part of the world, one that defied cure and forced these communities to take elaborate steps to ensure these “trickster” children didn’t get reborn.
One of the steps was to mutilate the dead body with scarifications so that the child would not be tempted to return, or could at least be identified when they did. Emezi writes: “The possibility that I was an ogbanje came to me years before I wrote Freshwater, around the time I began calling myself trans, but it took me a while to collide and connect the two worlds. I suppressed it for a few years because most of my education had been in the sciences and all of it was westernised – it was difficult for me to consider an Igbo spiritual world to be equally if not more valid … When I finally accepted its validity, I revisited what that could mean for my gender.”
You could say then that this book (and indeed the other books, especially the autofictional Freshwater) is an attempt by the author to fight invisibility. It is all about the process of becoming. In carefully described passages the author details how, in transitioning, they had their breasts and uterus surgically removed; this was paid for with money skimmed from their student loans. “The choice to finally modify my body felt like a big deal in large part because other people treated it that way.” Casting off the physical in order to attain the purely spiritual becomes analogous with the scarification of the ogbanje by their parents.
Another way to fight marginalisation is to make the marginal become central, a lesson Emezi says they learned from Toni Morrison, but which the author chooses to achieve through more mundane means, by acquiring fame and riches, by shining like a literary star. The earlier parts of the book are about this imperative to be successful and to be rich; there is a whole chapter on the importance of flaunting and not holding back. Emezi details how much money they make – half-a-million dollars from a two-book deal for Vivek Oji and this memoir, and a few hundred thousand here and there from their other books and a movie option for Freshwater. Their big, beautiful house in New Orleans, described from room to room, with specially ordered furniture, which they bought with the book deal money, is called “Shiny” and also the “godhouse”.
When does this calculated, self-affirming quest for fame and wealth become inordinate and even destructive?
“I always wanted to be famous,” they write. “When I first started writing for a living, it seemed like a decent avenue to accomplish this. I wanted to win all the prizes: a MacArthur, a Booker, a Pulitzer. The usual.” There is a logic behind this relentless need to flaunt, we discover later. The logic is: since ogbanjes are named and shamed by humans in order to deter them from ever coming back, what will happen if an ogbanje decides to own their name and, instead of slinking away to the spirit world, live an opulent, shiny life?
But when does this calculated, self-affirming quest for fame and wealth become inordinate and even destructive? When the author begins to contemplate, and goes on to attempt, to kill themselves for the first time: “I felt very strongly, that I needed to die. It would be in service to the work: the book might sell even more attached to the story of the tragic young writer who could have had such a stellar career if their corpse hadn’t been found before their first book even debuted.” Or the second time?
The second attempt to take their own life, years later, is in a hotel room in Los Angeles after a break up from the lover referred to in the book as “The Magician” or Kaninchen. This makes for extraordinarily uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic reading. A lot of sentences begin: “My therapist told me …” There are sections musing over cannibalism with their lover, what parts of the body would be the best to cut out and eat.
There is a lack of modesty and a lack of self-awareness that is almost fascinating here; fascinating in the way a car crash in slow motion is fascinating. You just can’t look away. Sometimes you can’t look away because of the garish self-advertisement, other times it is simply for the brilliance of the writing. For all their self-obsession and narcissism, this is an author who can write. There are beautiful reflective passages on love, betrayal, loneliness, spirituality and friendship; unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of them.
• Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir is published by Faber(14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.