Freshwater by Akweake Emezi is an unusual story about an unusual young woman named Ada with a disordered state of mind. Ada is forever tortured by feelings of severe despondency and dejection. Had Emezi chosen to write this semi-autobiographical tale from the vantage point of a person suffering from mental illness, the factual descriptions might have been devoid of symbolism and imagery. However, the author writes the novel as a work of fiction and relies on symbolic references to communicate their realities.
Emezi self-identifies as an ogbanje, which is a term also referred to in the novel Things Fall Apart by author Chinua Achebe. The term expresses a traditional Igbo belief in Nigerian culture. Ogbanje are children who die at a young age and return to be born, to die, and to be reincarnated again. These malevolent spirits enter human bodies and cause grief and torment, especially to the child’s mother. Emezi’s beliefs find their way into Freshwater.
In the novel, Ada is a young child in Nigeria with “one foot on the other side” as she progresses toward recognition of her complicated inner self as an ogbanje, which symbolizes a person with multiple spirits inside her head. Some of them represent god-like voices that urge her toward self-destruction. These conceptual mental patterns in her mind, which continually recur throughout the novel, drive her into a deep depression.
Another example of symbolism in Freshwater is Emezi’s reference to the “marble room.” This term conjures up the image of a space in Ada’s mind where the multiple spirits pull her in different directions. The spirits have diametrically opposite views about cultural mores to be observed by young women in Nigerian society and pull her closer to self-destruction: “How do you survive when they place a god inside your body?”
Ada’s story involves depression and dysphoria. She cuts her arms with glass. She allows a man to “take a knife lavishly to the flesh of her chest, mutilating her.” These violent images depict the reactions of a suicidal person to typical Western readers, but to those who believe in the ogbanje tradition, they constitute reality. According to Emezi, Ada always has “one foot in the afterlife.”
A Western reader might interpret Freshwater as a study of Dissociative Personality Disorder and Ada as a human symbol of mental illness or psychiatric disorder. However, to the Igbo people of Nigeria, the existence of ogbanje is reality. As Ada says, “I am a village full of faces and a compound full of bones, translucent thousands.”