Freshwater is a debut novel written by Akwaeke Emezi. Aspects of this novel are informed by the Igbo religion. In this religious system, there are three different types of supernatural entities: the ancestors, the spirits, and God. The novel particularly explores the Igbo concept of the ogbanje. This is a hostile type of marine spirit that usually possesses female children. After joining a human family and enjoying an exuberant childhood, the ogbanje develops an unusual, sudden illness and dies. The ogbanje's goal is to cause a mother to suffer, as it possesses a child only to die and then possess the following child too, continuing the familial chain of loss and pain unless somehow stopped.
Ada, the novel's lead character, is an ogbanje. Her self-absorbed Nigerian father prayed for her birth. She is the second child of Saul, a doctor, and his Malaysian wife, Saachi. Born with spirits in her mind, Ada experiences a troubled childhood, prone to angry, violent outbursts. As she ages, she develops separate selves that all live inside her body.
When she is older, Ada travels from her home in Nigeria to Virginia to gain a college education. Ada occupies an unusual space as an ogbanje, as she did not die after her childhood as would be expected of this type of spirit.
The depiction of Ada's experiences in the novel can be seen as reflective of many of the author's own views and personal experiences. Emezi identifies as trans, Nigerian, and gender nonbinary. Emezi has noted that they do not see the Igbo belief in the existence of the ogbanje as a false interpretation of mental illness or simply an outdated belief. They expressed their views on this matter in an interview with Matthew Whitehouse (2018), saying:
We got colonised, and then after that the concept of ogbanje sort of became a myth, not something that’s real.... Part of my work now is centering this reality, reclaiming it, and then asking, so what does it look like to be this kind of embodied spirit on social media?
(The entire section is 511 words.)