by Akwaeke Emezi

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Freshwater relies heavily on Nigerian mythology and lore about ogbanje as a way of explaining the turbulence of Ada’s inner life and the behavior that Western culture labels “madness.” It is symbolic that Ada’s parents are both medical practitioners; Saachi is a nurse and Saul a doctor. Their Western training compels them to see Ada’s problems as features of a diagnosable mental illness that can be “cured” using Western-style treatments such as talk therapy and medication. However, mythology—which the “We” voice explains and which frames the novel by occupying the opening and closing chapters—brings a rich cultural history to Ada’s experience and challenges conventional Western interpretations that leave no room for spiritual entities, godly realms, or mythic truths. While a Western approach would consider Ada’s voices as manifestations of a psychiatric condition, Igbo mythology is far more tolerant of Asughara, Saint Vincent, and “We,” working to understand why the ogbanje exist in Ada and seeing them as both beneficial and problematic. The locating of Ada’s experience within a larger cultural context echoes the novel’s ultimate focus on all things being circular, on Ada being “the beginning that is the end, this immortal space . . . [where] everything is shedding and everything is resurrection.” Rather than stigmatize and ostracize Ada, a mythic interpretation allows Ada to maintain a connection to her cultural heritage and to be seen as a divine entity to be admired and learned from, rather than feared and judged. In this way, the novel troubles the reductionism of Western psychiatry and embraces cultural contextualization.

The book also challenges the idea that humans are confined to this world based on the length of their lifespan in a human body. Ada’s body is continually referred to by the ogbanje as a “flesh vessel,” their tone dripping with disdain and disgust. The ogbanje know that there is a bigger world out there than the one they are confined to, a world of complete freedom unbound by a mortal life, where existence has no beginning or end. The ogbanje know that Ada’s struggles and pains are temporary and are a direct result of her having a human body that bleeds, tears, and scars. Outside of this “flesh vessel,” however, exist opportunities for play, trickery, and hedonism, as the ogbanje and brothersisters exhibit. Ada is constantly trying to escape or alter her body, and she is only able to find peace within it at the novel’s close, when she has finally accepted that she is more than a “bag of skin.”

Identity is a concept that is constantly under revision in the novel. Ada’s story emphasizes that people are amalgamations of their previous selves, their experiences, their traumas, their role models, their assailants, their hopes, and their fears. There is no such thing as a static self or a self that is easily definable. Ada’s constant search for her true self is destined to be a failure because there is never a moment in which the self becomes immutable. That the novel moves so easily between past and present—folding over on itself in time, leaping ahead, and falling back without explanation or respect for chronology—indicates the chaotic nature of identity formation. A self is not a single unit formed through a linear process; it is a force that is acted upon, constantly, by influences from every direction. Learning to embrace this chaos, rather than trying to rigidly control it, frees Ada from feeling as though she is at war with herself.

The word “dysphoria” is at the heart of understanding this novel. Dysphoria—a state of uneasiness, unhappiness, or unwellness—describes Ada at nearly...

(This entire section contains 799 words.)

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every moment in the novel. Yet nearly all of the characters she encounters are also experiencing their own form of dysphoria: Soren with his childhood demons, Ewan with his tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol, Malena with her own spirit voices. Dysphoria, then, is less of an exception to the norm than the norm itself: it is a natural product of the human condition. Rather than stigmatizing it as a psychiatric condition, as Western culture is inclined to do, it is possible to view dysphoria as simply a sign of human beings’ constant need to change, learn, and grow. It may be unusual to hear the voices of gods and spirits, but it is not at all unusual to question how one might be happier or more content. Ada’s unflinching ability to confront her own demons offers an assurance that everyone feels unhappy and dissatisfied with certain elements of their life. Only when a person can confront the source of that dissatisfaction can they begin to move toward a more balanced mental state, a state where “with each morning, [we are] less afraid.”