Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

Liminality

Illustration of PDF document

Download Freshwater Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Ada is both human and god, male and female, forever straddling the line between the mortal world and the spiritual one—and therefore feeling like she occupies neither space fully. Her liminality prevents any feeling of belonging or happiness in the human world, but because the divinity in her is trapped within the flesh of her body, she must occupy the mortal realm. Thus, Ada represents the effects of being “in between” in a world that likes to label and concretize and has no tolerance for ambiguity. Is she a woman or a man? Gay or straight? Kind or cruel? A believer in God or an atheist? That no definitive labels belong to her echoes the idea of water conjured in the title: she is fluid and mutable, unable to be pinned down, boxed in, or otherwise contained.

Coping Mechanisms

“We,” Asughara, and Saint Vincent are all ogbanje that help Ada cope when life feels overwhelming or painful. When Ada is in a sexual relationship, Asughara steps in to help Ada cope with her fear of intimacy and her traumatic memories of Soren’s raping her. When Ada feels too womanly or gendered in her body, Saint Vincent encourages her to dress differently, experiment with her sexual orientation, and even make physical changes to her body so that her outer self aligns more closely with how she feels. When Ada wonders if she is mad, the “We” voice steps in to assure her that she is protected from madness, not mad herself. In these ways, the ogbanje, while certainly destructive, are also useful coping mechanisms for Ada to navigate and endure a world that can be indifferent and unkind. The things Asughara encourages Ada to do (self-harm, abuse alcohol, starve) are common coping mechanisms for mental health challenges such as depression or trauma. Presented in this novel within a spiritual Nigerian context, coping mechanisms are common to all people, regardless of what one calls them.

Accepting the Past

Ada is a character whose every experience informs the person she becomes. From confronting the python in the bathroom, to witnessing Añuli being hit and dragged by a truck, to realizing that Soren has been assaulting her while she sleeps, Ada folds these experiences into her constantly growing and evolving sense of self. In many ways, Asughara is a manifestation of what Ada wishes she had been to Añuli: a protector who could have prevented that tragic accident. While Asughara is much fiercer and crueler than Ada, she is still a protecting force who is there to prevent harm at any cost. Unfortunately, in trying to keep Ada safe, Asughara prevents Ada from truly grappling with her trauma and incorporating it into who she is in a healthy way. Only at the end of the novel, when both Ada and Asughara stop fighting for control and accept that they are a product of what has happened to them, are they able to find peace. Thus, the novel reveals the importance of a person knowing their whole story and, rather than trying to change or escape it, accepting it for the truths and lessons it has taught them.

Mind and Body

The novel imagines Ada’s mind as a “marble room” that Asughara and Saint Vincent live in, Yshwa visits, and Ada moves in and out of. This marble room is distinctly sterile when compared to the “flesh vessel” of Ada’s body. Asughara is repulsed by the human form and occupies it only when she steps in to protect Ada in her sexual encounters, otherwise retreating to the marble room. Saint Vincent, on the other hand, stays in Ada’s mind permanently, as he wouldn’t be able to “survive her body.” His male-leaning tendencies, as seen in his encouragement of Ada to have breast reduction surgery and to present as less “reproductive” to the world, separate him from the womanliness of Ada’s body, leaving him “uncontaminated, quarantined.”

Ada views the marble room as something both apart from and part of her: “the world in my head,” she thinks, “has been far more real than the one outside.” This distinct separation between mind and body is destructive; it makes Ada feel as though she is mad, Asughara feel as though she is trapped, and Saint Vincent feel as though he can only appear in dreams. To draw a clear line between the intellectual (the mind) and the sensory (the body) contributes to Ada’s sense of confusion and fragmentation. At the end of the novel, when she learns to think of her body as a circle, a snake that can “curve in on itself,” she understands that integrating all parts of herself—body and mind—into one being, one entity, is essential to her survival. The novel critiques the Western practice of dividing physical and mental health from each other; each is dependent on the other, a part without a whole, incapable of finding equanimity until each is in harmony with the other.

Previous

Chapter Summaries

Next

Characters