Sakshi Tyagi is a master’s student in English literature at Amity University Uttar Pradesh, India. She received a bachelor’s degree in English Major from Hindu College, University of Delhi, India. She is interested in postcolonial African novel, literature of the African diaspora and speculative fiction.
Ogbanje and the Multiple Selves in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater
“Sometimes they call this the crossroads, the message point, the hinge” (Emezi, 193), describes one of the multiple selves and narrators in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. Published in 2018, an autobiographical fiction, set across Nigeria and United States, Freshwater narrates the story of Ada and her relationship with identity and gender. The book is titled Freshwater which lays the foundations of Ada’s identification of herself as daughter of water Goddess Ala; Ogbanje, a concept rooted in Igbo mythology. Ogbanje are spirit children that intrude the cycle of reincarnation in Igbo culture, who die early in childhood and are essentially considered as a third category of gender and are referred as him/her or brothersisters. But Ada doesn’t die in childhood, instead she survives the physical and mental stress of living with multiple selves, it is in her eventual reconciliation with the idea of self/selves that Ada comes to terms with her liminality. The author Emezi identifies themselves as non-binary transgender and Ogbanje. Their life aligns with the novel’s protagonist Ada, and their experiences with breast reduction surgery, self-harm suicidal attempts as source of resisting their identification as a woman and a reproductive agent, also mutation as a source of rejecting the body as the centre.
The novel as a bildungsroman, later reproduces the different personalities that reside in the “marble room” (mind) of Ada; Asughara who opens up experiences of heterosexual sexual intimacies for Ada, Saint Vincent as another self that initiates Ada to lesbian relationships and Yshwa or Christ that moderates Ada’s spiritual relationship with her body and her selves. The use of the concept of Ogbanje and the multiple narrators work on multiple levels of gender and cultural politics in the text, and also serve as a framework for understanding the multiple selves and a representation of the amalgamation that humans are believed to be.
On the level of gender, as a baby when Ada enters the world with the spirit child insider her, she already exists at the peripheries of both the spirit and human world. The use of body and the various violations and mutilations that Ada’s body undergoes is also brought forth to represent the pain of imprisonment. Ada deliberately hurts herself by cutting her arms, this cutting is also represented at the cultural level as a source of identification with and sacrifice made by Ada to the various Gods residing in her body. Similarly, the bodies of Ogbanje children in the Igbo culture are also marked by cuts to identify them in their future re-births.
Judith Butler in her seminal work “Gender Trouble” argues, “The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist”- that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “follow” from either sex or gender.” (Butler, 17). This forced absence of misgendered identities is challenged later in the story, when the protagonist Ada is shown challenging the gender categorisation based on her sex and also through her experiences with desire. She pursues medical procedures that can establish her identity as the ‘other’, the scars are then represented as her revolt against the forced gender assertion.
At the level of cultural politics, the use of the concept of Ogbanje brings to the forefront the conflict between western and non-western understanding of gender and gender dysphoria. The effect of colonialism and the deliberate delegitimization of traditional cosmologies by the west is now being translated into a tool of resistance by authors like Emezi that highlights the excluded narratives. As critic Taiwo Osinubi in his essay “Queer Prolepsis and the Sexual Commons; An Introduction” analyses, “In response to the excess of colonialism, and especially its sexual effects on the colonized, African writers have often portrayed revitalized communities in which precisely those sexual effects are quasi-erased.” (), through the use of Ogbanje by Emezi there is a conscious effort to revitalise the excluded narratives of Igbo mythology. In a personal piece written for The Cut, Emezi remarks, “The possibility that I was an ogbanje occurred to me around the same time I realized I was trans, but it took me a while to collide the two worlds.” (Emezi), thereby transcending the cultural borders of understanding gender and identity. The otherness that is often attributed to the cultures of the east by the west is symbolically represented through the otherness of Ogbanje.
Furthermore, Critics Roberto Beneduce and Simona Taliani in their essay “Embodied Powers, Deconstructed Bodies, Spirit Possession, Sickness and the Search for Wealth of Nigerian Immigrant Women” analyse reception of gender and Ogbanje issues manifested in Nigerian immigrants as “The ogbanje spirits are then responsible for a condition of suffering that manifests itself in the sign of a presence (that of the spirit) and at the same time constitutes a pathology of which one needs to be cured.” Emezi in their novel also creates this complex web through spirit manifestations and mental and pathological reactions of Ada not only to characterise the complexity of understanding gender but also at a larger level the complexities of reconciling the analogies of clinical categories and cultural categories.
Ada finds her solace only when she acknowledges, “I am a village full of faces and a compound full of bones, translucent thousands.” (Emezi, 226). As a manifestation of the worthlessness of a forced conciliation with the concept of identity, Freshwater through its multiple roles; as an exploration of gender, a folklore of Gods and Spirituality and an autofiction piece also highlights the freedom of divergent selves that Emezi tries to extend.
In conclusion, the use of non-traditional and non-linear narrative in the novel as a trope to highlight how both Ada and Emezi cannot be situated within a single discourse or theory insists on highlighting the Self as multiple and the use of multiple narrators is a conscious effort to restructure the normative framework of understanding self as a single identity. Similarly, the conscious use of the concept of Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi serves as a means of an alternate way of understanding gender. The use of Ogbanje also serves as a tool of synthesising traditional cultural ideas with western scholarship and evading the boundaries of hegemony.
Beneduce, Roberto, and Simona Taliani. “Embodied Powers, Deconstructed Bodies. Spirit Possession, Sickness, and the Search for Wealth of Nigerian Immigrant Women.” Anthropos, vol. 101, no. 2, 2006, pp. 429–449. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40466707.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Emezi, Akwaeke. Freshwater. Faber and Faber, 2018
Emezi, Akwaeke. Transition My surgeries were a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature. The Cut
Osinubi, Taiwo Adetunji. “Queer Prolepsis and the Sexual Commons: An Introduction.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 47, no. 2, 2016, pp. vii-xxiii. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/reseafrilite.47.2.01.
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