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Isabel Erickson White

A Migration of Spirits: ‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi

FreshwaterAkwaeke Emezi is a Tamil and Igbo writer from Nigeria who has received recognition for her short stories and creative nonfiction, as well as her work as an experimental video artist. With Freshwater (229 pages; Grove Press), she marks her first novel, an ambitious and original one at that. The book follows Ada, a young girl growing up in Nigeria, as she is both plagued and protected by a host of spirits that cohabitate her body and share her thoughts. Through beautiful and haunting prose, and through the different voices residing in Ada, we get a glimpse into her mind, a metaphysical space of “ọgbanje” (an Igbo term for a spirit that brings misfortune to a family by inhabiting the body of a child). Although Ada has been chosen by the god Ala to share her physical vessel with the gbanje, Emezi’s representation of her fractured mind proves surprisingly universal.

Freshwater begins with a narrator called “We,” a group of spirits who first exist in Ada’s mother’s body. “We” describe themselves as “the hatchlings, godlings, ọgbanje,” and act with indifference to the needs and interests of humans. The day they come into complete being is the day of Ada’s birth, “the day we died and were born.” Ada’s conception is explained by her father’s request for a daughter, which the god Ala answered. In doing so, Ada’s father opened a gate to the spirit world, summoning these entities into his family’s lives. When their little girl arrives, the happy parents name her Ada, meaning, “God answered.” “We” regards Ada from an observational perspective, but “We” and Ada often share the same desires, such as the need for blood, which they satisfy through Ada’s self-cutting.

Ada primarily shares her mind with “We” until she leaves Nigeria to attend university in Virginia. When Ada arrives, she is marked as prudish because of her disinterest in sex, telling her friends that she has made a vow of celibacy. But after her boyfriend sexually assaults her, a new ọgbanje appears—the licentious Asughara—whose purpose is to protect Ada by taking control of her whenever men are involved. Asughara adds an important depth to Emezi’s story, eliciting conflicting emotions. Ada and Asughara argue in the “marble room” of Ada’s mind and build a codependent relationship, leaving us to wonder if Asughara is protecting or harming Ada. Despite the uncertainty, one sighs with relief when Ada’s attempt to seek treatment from a therapist is thwarted because the therapist seems like an unwelcome third party who would create a wedge between Asughara and Ada. As “We” explains, the gods living in humans are inescapable; it is better to feed them than to ignore them.

Befitting a story about a fractured mind, the style of the novel is unconventional. Not only does Emezi write in multiple voices, but the story also progresses in a nonlinear fashion. Her writing compresses time and space—the past, future, and present moments in Ada’s life are ever-present, as are the places and people she visits. It begins with Ada’s birth, but once Ada reaches Virginia, the text moves back and forth in time, in ways that are often confusing. The organization of events is not without purpose, however. After the sexual assault, Asughara chronicles Ada’s adult life and often returns to the time before the assault and then far into the future. By doing this, Emezi reveals Ada and the gbanje in a way that resists an understanding of Ada as two separate selves: the Ada before the assault and Ada after. This pushes the young man who assaulted her out of the spotlight—we regard him as a negative influence in Ada’s life, but not as the key acting figure.

Ultimately, Emezi offers a perspective on mental illness that refuses categorization and diagnoses. Rather than characterizing Ada’s behaviors—her insatiable sexual appetite after being raped, her self-mutilation, alcoholism, and an eating disorder—as coping mechanisms or symptoms of mental illness, Emezi attributes them to conflicts between our spiritual and physical selves. She also refuses to portray the spirits that lead Ada to acts like self-harm as entirely malevolent. As she makes clear, Asughara and the other ọgbanje love Ada, and exist to protect her. (Often there’s the sense Ada should give herself up entirely to the ọgbanje, who, unlike Ada, cannot experience pain from the outside world.) With her brilliant novel, Emezi shows how the different aspects of our personality are often in conflict, and how that conflict can be inescapable.

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An Ideal Citizen: ‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea’ by Bandi

The AccusationThe cover of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (248 pages; Grove Press) boasts a brightly colored piece of North Korean propaganda featuring six luminous, smiling faces. The seven stories in the collection, however, offer something very different: heart-wrenching accounts of a brutal life inside the country’s borders.

The Accusation’s journey to publication is miraculous in itself. Its author, Bandi (a pseudonym meaning “firefly”), smuggled his manuscript out of the country with the help of a defecting family member. For more than four years, he secretly wrote the manuscript, entirely in pencil, and remains in North Korea where he serves as a member of the Chosun Writers League Central Committee, a state-funded writing organization. Bandi’s book represents the first published work to criticize the North Korean government written by someone still living in that country.

The stories in The Accusation center on the importance of one’s reputation in North Korea, and how quickly it can be ruined by rumors and accusations of one’s opposition to the government. In each story, the characters experience a longing to break free of the societal pressure that restricts their intimate relationships. “City of Specters” reveals the absurdity of how even the most minor acts of can earn someone the label of anti-revolutionary. In it, a mother who uses extra curtains to protect her sensitive child from seeing a poster of Karl Marx that frightens him is quickly marked as a threat; a civil servant explains to her how unique curtains could be seen as a signal to spies. And while the rigidity of the government’s demands is so bizarre as to be almost humorous, Bandi depicts how these demands place a barrier between people. One must choose between being a good citizen and being a good family member, and choosing the latter most often results in punishment.

In these stories we see the ways this fear makes North Korea into a country of trained actors; to simply survive, its citizens must repress their grief and anger, even in the face of lost loved ones, and produce exaggerated performances of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-il. The characters in this book smile through their physical and emotional pain, only calling on these hidden agonies when tears are necessary.

The final piece in the collection, titled “The Red Mushroom,” suggests the author’s self-contempt and dissatisfaction with his career. Bandi writes about a reporter who is commonly referred to as the “bullshit reporter” since his work only praises the government or spins stories to the point of fabrication. This is, of course, due to the severe limitations put on North Korean journalists. Like his protagonist, Bandi is a state-sanctioned writer who must acquiesce to political restraints on his writing. The story raises the question of what it means to be an artist of any kind in Bandi’s country or in any other totalitarian state. While the cast of The Accusation would likely argue that it means one must be a liar, Bandi’s work speaks to our irrepressible need for self-expression and drive to create art. His writing and characters prove magnetic; they are anything but the one-dimensional characters of North Korean propaganda.

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Truth in a Glass: ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ by Anne Fadiman

The Wine Lover's DaughterIn The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (272 pages; FSG), Anne Fadiman, the author of Ex Libris, At Large and Small: Familiar Essays, and, most notably, her prize winning work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, writes about her famous father, Clifton, or Kip, Fadiman. She centers her memoir, her first book in ten years, around her father’s love of wine, a love affair that begins on his first trip to Paris with an inexpensive bottle of white Graves.

Although Kip Fadiman’s love of wine was sincere—he found pleasure in the taste and complexities of wine, as well as an appreciation for its ability to enhance conversation—his daughter reveals that his interest was also tied to a desire to be as far removed as possible from his Jewish immigrant background. A self-described “meatball,” Kip Fadiman was born in 1904 to lower-middle class Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. Embarrassed by his parents and pedigree, he took great strides to “de-meatball” himself by reading through the Western canon, learning to speak impeccable English from his older brother (which later helped with his career as a radio host), putting himself through Columbia University, and, eventually, by becoming a leading wine connoisseur. Although he saw enormous success as a radio host for NBC’s Information Please, was editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster before the age of 30, worked as a book critic for The New Yorker for ten years, and co-wrote the unofficial Bible of wine, The Joy of Wine, he always feared he would someday be exposed as a fraud or counterfeit.

Since he never got over feeling like an intruder to WASP culture, he worked to scrub himself of any Jewish identity, Fadiman writes, and was confounded to find later generations attempting to reclaim their Jewish roots. As she points out, wine fit in perfectly with his lifelong career of divorcing himself of his lineage – wine was civilized, civilizing, and decisively not Jewish. While her father’s embarrassment over his Jewish identity is at times troubling for a contemporary reader and for Fadiman herself, she reminds us, “I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will.” Instead of attributing his attitude to denial and snobbery, she ascribes it to the culture that her father grew up in. This is the same culture that shaped his alma mater’s decision to pass on hiring him as a professor, claiming they had already reached their quota for Jewish professors in the department (which was at one)—a moment that made him perceive his incredibly successful professional life as a failure.

Fadiman’s writing remains polished, humorous, and approachable in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Her love of language always shines through—in Ex Libris she discusses the Fadiman family’s joy for polysyllabic words and her father’s children’s book about a worm with an appetite for words like “zymurgy”—but her work never indulges itself to the point of requiring its readers to keep a dictionary at hand. The magnificence of her work is in her empathy for her subjects and her unwavering rationality. She never acquiesces to a reader’s impulse for her to judge her subjects or make a definitive statement that would ultimately prove reductive.

After years of trying to enjoy wine, the author finally confronts the fact that she will never love wine the way her father did. When she reaches this conclusion, she goes on a trek to find some biological reason for her distaste. At first, this chapter seems like a distraction, one that detracts from the otherwise magnificent account of the father and his relationship with his daughter. Yet, by the end, one is reminded of Fadiman’s skill as a writer. What made her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down such a great success was her refusal to succumb to easy answers. She wrote with empathy for both the Western doctors and the Hmong families as they struggled over the (eventually) failed medical treatment of a young Lao girl in Merced, California. Here, she again refuses to see the world in simple terms. The answer is not found in her and her father’s different biological reactions to wine, but in their rich, yet dissimilar histories. She recognizes that her father’s love of wine could not be separated from the romance of his first experience with the white Graves and his longing to reinvent himself.

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