Life after Trauma: Spirit Children in Fictions of the African Diaspora (part 1): Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater
By Jessica Newgas
Corresponding email: email@example.com
This study examines the West African spirit child phenomenon in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater as a means of investigating spirituality in the African diaspora. I use the term “spirit child” to refer to someone who retains a link to “the other side” after their birth into a human body. I also specifically refer to the Nigerian concept of abiku/ogbanje when the defining characteristics of this belief are relevant. I argue that the transcendental nature of the spirit child invites a reading of this figure as a diasporic entity, especially as the spirit children in my chosen texts occur in an American context, rendering the concept itself far from “home”. The spirit child’s return subverts linear time structure, thus invoking multiple realities while also mimicking the repetition of trauma. I outline how the split from African cosmology (resulting in what Ryan Topper terms “ancestral trauma”) can be realised through a process of remembering. Ultimately, I posit that the spirit child motif becomes a reminder of something forgotten after ancestral migration from Africa, recognising that Freshwater chooses remembrance as a means of reconstructing identity. (For part two of the article, see here.)
This article is based on the dissertation “Life after Trauma: Spirit Children in Fictions of the African Diaspora”, with which Jessica Newgas completed her BA in English at the University of Leeds, for which she received the 2019 Lionel Cliffe Prize for the best undergraduate dissertation on a topic relevant to African Studies at the University of Leeds.
The spirit child is a West African phenomenon, broadly defined as one who is born into the human world while still retaining a link to the spiritual world. In Nigeria, the spirit child appears as abiku/ogbanje: a child who is continually born to the same mother in order to cause distress. The spirit child recurs in various forms in Ghana, Mali, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. The appearance of this concept in postcolonial literature produces fertile ground for theoretical exploration. I suggest a conceptual parallel between the spirit child living in the human world and the diasporic African living in a Euro-American context. I focus largely on abiku/ogbanje, interpreting its characteristics — such as travel, disruption of time structures, and the notion of existing simultaneously in two realms— as traits of a diasporic identity. Ryan Topper’s theory of ‘ancestral trauma’, caused by the ‘rupturing’ of ‘the cosmological frame of reference’ due to colonialism, is an idea I build on throughout this study (Topper 2017: 4). Emezi’s autobiographical novel uses an ogbanje protagonist to examine the translation of African spirituality into a Eurocentric context and argues for the existence of multiple realities. I will examine the relationship between trauma, both personal and ancestral, and spirit children in order to determine the value of “remembering” ancestral cosmology in the African diaspora.
The Diasporic Ogbanje
For Akwaeke Emezi, the existence of ogbanje reflects the ‘overlapping of realities’ in the contemporary, multicultural world (Emezi 2018, ‘Transition’). Not only do ogbanje exist alongside realities that deny their existence, but they also exist within these oppositional spaces. Emezi presents the ogbanje protagonist, Ada, as doubly transgressive, moving between the living and spirit worlds and between African and Euro-American realities. I consider ogbanje to be, by definition, diasporic: they are spirits existing outside of the spirit world. Ada, then, as she travels from West Africa to America becomes doubly diasporic. Significantly, Freshwater is a fictionalisation of Emezi’s own experiences of being an ogbanje. The author identifies as trans, somewhere ‘in-between’ the binary genders, which intensifies their transformative identity (Emezi 2018, ‘Transition’). For Emezi the human body, that demands binary definition, restricts ogbanje. The author describes reassignment surgery as ‘a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning [themself] as ogbanje’ (Emezi 2018, ‘Transition’, original emphasis). This statement accentuates the regenerative creativity of the ogbanje concept. Emezi’s body aids an understanding of their ogbanje identity through a subversion of norms. In Freshwater Ada also undergoes surgical transition to reflect her ‘fine balance’ and allow her to identify as neither sex (Emezi 2018, Freshwater: 187). When puberty changes Ada’s body, the selves recall being ‘pushed… into a space [they] hated, a marked plane that was too clear and too wrong’ (123). This description links gender identity to spirituality. In doing so, Emezi indicates the fluidity ogbanje crave by nature, while also demonstrating the danger of enforced ideals, whether they are gender norms or hierarchical realities.
Of further interest is Emezi’s illumination of ancestral diaspora. The crossing of water is harnessed as a symbol for the spirit selves’ journey to the human world. They recall being ‘thrust across the river’ and, in doing so, describe a journey that is reminiscent of both Ada’s journey across the sea to America and the crossing of Africans during the slave trade (35). The spirit selves later display historical insight, as they describe America as ‘the land of the corruptors’ (47). However, rather than the crossing disconnecting Africans from their ancestral cosmology, the collective self draws on ‘the stories that survived’, ‘the humans who survived’ and the ‘calls’ that ‘pass through blood no matter how many oceans you drop death into’ (88). A regenerative resistance is garnered and, despite the persistence of Ada’s spirit companions that ‘[want her] back home’, Ada resists (89).
As I examine animist ideas against Eurocentric theories, Ada’s doubly diasporic identity is revealed as a tool to pierce through realities that oppose one another in order to illuminate a creative intersection in which recovery from ancestral trauma is possible.
My analysis of trauma in Freshwater shall build on two branches of trauma theory. Firstly, I draw on the mechanics of Cathy Caruth’s studies, examining how a repeating trauma is able to reveal an element of truth that could not be fully learned in the conception of that trauma. Ryan Topper agrees with Caruth’s assertion, arguing that ‘any theory of trauma is necessarily a hermeneutics’ (Topper 2017: 32). The occurrence of trauma in Freshwater conveys a message to both the protagonist and the reader. Even the appearance of ogbanje in Emezi’s contemporary American setting communicates the ongoing importance of African cosmology in the lives of diasporic Africans. I suggest that the repeating cycle of births and deaths associated with ogbanje mimics the repetition of trauma. The paralleling of traumatic events with the characteristic repetitive cycle of ogbanje suggests the repression of something that remains to be realised. I also examine trauma in Freshwater in the context of Eurocentric Freudian theory in order to highlight the regenerative animistic potential evaded by Freud.
In Freshwater, the creative potential of personal trauma is demonstrated when it becomes a tool for the selves to be ‘forced into sharpness’ (Emezi 2018, Freshwater: 21). Until trauma, Ada is unaware of the spirits that constitute her collective self. She is unaware that, as an ogbanje, her destiny is to die, to return to the other side and continue the cycle of births and deaths. When Ada does not die, ‘the oath’ that ‘functions like a bridge’ to the other side is not fulfilled (15). Thus, in order to prompt this destiny, the ‘brothersisters’ (the cohort of spirits on the other side) use traumatic experiences to push Ada towards death (21). The first trauma is when Ada witnesses a car accident in which her younger sister, Anuli, is nearly killed. The experience was not fully processed, since the collective self recalls that they (Ada and the selves) ‘do not remember’ the details of the accident (23). Significantly, the brothersisters’ first manipulation was the removal of Ada’s human mother through migration, and Ada’s first traumatic experience was caused by the crossing of a road. These early instances of the brothersisters’ intervention in Ada’s life warn of the danger of crossing boundaries and illuminate the “real”/spirit world boundary at play in the text. They also link the personal dangers of boundary crossing to a broader consequence of migration away from Africa and illustrate a dialogue between personal and inherited trauma. After the first traumatic experience, Ada is left ‘reliving the blood of the backseat over and over again’, enacting the compulsive repetition of trauma that Freud analysed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (27). In such ways, Ada’s traumas are played out simultaneously in two different arenas: that of the contemporary West and that of African cosmology. These are the conflicting realities outside and inside Ada’s mind. The duality provides scope to examine whether the message conveyed through trauma is a psychological truth (as Caruth suggests), a demonstration of the agency of spirits, or both.
To examine the theoretical agency of spirits it is necessary to acknowledge the limitations of psychoanalytical theories surrounding trauma. Of particular interest is Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Caroline Rooney takes issue with ‘Freud’s concept of the death drive’ arguing that it ‘evades anything so “mystical” as “spirits”’ and points towards the ignored animistic possibilities of Freudian theory (Rooney 2000: 136). By avoiding what Eurocentric belief would term “mystical”, Freud’s theory is revealed as stunted. Ada’s inhabitation of a dual reality supports an analysis of the overlap between Eurocentric and Animistic theory. Freud’s theory of the death drive was introduced as an amendment to the pleasure principle in an attempt to explain why people suffer from the repetition of traumatic experiences. In this theory, Freud describes ‘a compulsion to repeat’ that drives an organism back to ‘the inanimate state’ it left in birth (Freud 1955, Standard Edition XVIII: 44). This drive towards a former state disrupts linear time structures as life is shown to begin and end at the same point. This is just one instance in which Freud suggests an alternative to Eurocentric structural beliefs only to avoid further development. Also unexplored by Freud is what drives these instincts in the first place and what constitutes the inanimate state in which all organisms begin and end. Rooney illuminates this gap in Freud’s theory as animistic potential. Thus, animism exists in the liminal spaces of Freud’s psychoanalysis.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle posits that, to account for traumatic repetition, there must be a “death drive” as much as an instinct towards pleasure. Humans must be as compelled towards death as they are to survive. This theory echoes ogbanje’s own oscillations between life and death. Ogbanje is also compelled to repeat, to return to a former state of existence but, for a living ogbanje, this state is spiritual life rather than inanimate. In Africa nobody returns to an inanimate state after death because ‘no one ever truly dies’ (Nicholls, forthcoming in Cultural Critique). What is unclear is why ogbanje repeats life after it has been lived. Firstly, the inherent duality of ogbanje means it has no one former state to which it can return indefinitely. During life it is compelled to return to its spirit form. As a spirit it is driven back to life. Secondly, the tireless repetition is reminiscent of repeating trauma. To determine its purpose, I draw on Caruth’s theory. Where Freud suggests that trauma repeats in order to build resistance in the mind’s protective shield, Caruth suggests it communicates a message. Paradoxically, as Ada suffers trauma – both personal and ancestral – the awareness of her spiritual identity grows stronger. Therefore, the message trauma communicates is not to fulfil ogbanje destiny but, more fundamentally, the importance of recognising one’s spiritual identity.
The novel suggests an intention, initially outside of Ada’s understanding, that begins within her collective identity. Firstly, we should acknowledge the difference between Ada’s spirit selves – who are Ada and constitute her ogbanje identity – and the brothersisters who attempt to influence her from the wider spirit realm. The collective voice of Ada’s spirit selves observes the events in Ada’s life from a position of ethereal understanding that Ada cannot yet access. Therefore, Ada’s spirit selves appear to constitute a kind of Freudian unconscious. The voyeuristic narration of Anuli’s accident implies inaccessible wisdom; the collective self coolly describes the event as ‘a baptism in the best liquid’ (Emezi 2018, Freshwater: 27). This baptism of blood joins Ada more closely to the spirit realm by forcing her to retreat from the sufferings of the human world. To view Ada’s psyche in terms of the Freudian id, ego and superego provides a useful structure by which to understand ogbanje who is both human and spirit. Ada’s individual identity, apart from the spirit collective, can be understood as the ego: ‘that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world’ (Freud 1955, Standard Edition XIX: 25). Ada’s Western environment has complicated this part of her identity. I suggest that the superego, which is formed ‘out of the id’, is influenced not so much by the human mother or father, as Freud takes for granted, but by the presence of Ada’s spirit companions (38). The absence of connection to Ada’s father and the forced migration of her mother aid the formulation of a superego in favour of Ada’s spirit companions. Consequently, there is confusion and conflict between the reality that the ego perceives and the ideal that the superego prescribes. However, the increasing strength of Ada’s connection to her spirit companions as she grows older is due to the influence of those spirits in the formation of her superego. Ada’s recovery from ancestral trauma, therefore, is due to a realisation of the reality within herself.
The reality within Ada grows stronger as she encounters her second personal trauma: a rape she cannot remember. When Ada’s boyfriend, Soren, tells her that she should take contraceptives, Ada ‘didn’t understand’ because ‘she couldn’t remember’ ever having sex (Emezi 2018, Freshwater: 57). However, it is within the blank space of incomprehension that Asughara – a spirit self – is realised. The spirit self is born through the comprehension of a traumatic wound and should be understood as a development in Ada’s ego, influenced by the superego. Building on trauma theory, which Emezi is paralleling with an animistic reality, we can understand Asughara’s presence as fulfilling the role of a survival mechanism. The self creates distance between Ada and the trauma of repeated rape by strengthening the parallel reality within Ada herself. Due to Asughara’s protection of Ada, she ‘wasn’t there anymore’ when Soren continued to abuse her (64). Instead, she is temporarily hidden within the reality Asughara has created.
It becomes increasingly evident that forgetting is not induced by the incomprehensibility of the trauma Ada suffers. Instead, Ada’s spirit companions mimic the survival mechanism (forgetting) in order to protect Ada. This is suggested in the spirit selves’ claim that they had known ‘already that forgetting could be protection’ (30). The agency of spirits is thus demonstrated by displacing psychoanalytical theory with animist mechanisms. Therefore, Emezi aids what Harry Garuba calls the ‘re-enchantment of the world’ (Garuba 2003: 265), where ‘the rational and scientific are appropriated and transformed into the mystical and magical’ (265). As such, Emezi’s subversion of science can be understood to have creative ends.
After the initial forgetting of personal and ancestral trauma, Emezi presents remembrance as a creative process through which Ada reconstructs her identity. We must consider how forgetting and memory relate to different perceptions of time in the novel. Achille Mbembe defines time as ‘an interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures that retain their depths of other presents, pasts, and futures, each bearing, altering, and maintaining the previous ones’ (Mbembe 2001: 16, original emphasis). Time, therefore, is regenerative. I also draw on Chinua Achebe’s idea that writing is ‘a way of weaving what he called a second handle on reality’ (Achebe in Eze 2008: 26). The need for a second handle is also traceable in Freshwater. In light of these approaches to time and, specifically, writing about time, I suggest that, in Freshwater, remembering is not about recalling the past, but about reimagining the present. Through reconstructing Ada’s identity in response to remembered ancestral cosmology, Ada is able to access her full power as an ogbanje that is only found when her multiple parts are balanced.
Naming is a motif that is shown to facilitate remembrance in Freshwater. Ada’s father, Saul, is specifically chosen because he would give Ada her correct name. The name is revealed as an example of remembered ancestry when we learn it means ‘the egg of a python’, thus indicting Ada’s spiritual identity (Emezi 2018: 9). Saul’s disconnection from his ancestral cosmology is apparent in the collective self’s narration as they blame a ‘christ-induced amnesia’ for his ignorance of the python’s sacred status in Igbo beliefs (9). Here, the spirit selves allude to how colonialism – and the favouring of the Christian faith – has contributed to the collective forgetting of ancient West African beliefs. Saul is ‘a blind man, a modern man’ whose scientific background prevents him from believing in or recognising the deity Ala (the python) even when she appears in his house (6). Again, we see Emezi comparing opposing realities to the detriment of one, as Saul kills the python out of fear. Ada, then, is a reminder of Saul’s cosmology that even he does not recognise despite Ada being the answer to his prayer. Saul is shown to be unconsciously yearning for his ancestral cosmology and Ada’s naming, an act of unconscious remembering, reveals undetected ancestral trauma within Saul.
Ada also facilitates remembrance when she names her spirit selves for the third time. A reminder from her former life as a spirit is summoned, fortifying Asughara who becomes ‘full of rich and thick power’ with the return of memories (135). However, this reminder of Ada’s ogbanje identity – and the compulsion to die – disrupts Ada’s balance and compromises her power as a hybrid entity. Asughara’s disproportionate authority within Ada causes a complete disregard for Ada’s human life, resulting in a suicide attempt. Nevertheless, remembering remains a creative reconstruction of the present, rather than a return, and Ada refuses to resort to a former condition. Ada’s duality demands the maintenance of balance if she is to survive and so both allegorises and literally demonstrates the need for balance between multiple realities in the modern world. One such demonstration is a call from Ada’s boyfriend that interrupts her suicide; it is her affiliation with humanity that saves her human life. Ada’s balance is recognised as precariousness by her friends who worry she is ‘on this thin line between being alive and being dead’, but as a spirit child this balance is characteristic (168). The ‘space between life and death’ that Ada exists within is not dangerous, but regenerative as long as balance is maintained (193). Such regeneration is not an ability to return after death, but the ability to instil new life into the African diaspora through the forming of a legitimate space between realities. Carole Boyce Davies’s asserts that in black women’s writing ‘[r]igid compartmentalizations based on geography and national identity’ are ‘rendered meaningless’ (Davies 1994: 128). Likewise, Emezi writes her fictionalised self at the intersection between both geographical and cosmological boundaries. Davies locates her discussion ‘at the site of’ the ‘convergence of multiple places and cultures’ and Emezi locates her novel at the site of the crossover between worlds (3). Ada’s placement at the intersection not only demonstrates her delicate balance, but also, ironically, makes her central because of her liminality in multiple intersecting worlds.
Finally, I would like to consider the purpose of Ada’s complicated existence in the modern world and Emezi’s reason for recording this autobiographical story in a fictional narrative. As the collective self contemplates the reason for their human existence, they mention Saul’s prayer and the transformation of Ada’s body into a ‘bridge between this world and [the spirit world]’ (Emezi 2018, Freshwater: 35). I posit that not only is Ada a reminder of Saul’s ancestral cosmology, but that she is also a connection that links the African diaspora to realities outside of those favoured in their geographical location. Ada is continually described as a bridge, connoting connection (typically over water). Thus, she becomes an advocate for the maintenance of connection to ancestral cosmology in the African diaspora. She is also the child of Ala, a python, which means she too is a python and, according to Igbo cosmology, ‘[a]ll freshwater comes out of [her] mouth’ (226). The use of water imagery is used in two ways: firstly, to evoke migration and division and secondly, to rob water of the power to divide through the fluidity it signifies. The collective self claims that ‘Ala is all the earth, no matter the oceans’, which powerfully debunks diaspora’s negative connotations through the promotion of spiritual fluidity (126). Significantly, the novel ends on the notion that ‘[a]ll freshwater comes out of [Ada’s] mouth’ (226). The focus on this image, the creation of water when water has historically signified the divide between Africa and those in the diaspora, is a powerful statement about Emezi’s voice as a writer. Like the water that comes out of Ada’s mouth, the words that come out of Emezi’s mouth (and onto the page) pay no regard to assigned boundaries. Likewise, as Garuba suggests is true of all contemporary African writing, ‘[t]he boundary between the purely literary and the sociopolitical’ is ‘not… distinct’ in Freshwater (Garuba 2003: 276). Instead, through the very act of writing a fictionalisation of her life, Emezi enacts a kind of historical recording. As Ramadonovic argues, reading and writing as processes result in ‘an (unremembered) memory’ (Ramadanovic 2001: 93). In which case, this fictional recording is not only a story of forgetting and remembering between its covers, but also instils itself as a memory thereafter. The spirit child is able to transgress the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits, the diasporic spirit child is able to cross oceans, but the spirit child who is also a writer is able to penetrate the boundaries of a reader’s mind. In this way, Emezi’s novel makes a space for an African reality in the very memory of those that read her.
The use of the spirit child in Freshwater has proved to be an inherently hopeful motif. The non-binary nature of Ada promotes fluidity and the possibility of adaptation to ensure that African cosmology survives in unfamiliar contexts. Ada’s transformation occurs through a process of remembering/forgetting and the regenerative result promotes an African, rather than linear, time structure. As Eze posits, African perceptions of time allow for the present, past and future to alter previous presents, pasts and futures. This unregimented structure echoes the regenerative nature of the spirit child itself. The repeating of abiku/ogbanje is, therefore, both a traumatic structure and also a tool to overcome ancestral trauma, as its very existence persistently bears witness to the forgotten cosmology. I also draw attention to the endurance of the spirit child in Freshwater and how Ada’s survival depends on the embracing of her many parts. In this, Emezi promotes hybrid identities as resilient because of their non-binary nature rather than despite it. Migration, therefore, may be a cause of ancestral trauma, but it might also provide the opportunity for African spirituality, once remembered, to strengthen as it surpasses its own geographical confines.
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