Akwaeki is half Igbo half Tamil, neither a he or a she, but a them; what is called a nonbinary transgender. Being mixed race already provides room for multiplicity of character, but in her debut novel, Freshwater, Akwaeki delves into the world of gods, told in the voice of We, where Ada asks, “How do you survive when they place a god inside your body?” at that, many gods … with names, who take turns narrating the story, shifting from the contemplative ‘We’ to the insatiable feminine Asughara and the more grounded masculine god who comes into play later in the novel - St. Vincent.
Their (Ada’s) discovery follows a journey of ravenous sensual appetites and self-harm choreographed by the gods living in Ada.
Whilst figuring out Ada’s human self and god self, Ada arrives at the conclusion that she is an ogbanje. In Igbo ontology this is a child joined to the world of spirits. Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart described ogbanje as “a child that dies many times and returns to its mother to be born again. An ogbanje child is often healthy one day and ill the next”.
Freshwater was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 - written as a semi-autobiographical novel that reads akin to a young adult’s diary:
Connecting her experience from early childhood in Umuahia (southeastern Nigeria) to her disruptive college years in Virginia, and in line with the contemporary literary trends in women’s literature.
A great achievement to have made at age 32, Freshwater also scrutinises the consequences of Ada’s mother, Saachi, a nurse, leaving the family with Ada’s father, Saul, a nonchalant doctor, to go work in Saudi.
Ada writes, “And that is how you break a child, you know. Step one, take the mother away,” further reflecting on her mother’s failure to placate her,
“If we could go back, we would tell Saachi what she realised only many years later: that none of the ways she tried to take care of this child would ever feel like enough.”
Finally, Ada seems to find a sense of freedom when she seeks to answer these questions: are the gods in charge of us or are we in charge of the gods? Is Ada human or god? “Ada wanted a reason, a better explanation.” Ada chooses to manifest her belief through her physical self - a reflection of the actual events and actions in the author’s life.
Akwaeki describes her trans surgeries as “a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature,” in an article on The Cut magazine. On their Twitter (or IG) feed one can get a better glimpse of the author’s version of reality. Akwaeki posted a recent image of how she wanted her chest to be, after her second surgery, thanking her fans, “... thank you to all my lovebears who held me with such care through this year, my community is phenomenal."