To read Akwaeke Emezi is to be constantly reminded that we are all more than flesh and bone. To be in conversation with the bestselling author is to understand what it is to be spirit simply shrouded in flesh—or, as Emezi refers to themselves, drawing on the Igbo spirituality of their native Nigeria, as “ogbanje”.
Traditionally, the term has held a sense of foreboding, as it refers to a spirit child who comes and goes, often with tragic results in the physical world. In Emezi’s deft prose, and particularly in their deeply evocative and visceral memoir, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, the metaphysical takes on new and even multiple meanings as they navigate family dynamics, rising fame, a life-changing romance, and attempting to live beyond the corporeal constraints of gender. As they share with us on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, Dear Senthuran, while the most intimate of Emezi’s works to date, is the natural outgrowth of a growing spiritual awareness they have been cultivating in both their life and writing.
“I’ve been working in what I now call ‘spirit theory’ since the start of my career. My first book, Freshwater, was really my first foray into that. And it was choosing to center in our realities—and in this case, in Igbo ontology—to look through my entire life through that lens,” Emezi explains. “And the reason why I started doing that was because I read this book by Malidoma Somé called Of the Water and the Spirit. And in it he talks about how when African countries got colonized, it wasn’t just that we lost our religion; we lost our language; we lost our cultures, and they were replaced by the colonizers’ own. But really, what we fundamentally lost were our realities. Something that was real for like centuries and generations, all of a sudden, a bunch of white people showed up and said, ‘That’s not real anymore. What we say is real is what’s real.’
“And that changed everything,” says Emezi. “And I really started thinking about that because we really we look down on these indigenous realities, you know. We call them superstitious; we say it’s backwards and say, ‘Well, science is what’s real.’ And yes, both things can be true at the same time. And I was like, well, what happens if we look at our lives acknowledging that the realities that our people had for, again, centuries and generations are just as valid, even if they are centered in something different? It’s a spiritual thing. It’s based on revelation,” they continue. “Because the thing is, when you look at our cultures—and when I say ‘our’, I mean, literally every Black person around the world—you see that it’s still in our culture. It’s still these ways of being that are deeply, deeply spiritual.”
Hear more from the transcendental Akwaeke Emezi in Episode 44 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Exploring the Ethereal With Akwaeke Emezi, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, TuneIn, and Radio Public.