Reading Progress:

Dear Senthuran explores the highs and lows of being a god

by Deontaye Osazuwa

Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir begins with Akwaeke Emezi in the bright middle of June, staring into the Black Sea and imagining dissolving into foam. It ends with them surrounded by plants in their godhouse, named Shiny, a fittingly calm finishing point after a whirlwind of introspection on everything from MFA programmes to the intricacies of godhood.

Dear Senthuran Graphic

Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir begins with Akwaeke Emezi in the bright middle of June, staring into the Black Sea and imagining dissolving into foam. We are then plunged into their childhood in Aba, Nigeria, their godhouse in Brooklyn, and the Berlin hotel room where they tried to kill themselves. In under 250 pages, Emezi explores not only their identity as an ogbanje-spirit-god, but their writing career, love life, and family with admirable candour. A tale is spun from one corner of their mind to the other with their usual bluntness, from MFA programmes to intricacies of godhood. But what this memoir is truly about is their desire for freedom, sometimes from their own body and other times from people who try to cage them in boxes infinitely too small for a god.

It would be hard for anyone to finish Dear Senthuran without a change—a change in perspective, understanding, knowledge. Knowing your identity is one thing, but living it is another. Emezi does both. We are told that their queerness, namely their transgender identity, is rooted in a “non-human dysphoria, spirt-dyspohoria, metaphysical dysphoria.” They are an ogbanje, a reincarnating spirit is born human and often dies very young. This memoir is rooted in Igbo spirituality, dismissing the West’s compulsion to question people’s chosen identities. Questioning leads to labels and labels lead to control, and Emezi is anything but controllable. This epic memoir is proof of that, casually mentioning gods in the same breath as coffee shops, sitting somewhere between the highs of spellcasting and the lows suicide.

Knowing your identity is one thing, but living it is another. Emezi does both.

In the darker moments, despair is thick and heavy. Emezi believes themself to be a living thing in a dead body and death is a constant throughline. They are comfortable with the idea of dying, and it is solitude that seems to be their bane. “There’s no lonely like a god’s lonely,” we are told. We witness this truth as they navigate a world that could never truly understand them, forcing them to perform “[the] violent farce that keeps [them] alive.” We are made to sit with these moments, feel the full force of vulnerable emotions until Emezi allows us to leave and see brighter days. We feel the power of their godliness and matchless penmanship, guiding us along the arc of their personal history as they create it.

Told in the epistolary form, Emezi bares their soul in a series of bewitching letters to their friends, family, and lover. On writing, they remind us that other writers may find you pretentious when you are not intimidated by the act of writing and succes. When you have an unwavering belief in yourself, you intimidate those who find safety in self-deprivation. On self-belief, we see how “worldbending” helped them manifest the life they dreamed of, down to the pink faux fur they imagined wearing to their debut launch. On love, they declare that the beauty of a young woman’s light should never be dimmed by a man cowering under the warmth of its glow. The gut punch of heartbreak that stalks later chapters only renders these words more poignant.

The “magician”, their lover, says that “masks are gateways to larger truths.” We learn that masks are simply another face for who you are, and thus all authentic: a different face for a different purpose isn’t deceptive, but called for. Emezi declares 67 faces in total (though some are made with “poor human skin” and are ready for the bin). Some faces are warmly relatable, like their meditations on falling in and out of love. Others are beautifully illuminating, like their sprawling letters on spirituality that pull us ever deeper into a psyche that inspires introspection. Emezi grants themself the freedom to be several, not one. From You Made A Foll of Death With Your Beauty to a literary tragedy in The Death of Vivek Oji, this spectrum of identity mirrors the range of the oeuvre which continually broadens our literary horizons without ever sacrificing their trademark intensity.

Questioning leads to labels and labels lead to control, and Emezi is anything but controllable.

Dear Senthuran reflects on this sprawling career as it takes us to the start of it, when they were having to push back against the pigeonhole publishing was doing their utmost to shove them, and other Nigerian writers, into. Freshwater was “not enough about the immigrant experience,” they decreed as they reserved the word ‘identity’ for racial trauama, and certainly not the metaphysical musings of an ogbanje-spirit-god. “My main character’s life and experiences weren’t centred on her being African or Black, or an immigrant. Those were negligible, secondary. Her core conflict was that she was embodied: that she existed, that she had selves, that she was several,” Emezi counters. While Dear Senthuran is not as overtly political as Bitter or as heart-wrenching as The Death of Vivek Oji, it makes you appreciate how much of their soul they inject into their fiction. But it also stands on its own, as the compelling musings of a god.

Dear Senthuran ends with Emezi surrounded by plants in their godhouse, named Shiny, a fittingly calm finishing point after a whirlwind of introspection. The best memoirs not only tell a compelling true story but allow the reader to reflect on their own life, choices, and opinions. Dear Senthuran succeeds in both. My personal reflections are in the mesmerising power of self belief: I want to discover which “languages of manifestations” work for me, if my worldbending is supposed to be written down or simply acted upon. In this Black Spirit Memoir, Emezi proves that they not only know to craft fiction, but can also weave a true story into something that is epic and stirring. Radial self-reflection is the inevitable outcome of reading Dear Senthuran.

By Deontaye Osazuwa

DEONTAYE OSAZUWA is a law graduate and the creator of the YouTube channel Heroine’s Corner where she spotlights books written by Black authors, with a focus on Black British literature. She is currently working as an editorial intern at an independent publisher and her favourite genres are historical fiction and fantasy. She is always looking for stories that centre Black womanhood and girlhood to escape into. Find her @heroinescorner on Twitter.

AKWAEKE EMEZI (they/them) is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Death of Vivek Oji, which was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize; Pet, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Selected as a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation, they are based in liminal spaces.

Dear Senthuran explores the highs and lows of being a godDear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Faber & Faber on 29 June 2021
Genres: Africanjujuism, Memoir
Pages: 240
four-stars

In three critically acclaimed novels, Akwaeke Emezi has introduced readers to a landscape marked by familial tensions, Igbo belief systems, and a boundless search for what it means to be free. Now, in this extraordinary memoir, the bestselling author of The Death of Vivek Oji reveals the harrowing yet resolute truths of their own life. Through candid, intimate correspondence with friends, lovers, and family, Emezi traces the unfolding of a self and the unforgettable journey of a creative spirit stepping into power in the human world. Their story weaves through transformative decisions about their gender and body, their precipitous path to success as a writer, and the turmoil of relationships on an emotional, romantic, and spiritual plane, culminating in a book that is as tender as it is brutal. Electrifying and inspiring, animated by the same voracious intelligence that distinguishes their fiction, Dear Senthuran is a revelatory account of storytelling, self, and survival.

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