‘The Goal Is to Get As Bright As Possible’

For the highly prolific Akwaeke Emezi, literary success is a spiritual calling.

Photo: Ashley Peña. Styling by Akwaeke Emezi. Hair by Anastasia Ebel. Makeup by Tamara Camille Soublet.
Photo: Ashley Peña. Styling by Akwaeke Emezi. Hair by Anastasia Ebel. Makeup by Tamara Camille Soublet.

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The day I meet Akwaeke Emezi, we are on the other side of a storm. The night before, a tornado ripped through New Orleans, razing power poles and flipping SUVs. A home was torn from its foundation, spun in the air, and flung into the middle of the street. A few miles north, in Emezi’s garden, the mid-afternoon sun is bright, forgetful. Emezi, hair wrapped into narrow twists, each cheekbone tattooed with two parallel black lines, scrutinizes their plot with the ambition of an architect. The culantro has been lost to the wind, but the carrots are ready to be unearthed. I pull one up, and it is thick and purple, like a vein. Inside, the bungalow, once anonymous, almost suburban, is a pastel hall of mirrors — the kitchen slicked with pink limewash, the tray ceilings painted gold. “It’s a slightly ridiculous space,” Emezi says, looking around. “I very much wanted a bubble where you could step in and all the violence of the world would bounce away.”

Emezi published their debut novel, Freshwater, in 2018 to raves. Their second adult novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, became an instant best seller. Since then, they have published four more books — three of which publish this year: a YA novel, Bitter; and a book of poetry, Content Warning: Everything; and, on May 24, their first romance novel, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, about a grieving artist who replaces her lover with his father. In an industry built on categorical distinctions — commercial vs. literary, fiction vs. nonfiction, speculative vs. mimetic — Emezi has managed to become a generalist, writing characters across genres who struggle to inhabit the harsh worlds they’ve been born into. Many of these character are Black, queer, trans, and living in diaspora; despite the pleas of their family and friends, they are adamant about becoming who they are. Now 34, Emezi describes their storytelling as a service and being “visible” as a spiritual calling. “I do well in the spotlight,” they tell me. “It is literally what I am supposed to do.”

The writer has a flair for opulence and for maximalist self-fashioning. When we meet, their outfit is peak power clash — polka-dot blouse, striped skirt, neon-green platform Crocs decorated with an assemblage of whimsical decals — and they tell stories with the cautious delight of a gossip. “How much tea do I want to spill?” they ask when we sit down to lunch. The question is obviously rhetorical: Every life event, in their telling, is a story with a lesson and a grand finale. As a conversationalist, they’re expert at inspiring intrigue. Sentences often begin with “And then.” Over and over, I find myself responding with increasing desperation: “And then what?”

Last year, long before You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty’s publication, Michael B. Jordan’s production company optioned the book’s film rights for six figures. Because Emezi’s writing is personal, and because they speak frankly about their finances, critics have sometimes accused them of sounding arrogant. (“The goal,” Emezi tells me, “is to get as big and bright as possible.”) In person, though, lines that might swell with gravitas on the page are uttered like quotidian statements of fact. Like the protagonist of Freshwater, an earthbound deity who craves release and assumes she will find it in death, Emezi maintains that they are not human. Instead, Emezi calls themself both a god and an ogbanje, an Igbo spirit that they describe as a genderless “malevolent trickster, whose goal is to torment the human mother by dying unexpectedly only to return in the next child and do it all over again.” As far as Emezi knows, their status as both a deity and an ogbanje is without precedent, and it is their deity side that has kept them alive. “I’m supposed to die, but I’m not allowed to commit suicide,” they tell me. “I exist in a metaphysical overlap.”

In the media, this insistence has been treated as a matter of identity — as if calling yourself a deity were simply an appendage to being African, or queer, or trans. But Emezi tells me that they “don’t identify as shit. I am the thing. It’s not an opinion.” When they first published Freshwater, the novel was described by critics through the lenses of gender and mental illness, and Emezi began refusing to speak about gender in interviews. They wanted to talk about Igbo ontology and sensuality — about how colonialism had so successfully warped the processes by which Black people understand themselves that when they felt the pulse of an Indigenous way of life, they could be convinced that they were sick, that they were evil, or that they were possessed by fantasy. Their sister, Yagazie, had advised them to approach Freshwater with the mentality of a Method actor — to become who they needed to become in order to make the work. “So I did,” Emezi tells me. “And then I never came back out.”

Photo: Ashley Peña. Styling by Akwaeke Emezi. Hair by Anastasia Ebel. Makeup by Tamara Camille Soublet.

Emezi was born in Umuahia, Nigeria, in 1987. Their mother, the daughter of Catholic Sri Lankan immigrants living in Malaysia, had met their father, the son of Igbo farmers, in London. She was a nursing student whose family had crafted their lives in the glow of God: Several of her relatives were Carmelite nuns, and her uncle was the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. He was a doctor who had been raised to chase prestige. “If you’re Igbo, it’s all about social standing,” Emezi tells me, later adding that this is sometimes invoked as a harmful stereotype. “Do you have money? Do you have power? Do you have a chieftaincy title? Back in the day, it would be like: How many barns of yam do you have?” In London, Emezi’s father drove a drop-top convertible, but was treated like he was, in Emezi’s words, “just a nigger.” He wanted to be a Big Man, and so after he married Emezi’s mother, he got a hospital job back in Nigeria and shipped himself a Benz. Given his lifestyle in London, Emezi’s mother thought they would be moving toward something comfortable. But the job he was promised turned out not to exist, and the home they moved into in rural Umuahia had no running water or electricity.

The middle child between an older brother and a younger sister, Emezi grew up in Aba, an industrial city bordered by oil wells. Nigeria was then under the rule of the country’s armed forces, and riots frequently followed elections. When Emezi was 8, their mother left Nigeria to work in Saudi Arabia, returning once or twice per year. She wanted her children to be sheltered from their environment: When they weren’t in school, she preferred that they play with the children of her friends — most of whom, like her, were foreign women married to Nigerian men they had met abroad. The Nigerwives, as they became known, contrived a bubble for their cosmopolitan children, who made waffles from scratch, swam, read books by Enid Blyton, and studied for the SATs.

Emezi slipped easily into fantasy. Fairies populated their backyard, and animals spoke to them at length. Still, a darkness shrouded them; they had meltdowns and frequent nightmares and felt a desperate and inexplicable desire to go home, even though they were, seemingly, living in the only home they had ever known. In their journal, they narrated their life from a series of alternate perspectives. When they were 16, they moved to the U.S. to attend college, and in their first week, experienced a personality split. Then, in their junior year, they experienced a split again. An alternate persona took over their life, someone cold and cruel, who moved through the world guided by the mantra that their pleasure mattered more than other people’s pain. Emezi tells me this persona was “a complete asshole.”

They describe their 20s with the cool distance of a witness: Their body was without the presence of their mind. They enrolled in veterinary school, dropped out, then attended a master’s program at New York University, where they “barely scraped by.” They got married, got divorced, started therapy. A year later, they attempted to overdose and wound up in the ER. Inspired by their sister, Yagazie, who was becoming somewhat of a social media personality, they started posting more online, starting — among others — an anonymous sex blog and a natural-hair blog, for which they attracted a significant following. They were such a constant presence on Yagazie’s accounts, Emezi says, that “I would fly home and get recognized at the airport.” They also began to make short films, paintings, and poems, all revolving around Igbo ontology and the impulse that they had felt, since childhood, that they needed to go home.

During this period, they became fixated on their own name: Akwaeke translates to “python’s egg,” a reference to the Igbo deity Ala, who rules over the earth and is associated with the python, although their father always told them that Akwaeke simply meant “precious.” Igbo ontology had strung up their childhood like an invisible but persistent thread, something that the adults they had been raised by treated as taboo. But as Emezi painted and wrote, beginning to work on the book that would become Freshwater, they felt increasingly like they were producing a language that not only gave credence to their compulsion toward death but also aligned, uncannily, with the Indigenous beliefs that they had been taught to view as the pesky remnants of an outdated way of life.

Emezi had known about the concept of ogbanje since they were a child. But it wasn’t until they began writing an account of their own life that they felt that they were one. When an ogbanje is born, it is separated from its spiritual cohort, which is why it tries, for the rest of its human life, to die. Emezi’s understanding is that ogbanje have no gender; around the same time that Emezi started calling themself ogbanje, they started calling themself trans, although they concede the latter word is an approximation. “It’s such a flesh term,” they write in their 2021 memoir Dear Senthuran, “but the announcement gives me a chance to talk about the dysphoria in its accurate form, as spirit at odds with flesh.” They repurposed over $10,000 from their student loans to pay for top surgery. Later, they had a hysterectomy. “The surgeries,” Emezi writes, “were a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ogbanje — a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.” They also came to understand that they might actually be the child of Ala, their namesake. “I call myself a God, because my mother is one,” Emezi tells me. “I don’t really have any other reason.”

Ogbanje are not commonly understood to live past puberty. Nor are they thought to name themselves; the designation is usually ascribed by a community. Emezi recognizes that some Nigerians won’t believe them, that people will accuse them of instrumentalizing Igbo spirituality to appeal to a western audience that’s none the wiser. But they maintain that Indigenous religious practices have the capacity to evolve — that they need not be faithful to what they were when they were documented in the past. “So many of our Indigenous beliefs were time-stamped by colonialism. Everyone is like, ‘If this is the way it was, when the white man found us, then that’s the way it is forever,’ ” Emezi says. “We’re so defined by that gaze. But we’re not back in the day now. I don’t have to live in hiding. What does it look like if I mark myself?”

When I ask Yagazie what she makes of her sibling’s status as an ogbanje, she tells me, “Akwaeke has gone through many processes — I don’t question it.” Emezi is adamant that belief “is irrelevant to reality,” that what feels scarcely credible to one person has no bearing on what feels real to another. One morning, a few years ago, their father, a born-again Christian, arrived at the medical clinic he owns in Aba and noticed a spot of blood on the doorway. He called his pastor to do an exorcism, even though he claimed that he didn’t believe “in any of that mumbo-jumbo.”

“If you don’t believe in it,” Emezi asked him, “then why are you getting a pastor to exorcize it?”

In the fall of 2014, Emezi entered the M.F.A. creative-writing program at Syracuse. By the next summer, they had already finished a full draft of Freshwater and were preparing to attend a writing workshop in Lagos run by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Although Emezi had read Adichie’s books, her writing didn’t quite resonate — they were primarily excited to work with the gay Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who was also teaching that year. Even so, for a generation of young Nigerian writers, Adichie had come to be seen as a beacon and arbiter of international success. She had taken on the dual role of mentor and gatekeeper; when asked by a journalist where she went to find the best African fiction, Adichie replied, “My mailbox.” Every year, after the workshop, she would select six writers whose stories would appear in a Nigerian publication. When she selected one of Emezi’s stories, they were thrilled, though their relationship with Adichie wasn’t close.

Then, in early 2017, a British TV reporter interviewed Adichie about feminism and asked whether she believed that a hypothetical trans woman was “any less of a woman” than a cis one. “My feeling is that trans women are trans women,” said Adichie. “I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then sort of changed — switched — gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

By the time Adichie gave that interview, Emezi had dropped out of their M.F.A. program and was preparing to publish Freshwater the following spring. They had not yet told their publisher they were trans, but they joined others in the Nigerian diaspora in tweeting that Adichie’s comments contributed to a culture in which trans people are killed, especially in Nigeria, where trans gender expression is criminalized. “She is such a powerful figure, especially back home, that when she says things, she has tens of thousands of people who will then rally forth,” Emezi says. “It was really, really heartbreaking. People were devastated that this person that they looked up to — this person that as writers we were modeling our careers after — would say something like this.” Although Adichie later published a clarification on her Facebook page, writing that “we can oppose violence against trans women while also acknowledging differences,” she didn’t respond to Emezi directly. Speaking to the professor and activist Pumla Dineo Gqola at the Abantu Book Festival in South Africa, Adichie summed up the public outcry as “trans noise.” (I reached out to Adichie via her publishers for comment, but she did not respond.)

Emezi published Freshwater, then a YA novel called Pet, then The Death of Vivek Oji. Last June, a week after Emezi published Dear Senthuran, Adichie posted an open letter on her blog. Titled “It Is Obscene,” the letter derides cancel culture and the “passionate performances of virtue” that young people wield against those who, in Adichie’s view, are simply curious or confused. “What kind of monstrous entitlement, what kind of perverse self-absorption, what utter lack of self-awareness, what unheeding heartlessness, what frightening immaturity makes a person act this way?” she wrote. Although Adichie didn’t name them, the letter was widely understood to be directed at both Emezi and OluTimehin Kukoyi, another queer Nigerian writer who had attended the workshop. Emezi says they personally have not spoken to Adichie directly since 2015. “I’ve had people be like, ‘Do you want to be in conversation with Chimamanda?’” they say. “And I’m like, ‘No more than I would want to be in a conversation with a white supremacist.’”

The conflict with Adichie is one of many that haunt Emezi — not because they want Adichie’s approval or because they seek reconciliation, but because she reminds them of all that they have come up against. In a world that incentivizes lying, Emezi tells me, they have been “honest to a fault.” They are known to call out people and institutions who, masquerading as the lifeblood of a marginalized creative class, preach that assimilation is a precondition for survival. When they speak about their suicide attempts, or about coming out to their parents, they speak with ease, with the generosity of someone who has suffered and emerged knowing that their trauma doesn’t belong to them alone. But when they speak about the incidents that have thwarted their career — for example, how the Women’s Prize for Fiction began asking for “legal proof” of sex after Freshwater was longlisted — they speak with indignation, occasionally conjuring the figure of themself as a “baby writer.” Baby writers believe that good work produces accolades and that relationships — romantic, platonic, professional, otherwise — are lifelong. Baby writers don’t know about the politics of public relations or the possibility of retaliation.

Emezi tells me that they’ve given up on the illusion of meritocracy, despite their own rapid ascent: Last year, when You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty was optioned — with Emezi signed on to executive-produce — Deadline called it one of the biggest book deals of early 2021. When Emezi speaks about their success, they speak in the disaffected tone of someone no longer impressed by their own powers of divination. They always knew they were going to be famous. They used to think about money in terms of rent. Now, they think in terms of six figures. Eventually, they would like to think in terms of seven. “I want to show it off because why not?” they write in Dear Senthuran. “If we live in rooms full of mirrors, how glorious can we get?” Even so, they confess that they think they’re publishing too fast, that neither readers nor the industry can “keep up,” and that their rate of production has exacerbated complex-PTSD-related pain. Nevertheless, they feel a compulsion to maintain the pace — they have three more books under contract, and plans for ten others to be written down the line.

In the years since the release of Freshwater, critics have often summed up Emezi’s work as a self-serving bid for visibility or, more fashionably, representation. These critiques contain something of a sleight of hand. It’s very easy to reduce writing on challenging social relations — about sex, and romance, and faith, and power — to the personality traits of its author or even to the traits of its presumed audience. But Emezi is after something more capacious than visibility, even though they often make their case to the press by deploying that vocabulary.

As Emezi and I settle onto their porch, where their wiry and demanding cat is attempting to mount the ceiling fan, they tell me about the process of researching Freshwater. They traveled to Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, and Jamaica, where they spoke to Black people who said that they could see the future in dreams or lived part time in a parallel dimension and that they, too, had been pathologized. Emezi wanted them to know that they could step out of the world they were forced to live in, where knowledge production depends on corroboration, and into worlds where truth is like a revelation: embodied and inexplicable. “So much of my writing is about trying to remember what I am and finding ways to reassign myself language,” Emezi says. “All my work is the same work. It’s all spiritual self-portraiture.”

‘The Goal Is to Get As Bright As Possible’