📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Content warning: this story discusses suicide.
Throughout my reading of Akwaeke Emezi's Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, I wanted to stop. I wanted to hide from this book and end the discomfort it brought me. But during each break, I mourned the rush I got from all the annotating and underlining, all the screenshots I took of passages to share with friends who didn't have access to this advanced reader copy.
It was when I realized that Emezi is a god that I understood what was swelling in me was akin to a revival. Dear Senthuran is an offering on the altar.
Emezi's fourth book, the author's first full nonfiction work, is structured in letters to friends, family, lovers, and even the great Toni Morrison. The Black spirit memoir journeys through the Global South, from the author's childhood in Aba, Nigeria, to planting roots in their New Orleans bungalow.
The book both pushes boundaries and sets them, as Emezi has throughout their career. Their debut novel, Freshwater, made them the first person longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction who wasn't a cis-woman. But Emezi rejected future entries and withdrew from consideration their second novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, when the prize asked for proof of their gender "as defined by law."
For Dear Senthuran, Emezi set the requirement—not a preference, they clarified—to speak with only nonwhite journalists about the memoir. Put frankly: They are not in the mood to explain this book to white people, and they do not care whether they understand it or not. Akin to Toni Morrison's stance about writing about Black people for Black people, Emezi wants to avoid conversations in which white people work through sentiments of guilt about feeling connected to a book that doesn't center whiteness at all.
"Like can you just chill at the margins like everyone else has to do?" Emezi told Scalawag. "Just stay there… I prefer to stay at the center."
Fittingly, Emezi dedicated one of the letters in the memoir to Morrison, whom they describe as "an elderspirit spun from a whisper of power."
See also: Our Toni
Emezi is an ogbanje, which in Igbo ontology references a trickster spirit, an other-than-human child born to a human mother, living only to die unexpectedly before their spirit shows up again in the next child. Breaking gender binaries and norms, they appear human, but as Emezi writes, it's important for the spirits to never reproduce—because they are meant to die off, over and over.
The memoir accounts how, Emezi, living with a violent aversion toward reproduction and its potential, began calling themselves transgender and taking the surgical steps to resolve the dysphoria they felt in their flesh—a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature, as they describe it. But the possibility that Emezi was an ogbanje was a slow creep, suppressed under a Westernized education.
"It was difficult for me to consider an Igbo spiritual world to be equally if not more valid," Emezi writes. "The legacy of colonialism has always taught us that such a world isn't real, that it is nothing but juju and superstition. When I finally accepted its validity, I revisited what that could mean for my gender."
Dear Senthuran is as relatable as it is challenging. As Emezi writes, "ogbanje represent an overlapping of realities." The result: a memoir of intersections that is equal parts raw, unfiltered—sweet even, like local honey.
As a writer, I appreciated the chapters offering advice about navigating the publishing world. Dear Senthuran is also a book of spells, and Emezi shares the ones they cast for success as a writer. The memoir is laden with practical advice—freelancers need to set aside 30 percent of their income for taxes, for instance. It's self-help for your spirit. It's a life raft.
"People do such spectacular things if you forget to tell them it's impossible," Emezi writes.
See also: The Queer South—Where the past is not past, and the future is now
I could relate to getting visible hand tattoos, as Emezi and I both did, in an effort to become less employable, palatable. I also found solace in the letters that described Emezi's homemaking process that ultimately pulled them to New Orleans—or, the swamp as they call it. I've been working through my own feelings about becoming a homeowner in the same city. In a recent Zoom interview, we commiserated over how uniquely lonely the homebuying process is when you do it alone.
"It's a different kind of lonely isn't it? When you're stepping into it for yourself and you're supposed to enjoy it," they said to me. "But you're like, I want to share it."
Emezi describes a third shift, when they realized they were in fact a "small deity," a god. This is when it became abundantly clear to me as a reader why I'd felt their prose hug me so tightly. It continues to haunt me like a hangover. Like any deeply spiritual text, read this one in stages.
"It's hard to read it fast," Emezi told me in an interview. "One of my friends read it, and she had to read it like a letter at the time. Like, read a letter, stop, process, and journal before she was ready to move to the next one."
Emezi writes from the center of a Venn diagram between death and morbidity, love and opulence. What lingers and challenges me most is the way they write about life and death. No one confronts life like Emezi can, if only because of their proximity to death. "Life is marked by the end of it," they said. "If death didn't exist, we wouldn't be able to define life."
Several letters describe suicide and attempts to leave behind their embodied form. Being subject to mortal rules of the human form has been deeply traumatic, as they write in the memoir. Part of that is the nature of being an ogbanje.
See also: Acts of remembrance
"Ogbanje come and go," Emezi writes. "They are never really here—if you are a thing that was born to die, you are a dead thing even when you live."
Ogbanje are like a cohort of spirits who are at least 16,000 years old, who take trips into bodies and return to each other. Mortality and its impermanence are a violent caging to Emezi. Death feels neutral, Emezi told me. "The thing that has emotional weight is suffering," they added. From friends who cannot accept the fullness of their identity, to racism in the publishing world to lovers who lie, from complicated family dynamics to abuse, Emezi is frank about the suffering they've endured from the time they were ripped away from their spirit siblings. Seeking death, for them, is more so about ending that suffering.
"And this is something that took me a long time to understand, because I learned due to the fun history of trauma that most people wouldn't care unless you involve death," they said. "And I was just like, I don't give a shit about death, I can absolutely involve that, if that's what it'll take for you to notice that I'm suffering."
With near poetry that clings to you like cotton T-shirts during a New Orleans summer, Dear Senthuran is its own swampland. It's thick with the muck of existence. It's as much land as it is water, decaying as it wills to live.
Dear Senthuran takes us through the evolution of Emezi's ultimate regeneration, as they become "obedient" to their embodiment. "The fact that we're alive is so tied to death," they told me. "'I've been thinking a lot about what it is to be a dead thing that is trying to die, which was how I lived most of my life, versus the shift that you see at the end of the memoir, which is moving into a dead thing that has been sentenced to life and has to be obedient to that sentencing."
Emezi told me they had been sharing their thoughts about life and death with their therapist, who stopped Emezi when they said how close to death they felt. The therapist told Emezi how alive they seemed as evidenced by their radiant smile, their love for dance and movement, and their colorful New Orleans bungalow they call Shiny The God House, which is filled with plants and surrounded by a blooming garden. (You can follow Shiny on Instagram.)
"I have never seen it that way," Emezi said. "And that was very confusing to me. I don't feel alive because I've been trying to die all this time."
Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir is out now.