Akwake Emazy: ‘Imagine Being Ogbanje, Like Me’

dear senthuran
A Black Spirit Memoir
by Akwake Amazic

Queer and transgender people of color always ask whether our deviation from the expected ways of loving, living, and being in our bodies makes us disgusting, frightening — even demonic. Between the parade and the rainbow-clad products, it’s a line of inquiry in private. It’s a reconciliation of the distractions we go through in our most difficult times, when family of origin and childhood friends remind us, again, of our undeniable differences. Akwake Emezi’s fourth book, “Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir,” provides a definitive answer to this perennial question. Yes, the authors seem to say, we are demons. But only if demonic is defined as a clear refusal to follow the binaries around us. In a world that is in line with villains, “Dear Senthuran” intentionally claims to be demonic as a place of rejection.

The book is a spiritual journey told through Igbo cosmology. Emezi, who grew up in Aba, Nigeria, invites the reader to “imagine being Ogbanje like me”. Ogabanje, divine spirits born from human mothers, are deities limited in constant transit. To rejoin the spirit world, they die repeatedly, deliberately leaving their human families.

In context and content, “Dear Senthuran” is molded by departure and what is needed. The book is structured as a series of letters from the author to his friends, lovers, other authors, the divine and human family. In them, Amezi describes episodes of his life, from his gender confirmation surgery to buying a house (a place he calls his “godhouse”), betrayal at the hands of literary masters. Each letter describes a tension—the Western construction of gender and “people like me: embodied but not human, terrified that they are going insane, unable to talk about it, and alienated from indigenous black realities that You can make some sense out of it. Everyone.” But also amidst the heartbreak of excitement and love, professional victories and personal failure, the finality of life and death. The emojis prove these conflicts to be artificial, while creating the burden of genuine solitude and lack of interest in them. Growing up, the chapters get closer and closer to a frightening reality. “There is something bright and brilliant inside me,” he writes. “It doesn’t make me feel special. It makes me very lonely.”

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

Identity is an undeniable part of Emazy’s project, but the memoir goes far beyond the traditional story of migrant or gender. The demons are busy in power. Lambda Prize-winning author and activist Susan Stryker wrote that when she came out as transsexual, she claimed the transformative potential of Frankenstein’s monster. She said it gave her a “powerful voice” with which to deal with “the drama of family abandonment, the fantasy of revenge against the people who fired me, and the longing for personal redemption”. “Dear Senthuraan” works in a parallel fashion. It was not written for you or for me; Emgie has nothing to do with such worldly things. This is a book about conditions, and the agency we can afford ourselves by doing away with completely. It is also an audacious journey through the horror and beauty of refusing to explain itself in the relentless pursuit of self-realization.

[ Read an excerpt from “Dear Senthuran.” ]

Emzy begins the book by celebrating fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s courage to skip convention, “Don’t care what you think of yourself.” By the end, the author reaches an uneasy truce, somewhere between recognizing physical barriers and feeling free from them. “How far will we go to save ourselves?” they ask. In other words, to what extent do we reverse ourselves to conform to expectations of gender, race, success? When at the end he says, “Perhaps all this makes no sense; Maybe it all makes sense in the world. I don’t care anymore, ”we are ready. The emoji has spent pages showing us the stress of living in a world where we’re forced to decide between two options, and find that neither of them will suffice. Only an alternate route will do.

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