A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

also known as a poet, writer, visual artist, film director, singer, performer
Originally published in Apartamento magazine issue #32
Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

A – Akwaeke


In your debut novel, Freshwater, you write: ‘Many things begin with a name’.
‘Akwaeke’ means ‘python’s egg’ in Igbo. The first years of my existence, I was told it meant ‘precious’. Later I found out that it is called precious because the python is the physical manifestation of one of the most powerful deities in Igbo reality, hence a python’s egg is precious because it is the child of a deity. So, my name is really the starting point of everything. When I started writing Freshwater, I was trying to figure out who and what I was. Ann Daramola talks about this concept where, in the West, everything is truth by verification; you have to have evidence. Most indigenous cultures have truth by revelation; you know things that you have no way of proving. To me, these are just two different systems of truth, but if you try to apply one to the other, they don’t work. We have been taught, through colonisation, that truth by revelation isn’t valid because it’s an indigenous form of knowledge, that it is superstition or black magic, and if you cannot provide evidence then it’s not true. For me, writing Freshwater was truth by revelation. While I was writing, I was figuring out who I was, the answers were coming to me, and I would feel them to be true: I am Akwaeke, the child of a deity. I am a deity.

B – Blood

There is a lot of blood in your work, actual blood. How come?

One of the many things I do is visual art. In 2017, I did a video-work that involved self-scarification on the face. That was the first time I tasted working with blood. After that, I wanted to work with blood on a larger scale, but it’s actually pretty difficult to get a large amount of fresh blood in the US. Have you ever watched the movie Gone Girl? There’s a scene where she collects her own blood. I would have done it with my own blood, but it turns out it’s not as easy as it looks on film. You need a freelance nurse, a fridge to store it, and you’d have to do it for a long stretch of time to get the amount of blood I needed. I had to move down to New Orleans, where I found a butcher who gave me gallons of blood. Why actual blood? Most of my visual art practice has been about rituals. I’m not faking a ritual by using paint or coloured water, I’m doing an actual ritual, so I need real blood. I did a piece in 2020 called ‘I Am Not Clean’. It’s a line from Henry Dumas, a poet whose verses I first read in Toni Morrison’s The Black Book. It’s from his poem, ‘Rite’. For context, when I was 17, I wrote a bucket list of things I wanted to do before I died. As every suicidal teenager does, you presume to die very soon, and one of the items on my list was to immerse myself in a bathtub full of blood. Ten years later, I was in Syracuse at a Toni Morrison seminar reading The Black Book and discovered the Dumas verse: 


No power can stay the mojo

when the obi is purple

and the vodu is green

and Shango is whispering,

Bathe me in blood.

I am not clean.

I read this and started weeping. I felt spoken to. I literally heard, ‘You have to bathe in blood, you are not clean’. It was the poem to my 17-year-old-bucket-list self. To be embodied, to be in the flesh, to be a deity trapped in the mortal form, to be contaminated by this world, I never feel clean.

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

C – Cancel Culture

You have been criticised for cancelling—

Oh, that is so boring. People are very disingenuous about how they are mapping power. If you have an accurate power-map, then you can see things clearly. Being called out on something isn’t severe; everyone messes up. Everyone is problematic. It’s important to be willing to hold space for being called to account and for being corrected on problematic things. To move around in fear of that is to move around from a place of ego. It’s as if you were to say, ‘I can’t be corrected on things’. It feels to me that people try to strip power away from marginalised people to maintain a violent status quo. To keep punching down on people who are more vulnerable than you and, if they dare to speak up, all of a sudden you are a victim of cancel culture. For me, it’s all about, where do you sit on the power-map? And who is talking, who is correcting? Someone more powerful than you? Or someone less powerful than you? Because, if it’s someone who has less power than you, maybe you should be listening instead of punching down to shut them up.

D – Deity

You say, ‘I’m a deity’. 

In Western culture, if you say you are a deity, you say you’re better than everyone else. In Igboland, it’s not hierarchical; you are not putting yourself above others. A deity is just an entity with great power who serves the community. If you fail your call, the community shows you the wood you’re made of. I like that in Igboland, people don’t follow the deity blindly; if need be, they threaten the deity. Igbo people are autonomous people worthy of respect as much as any deity.

E – Embodiment

Reading your work, I learnt not to think of you as a body, but as an embodiment of multiples. When you look at yourself, what do you represent to yourself? 

My work is about trying to remember what I am. For context, who you are in the spirit world doesn’t translate when you come into flesh; you are not allowed to remember who you were in the spirit world before you were born. Knowing that I am separated from who I was before I was born, I explore my embodiment, the difficulty of it, the pain of if, the suffering that comes with it. I like to say that embodiment is my initial trauma. When I wrote Freshwater, people were confused. They wanted to categorise what I was writing about. ‘Oh, so you write about an ogbanje, you are writing about a person who is possessed by a spirit’. And I was like, ‘No, this character is a spirit whose initial trauma is embodiment, is the fact that they were born’. It was interesting to see how the main character faced Western diagnosis. Like, ‘Oh, this person has such-and-such disorder, is anxious, depressed’. I think when you write about something that is not familiar to the reader, they can take it very literally, like a non-fictional manual.

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

F – Father

I’m not very attached to my human parents. In Igbo reality, there is a reincarnation cycle, which means when you are born you belong to a certain lineage that is reincarnating into itself. When ogbanjes are born, they are born outside the lineage; they are not part of the cycle. To me, my father is a human that has been given custody of me.

G – Grief

Haha, true, there is a lot of grief in my work. Just the other day, I was thinking, ‘People keep dying in my work’. When I was writing The Death of Vivek Oji, I realised that when it comes to death, there are two ways to engage with grief: from the perspective of a witness to death or from the perspective of a participant in death. I wrote Vivek Oji as a participant. As someone who has been suicidal for most of my life, I am very close with death. The interesting thing about death and grief is that people focus on the experience of those witnessing death. I remember readers telling me, ‘Oh, this is so sad’, and I was like, ‘Really?’ I realised the readers were relating to the characters who were witnesses, and not with the main character—who was a participant, who I was relating to—so their grief was completely different to mine.

H – Hysterectomy 

You had a hysterectomy when you were 30.

As I said earlier, when ogbanje are born they are born outside the cycle and only take human form for a short period of time. They can become part of the cycle by having kids, but that also means when they die—instead of their spirit going back to where it came from—it gets trapped in the loop, and they become a human spirit. I don’t want to participate in the cycle.

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi
Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

I – Igbo

It’s my father’s ethnic group, my mother is Tamil. I was born and raised in Igboland. It’s my place of origin, I identify with it, it’s my ethnic group. I love the language. I don’t speak it fluently because my parents speak about seven languages between them, yet the only language they have in common is English. My father speaks Igbo, Russian, Latin—he actually went to med school in Crimea when it was still part of the Soviet Union. My mother speaks Tamil, Malay, and Arabic, but English was the only language we used in the house, so I picked up Igbo language mostly outside of our home. As much as I love the language, my vocabulary stopped at the level of a 16 year old when I left Igboland to go to university in the US. I made a short film, Ududeagu, which won best experimental short at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia. It was a folktale for which I translated the narration with my father. Igbo is a very poetic language. Even the word for ‘spider’, ‘ududeagu’, is poetic. It roughly translates to ‘the one that can hold a leopard’. Or take the word ‘soul’, it translates as ‘seed of the hearts’. If in Igbo you want to say, ‘I can’t do something’, there is no word for ‘can’t’, so you say, ‘I don’t have the strength’.

J – June

I was born in June. It’s easy to remember: the sixth day of the sixth month. I really like being a summer baby. It’s very appropriate, it’s my favourite season. This is when my new year starts.

K – Kiss

I have a blank on that.

L – Love

I think this might actually be a bell hooks definition: being invested in someone else’s spiritual growth. Also, Ann says that showing up is 100 percent of the work. Love is showing up.

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

M – Multiplicity

All my practices—my writing, my filmmaking, my ritual-performances, my music—are intertwined. They are all interconnected. Everything I do is a self-portrait, mirroring my multiplicity as a deity and as an artist. I am interested in many things. I am also interested in interior design, in gardening, in building things. Just the other day I had a conversation with a new friend, and I started telling her about my place and how I had put in shelves and how we had to cut out the dry wall. I really am very much a nerd about a vast array of things.

N – Nigeria

There are many difficult things about Nigeria. Its treatment of queer and trans people is perhaps one of the most painful. That’s partly why I wouldn’t move back because it’s not safe for me to live somewhere like that. I am actually not a resilient person. I have been very suicidal for a long time. I would be very much at risk being back home. 

O – Ogbanje

I’m not sure I can flatten it down to a single bite. All I can say: It’s real.

P – Poetry

I was a poet for most of my life. A full-on angsty teenage poet. Everything I do comes from poetry: my short stories, my novels, my rap lyrics. I attended a Black poetry workshop in Brooklyn, Cave Canem, that was really fundamental to my writing practice and helped me to release my first poetry collection last year, Content Warning: Everything.

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

Q – Queer

My hope is to do more to support the queer and trans communities in Nigeria.

R – Rage

In your memoir, Dear Senthuran, you write, ‘There was pain and there was grief, but rage was the thing forcing the gates open’.

This quote is from a suicide attempt. I know there are people saying, ‘If you are not full of rage, you are not paying attention’. I know there is this idea of rage being necessary for liberation, and I’m sure that’s true for some people, but for me, allowing rage is too dangerous. If I engage with rage, I will die. 

S – Sex

A critic noted that your novel, You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty, includes lots of sex.

Which is funny, as I really don’t think there is too much sex in it. I have been reading romance novels since I was a pre-teen, and You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty is a sex-light book. People think it has a lot of sex in it because it starts with a sex scene, but it’s really a slow burn. What I enjoy about sex in my book is that the anticipation is more interesting. One of my favourite movies is Moonlight for the same reason, because so much of it is about the anticipation and the chemistry and the build-up.

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

T – Transition

I’m not allowed to see my next transition yet. The future is veiled from me at the moment. It hasn’t always been veiled—usually I can see where I’m going and what I’m supposed to do, but at the beginning of last year, I noticed that everything after June, after my birthday, was blank. I used to think that my work was my purpose for being alive. The blank gives me new clarity. I understand now the point of being alive is to have the human experience. This new perspective helps me to put the hustle and the grind and all that productivity aside. It helps me to put all that capitalist force and influence aside and focus on being here and being alive. What is now most important to me is figuring out how to be and stay alive. Call it transitioning if you want. Not knowing where you are going is a good exercise in faith. Will you still put one foot in front of the other? Will you still take the steps, even if you are not being shown the outcome? I’m surprised myself how difficult it is for me to walk in faith. Even though my career has proven that I can walk in faith, now it’s a lesson I’m learning. The key is to keep moving. I understand that fear and anxiety are just things that my system is pulling up to try to protect me from what it detects to be a threat. My therapist has helped me understand to address those parts with compassion, that these feelings are trying to help me. So, I tend to hand it over to God, let God deal with fear and anxiety. I got into this practice of telling myself, ‘The next transition is not my problem’. I just keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is putting one foot in front of the other. I think the thing that is truly dangerous about fear and anxiety—they can make you stop doing what you’re doing, because you are too afraid to go on. You freeze up and stop moving forward. I know I live that kind of life where people often assume that I’m never afraid. They think I’m fearless, that I don’t care what people think, etc., etc. But that’s not true. I am terrified—all the time—and I don’t hide it. I say it a lot. I said it so many times in my memoir. I am always terrified, but that’s also irrelevant. I might be terrified, but I’ll still be obedient to what I’m supposed to do.

U – Umuahia

This is where I was born. It’s where my father was born and where his father was born. It’s the capital city of Abia in southeast Nigeria, but we never lived there. After my birth, we moved away. It doesn’t really do as much to me as it does to people with human lineage. I know it does something to my sister; she is a visual artist and works with documentary. To her, Umuahia holds weight. To me, it’s just a place of origin. 

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

V – Violence

In Freshwater, you write, ‘We were sentenced to those yawning gates between worlds … Open gates are like sores that can’t stop grieving’. 

I know, there is a lot of violence in my books. The fury I feel is a consequence of embodiment. In my memoir, I describe a character having to fold herself inward, having to become smaller, less powerful, pretend to be insecure, pretend not to know who she is. It was interesting to observe, when my memoir was published, how the violence I described acted like a mirror. It had a strong effect on a lot of older writers who said, ‘Oh, you’re so arrogant’. 

W – Writing

I’ve been writing since I was five. And although writing is very solitary, it’s also very collaborative. Once I finish and edit my first draft, others come in. Same with my music: I collaborate with songwriters who I learn a lot from. To me, writing is learning, alone and together. The pace is never what I want it to be. The pace of anything is never what I want it to be. I always want things to be faster, so I’m learning to take my time. To a deity, human rules and pace are very frustrating. So much of my journey is about surrender. Surrender the frustration, be obedient to the lesson.

X – Xenophobia

I’m not sure I have much of an association with it, except, YES, THAT’S A THING! 

Y – Yagazie

My sister! I have a lot of childhood amnesia, but one thing I remember well. My sister and I had this ritual: When we would go to bed, we would tell each other stories. When I moved to America and Yagazie wasn’t there anymore, I continued our ritual alone and told stories to myself. Yagazie is an amazing photographer and video artist. We just worked together for the first time on the video for my debut single, ‘Banye’, which Yagazie directed.


Can I give you a ‘Z’? Zara, it’s my second name. Before I moved to the US, I only went by Zara. It’s an abbreviation of Chizara. When I was born and named Akwaeke, the church refused to baptise me as Akwaeke because it’s a pagan name. They demanded to add a Christian name, so my father named me Chizara, meaning ‘God answered’. 

Apartamento Magazine - A to Z with deity Akwaeke Emezi

An earlier version of this article included a mistranscription of the pronunciation for ‘Igbo’ which has been removed. Attribution for a quote by Ann Daramola has also been incorporated in this update.





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