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Author Akwaeke Emezi.

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer who won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Her debut novel, Freshwater, is a contemporary, transatlantic story rooted in Igbo understanding. It is also semi-autobiographical. Freshwater concerns Ada, a Nigerian girl born "with one foot on the other side." As she grows up, Ada develops multiple selves, unfolding to a crisis after she experiences a traumatic event at university in the United States. The feat of this novel is Emezi's language to describe the experience of gods – Freshwater is a true original.

For readers not familiar with Igbo culture, what is an ogbanje?

An ogbanje is an Igbo entity – an embodied spirit that's born to die. It does so over and over, returning to the same mother to torment her. It also belongs to a cohort of spirits like itself, who are loyal only to each other, but choose to engage in embodiment periodically. Most parents try to figure out how to stop it from dying, how to sever that connection to the rest of the cohort so that the ogbanje child can live more like a human. In Freshwater, Ada is an ogbanje, so the selves that she develops feel that connection and loyalty to the cohort quite strongly and try to act on it.

In the early part of the novel, the gods in Ada's mind seem actively malevolent, delighting in human pain. (By the end, we better understand their motivations.) Why did you want to explore these seemingly hostile natures?

The selves in Freshwater aren't entirely separate entities from Ada, though it may seem that way at first. Since Ada is the child of a deity, she's kind of a god in that sense, which makes all parts of her gods as well. One of the ways I find useful in describing them and her is that they are, altogether, a singular collective and a plural individual. Ada has a really hard time reconciling that, though, so she creates the selves to try and separate things into categories she can handle better. I chose to have the selves narrate the book because choosing that centre, choosing to see it from their perspective, was a more challenging truth. I wanted to push myself. Their hostility is just an aspect of centering them, seeing how non-human entities like that view humans – it's a complicated relationship that I enjoyed exploring.

What was this novel's spark?

I wanted to see what it would be like to firmly centre a contemporary story in Igbo reality, using my own life as an archive to pull from.

Freshwater is autobiographical. Some might think writing fiction from your own life is easier, but are there particular challenges?

I think so. With other kinds of fiction, I feel I have more imaginative freedom to construct characters and worlds, but in writing Freshwater, the challenge was in taking the archive of a person's life and condensing that into a legible story. I've written other books since then, and it's been much easier to spin a story removed from my life than to hone autobiographical work into well-crafted fiction.

There are labels for people who hear voices in their head, who date men and women, or who undergo gender reassignment surgery. Freshwater resists these labels, instead describing the actions of characters in Ada's mind. Why?

Part of choosing to centre this work in Igbo reality is that Ada's story is functionally that of a spirit, narrated by a spirit. As such, human labels or perspectives aren't particularly necessary or relevant. I think – or rather, hope – that reading this book can help people step away from the boxes and labels we're accustomed to and see things from a fresh perspective.

The past decade has seen a boom in Nigerian fiction: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinelo Okparanta, Chigozie Obioma, Elnathan John, Ayobami Adebayo…What experiences helped you add your name to this list?

I've been fortunate to participate in several workshops for black writers, both on the continent and in the diaspora, such as the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Kimbilio Fellowship, and the Caine Prize Writing Workshop. I've also been supported by a large-hearted community – people who've believed in my writing for a long time. They pitched in to make sure I could fly to Lagos to attend the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, they introduced me to various people in the literary scene, gave me career advice, cheered me on, edited and published my work, etc. Winning the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship was also hugely helpful for my career, as it allowed me to write a second novel before Freshwater was even acquired and gave me financial stability for a year. I also wrote quite a bit of nonfiction for Commonwealth Writers before winning their 2017 Short Story Prize for Africa. In a lot of ways, getting to where I am now has been a team effort, and I'm so grateful to everyone involved in it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Michael Redhill has won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel 'Bellevue Square,' about a woman on the hunt for her doppelganger. The Toronto author says it would have been foolish to imagine he could win the award.

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