Freshwater and Sitting with Uncertainty

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss


Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, opens in a strange and magical way. Not only is the POV “we,” the narrators are not yet born and might be magical. When we first encounter this voice, it's hard to tell what is happening—what is "real," what is human, what is something else. 

When I describe this, it sounds confusing, but reading it, I don’t mind the uncertainty; in fact, I enjoy it. For a little while, at least, I’m content to sit with what I don’t understand. And I'm really interested in how Emezi makes that happen. I want to look at some specific strategies they employ to help the reader be temporarily content with what is nebulous and unknown.

I think they do it by giving me something else—something different than certainty—to sink my teeth into. There is mystery, but there are also plenty of concrete and vivid details. 

When we got tired of the house, we fluttered and swooped, playing in the compound and watching the yam tendrils crawl up their supporting sticks, the silk of corn drying up as it ripened, the swelling and patched yellowing of the mangoes before they fell. Saachi would sit and watch Saul fill two buckets with those mangoes and bring them to her. She ate them all the way from their skins through their wet flesh to her teeth scraping like dry bone against the seeds. Then she made mango jam, mango juice, mango everything. She ate ten to twenty of them each day, then a few of the large avocados, slicing those around the pit and scooping their butter down her throat. And so our fetus body was fed and we visited, and when we were tired of their world, we left for our own. Back then, we were still free. It was nothing to slip away, along the bitter streams of chalk.

I might not understand the logistics of this voice or world, but I can taste the mangos and feel them inside my mouth. The details make the moment visceral even if I don't fully understand it. I don't know where I am, but I sort of know that I am, and that's enough.

And that's my point, in a nutshell. If I am struck by a swirling force of visceral sensations, I feel the story with my body and thus am inside of it and eager to feel more. I am ready to learn what it all means but content to be pulled there slowly. However, if the swirling forces were less sensual, less concrete—if they were, say, an abstract string of words—I might be less content to wait for an explanation.

So let's look also at how Emezi makes the passage so sensory. Food is particularly wonderful for deploying many senses at once. If it's a food we know, we instantly imagine its taste, its smell, its color, its texture. Maybe there's a sound associated with eating it or a temperature. 

For the mangoes, there is obviously the flavor, scent, and color. But there's also so much texture: "through their skins through their wet flesh to her teeth scraping like dry bone against the seeds." The avocados also contain both taste and that "butter" texture. And then think about the feel of scraping, slicing, and scooping. 

After all, what it is the experience of embodiment if it's not activating many senses at once? And we don't need to have an explanation for the sensations to be real; we just need to feel them in our bodies.

The passage is also compelling because it moves. I think movement is one of the things readers most crave in a narrative. Even when we don't understand it or know where it will take us, movement creates a sense that the passage has purpose—that we are going somewhere. Maybe it makes us more patient; or maybe we just enjoy the ride.

One movement is between the air and the ground, between spirit and body. The passage begins with “fluttered and swooped” but moves into what is bodied. The food, of course, puts us in our bodies as we read about it, but there is also weight and physicality in other details, such as those buckets filling and becoming heavy. The words "teeth," "flesh," "bone," "throat," "fetus" make us think about bodies, too.

And there is movement from the light to the heavy in the small detail of the sequence of "ten to twenty." It's a lot of mangoes—that's important—and of course it's the convention to say ten to twenty instead of twenty to ten. But it also creates a sense of increase. The order of any list can create a trajectory.

Most important, in this passage, is the movement of growth and fertility. The tendrils crawl, the corn ripens. There's swelling and yellowing and the falling of ripe fruit to the ground. Even if I don't understand this particular magical pregnancy, the imagery of pregnancy is welling up. The language moves us through textures like an emergence—skin to flesh to bone—like digging through a body. And the movement of wet to dry is like coming out of a body.

And so even without certainty, there is meaning. The book is, in many ways, about what is embodied and what is not. This passage sets us up for that.

I should also say, the mystery I've described is not going to be everyone's experience of the book. Some readers will guess right away that the narrators are ogbanje or something similar. Others will not know but immediately look it up. At some points in my own reading, I researched to better understand what might be happening. At other times, I let the strange beauty wash over me, without trying very hard to understand it. 

With sensory imagery and a strong sense of movement, I can feel the story in my body even when I don't know it with my brain. And so it’s enjoyable even when I fail to fully understand.