First Person

In Akwaeke Emezi’s new book, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, the writer traces their experience as an ọgbanje, an Igbo term that refers to a spirit born into a human body, through letters to friends, family, and lovers. In the below excerpt Emezi describes trying to find community within their M.F.A. program and their discovery that working fearlessly could be a form of worldbending.  

Guy Rose, The Blue House, c. 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Kathleen,

Sometimes, you remember me better than I remember myself. I think that’s important in a friendship—to hold reflections of people for them, be a mirror when they start fading in their own eyes. I hope I do the same thing for you, too. I can’t wait for you to get here for Christmas; I know Germany has been hard on you this fall.

The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that. If this godhouse in the swamp is a wing, then I imagine you arriving and joining me underneath it, where we make syrup with the chocolate habaneros from my garden and sit out on the haint-blue porch. I wish the house was bigger, five or seven bedrooms instead of three, so I could fit more of us in here. We are safer with each other. We see the worlds we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells. I was steaming baos in my kitchen today and I got so excited to show you this house, my house. Just a year ago, you came down to the swamp for Christmas and we stayed in that sublet and cooked fish fresh from the lake. And now I have this house, this land, and the shock of what I made happen still makes me reel when I look at it fully. You think I’d be used to it by now, the way I can make things come true, but every year it expands. Every year I make bigger and bigger things happen—and it’s not just me, obviously. It’s my chi and the deityparents and God and so on, but I have to say yes first and I have to do the work and I can’t believe it works.

You know how people are so in awe of Octavia Butler’s journal, the way she wrote down what she wanted with her books? I think it’s because written worldbending resonates so widely. I’ve been curious about what other languages one can worldbend in, though, languages of manifestation, if you like. Writing things down, using images to make vision boards, speaking things aloud—these are all spells. Most of my own worldbending is very action-based: I move as if the future I want is absolutely assured, making choices and spending money like a prophet—buying clothes for galas before I was ever invited to one, paintings for a bungalow I had no idea how I’d ever afford, the pink faux fur for my book launch before I even had a book deal, shit like that. And see, this is why I love you, because you never thought it was impossible; you dream even bigger for me than I do for myself. I ran the potential outfits for make-believe events by you and you took them all seriously. When the noise started happening for my book, I told you I was shocked, and you immediately called me a liar. “You said this would happen,” you reminded me. “You’re not surprised! Don’t act surprised.”

Man, I’m supposed to act surprised, though. We all know the thing of how Black artists are meant to be grateful and humble, but when I started entering literary circles as a baby writer, there was all this culture I knew nothing about. That M.F.A. program I was in, when you came to help me after my surgery, it was full of writers who were afraid. I don’t mean that in a bad way; there’s nothing wrong with fear. I just wasn’t afraid of the same things. I wasn’t worried about failing, because if I failed my life would be just the same as it already was, so there was nothing to be scared of. If I succeeded, however, everything would change, and that was terrifying.

I call this a culture because that’s what it was. I’ve seen it in several places: people bonding over insecurities and self-deprecation, constantly saying they didn’t think their work was good, looking to the faculty for validation, someone to tell them they were real writers, to give them direction and guidance and a map to where they wanted to go. Institutions love that, I think. It makes you need them. And all those feelings are valid, but the resentment and hostility when you don’t play along, when you don’t shit on your own work, when you don’t wear doubt like a blanket around your shoulders? That’s the part I have a problem with. It reminds me of that thing back home where people want you to “humble yourself” and sometimes their demand is quiet, sometimes it’s blatant, but either way, they make sure you feel it.

I remember the dinner where I told my cohort that I’d finished my manuscript for Freshwater, the awkwardness that followed, their lack of excitement for me even though this was the thing we were all here for, all supposed to be helping each other toward. I went to the bathroom and one of them, a white girl, started talking shit about me as soon as I was away from the table. Later, when I announced a paid summer residency, she made a Facebook post mocking my accomplishment. When I signed with my agents, only the two Black students in the school congratulated me. No one else even acknowledged it—and my cohort eventually shut me out, even though there were only six of us. Our movie plans evaporated; the five of them got lunch together and never invited me again. I had spent my first year there trying so hard to be in com­munity; I’d made flans and shown up to the potlucks and believed everything they’d told me. It hurt to be cut out—but on the other hand I was grateful for the silence because it had been exhausting trying to figure out how to fit into their world. Instead I got to do what I came there to do, which was sit in my little attic apartment and work on my book.

There’s not a lot of space for a writer in cultures like that when you don’t share the same kind of doubt, when you like your work and can execute it. It upsets me to think about this, because I know other baby writers who are the way I was, needing so many things and thinking a writing community like that might help, but too certain for the crowd. I wasn’t the kind of writer they wanted there. I was alone and they made sure I knew it. I remember emailing my M.F.A. cohort to tell them about my surgery, how major it was, how I would still make sure I turned in my workshop notes on time—I didn’t want anyone to miss out on the support for their work that I thought we were there to provide for each other. I remember how no one responded, not even a perfunctory hope your surgery goes well. It was such an effective way to remind me that none of them gave a fuck about me. I hadn’t done anything other than face my work and try to fit in until I stopped trying, other than finish my manuscript and sign with an agent after my first year, when we were expected to do all that in our final year. Isn’t it interesting, the things we can be punished for?

Anyway, that was when I hit you up to ask you if you knew anyone who could help me drive my car down to Brooklyn. We were acquaintances at best, but your network was far larger than mine and I was desperate. I hadn’t expected the recovery to be so brutal, and I was alone up there, swollen and stitched up, missing an organ from my abdomen. I remember your shock at what was happening to me, the speed at which you told me you were coming to help. We didn’t know each other like that, but you took a four­-hour bus up from Brooklyn in the dead of winter, you made me porridge, you stayed for days, taking care of me. I couldn’t even walk. I asked you why you would do all this for someone you barely knew, and you said, “We all we got.”

I didn’t know I could pledge loyalty to someone that quickly and wholeheartedly, but then again, I’ve met very few people with a heart as kind as yours. I’m so glad you came up that week, because it reminded me that everything the cohort had done, everything the school and faculty had done to me, none of it mattered, you know? They weren’t important, except as examples of where not to stay, what worlds to not bother trying to assimilate into. Ann always says, go where you are loved, and often that place has been in the dazzling warmth of your spirit. Part of bending the world we want into existence is that we get to choose who we want to be in it with, and I choose you.

You remind me, every time we talk, about the future I see for myself. I had gotten so used to pretending to be unsure because it made other people more comfortable. My first year in that M.F.A., the Black guy in my cohort made fun of me for videotaping my first reading. I told him that either it was going to go well and then I’d have archival footage of myself or it would go badly and I could study it to become better. Later, he apologized. “You take yourself seriously as an artist,” he said.

If there’s a reputation I want to have, honestly, it’s something like that. I’ve been to a few writer’s workshops, and the thing I do of centering my work above everything else—including socializing with other writers—seems to annoy people, even when they hide it under false humor. A writer in Ghana confronts me at dinner to tell me I’m making them look bad because I wrote a few thousand words in a day. She’s joking, but she’s not joking. Later, she starts a nasty rumor that I was fucking one of the guys at the workshop. It’s neither plausible nor interesting—it would have made way more sense to start a rumor about me and the woman writer I spent nearly all my time with at the same workshop. Neither of us drank and we both just wanted to write while we were there, instead of gossip or socialize, plus our rooms were literally next to each other’s. Some people have no imagination.

I wonder how I came across in those spaces—arrogant, maybe, but unfriendly? I don’t know. Spiky, perhaps, or standoffish. Armored. Set apart, certainly, because I did that myself. People can say a lot about me, but everyone knows the work is my beginning. I work myself like it’s a madness and maybe it is. It’s how I worldbend: it is my hammer, my heated metal, my anvil, my forge, my weapon. It takes such exertion to pretend to be unsure, and I love how whenever I slip into it around you, you call it out and shred it to pieces. I want to be as brilliant as you see me. I think that is one of the best gifts we can give each other, to hold space for the stars that we are in each other’s eyes. When you call me from the hotel room in Germany before your performance lecture so I can re­mind you that you don’t need to prep or write things down because this work is in your bones, you are your grandfather’s blood, all you need to do is speak from your center and we all know there is no fear allowed there. It stays at the periphery, where we can ignore it, where it doesn’t interfere with the worlds we’re bending into being.

Even after my M.F.A. experience, I still tried to find writing community. Loneliness will drive you to that. There was a whole separate summer workshop full of Black writers, where I talked about how hurtful and fucked-up shit got at the school, and the silence that followed was especially nauseating because I thought I’d be safe among other Black writers. I didn’t realize you’re not supposed to talk about powerful writers like that, not publicly, as if you’re not afraid of what could happen to your career.

And yet, Kathleen, I’ve learned so much from you about being brave. I remember when you stepped back from social media, because everyone treated you like a pit bull they could send out to attack power that they were too scared to attack themselves, hiding behind your force, instead of standing beside you in solidarity. You left them alone, and you were right to; they wanted you to be their weapon just because you don’t move with fear at your center. That’s the best way to worldbend, without fear. We still feel it, but we don’t let it restrain us. I watched you quit your job and pack up your apartment in Bushwick, the window garden of dried flowers and fairy lights, to listen to your grandfather speaking to you from the other side, urging you to go back to Tanzania and make that work, you archivist of an artist. I can’t wait to see your video installation, to hear you singing those work songs in Sukuma, to witness the world you bent by following a call.

As I get bigger and accumulate more power, I have trouble seeing myself. I still play small, out of habit and comfort. Remind me of what I am, please. I will remind you of what you are too: some­ thing magnificent, someone who makes the world bow under her hands, who pulls history out from shadows and makes people look at the hard things. And we will keep doing this for each other, world in and world out.

We all we got.


Akwaeke Emezi (they/them) is the author of the New York Times best seller The Death of Vivek Oji, which was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize; Pet, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Selected as a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation, they are based in liminal spaces.

From Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Akwaeke Emezi.