From the first page of “Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir,” Akwaeke Emezi is clear about something: They are the god of their own destiny. In this book, Emezi grants readers the privilege of seeing their private letters to their friends, acquaintances, family members, heroes and everyone in between.
Emezi is protective of their space, and through each heart-felt letter, you see inside their spirit. Mind is too shallow a word for what they bare in their writing. In the piece “Mutilation,” they talk about carving their flesh into the image that they like. Emezi speaks with what may be perceived as detachment. There is a distance between Emezi and their body, their mother and their peers. That distance is natural, when the world is not made for them. It is very apparent that they have found nurturing where they can, through their writing as well as spiritual parents, God and friends, some of whom we meet through the letters.
All of Emezi’s identities are crucial to their experiences and the way they move through the world. They discuss Igbo culture and how they identify as an ogbanje. An ogbanje is a trickster spirit that has bound itself to human flesh to interrupt a family’s ancestral reincarnation pattern. Emezi reclaims what has a negative connotation, then carves a space for themselves in tradition and culture. This act reminds us that there is a place for queerness and transness in everything.
“Trans” is not the right word to describe Emezi, who uses it as a term for their flesh and to describe themselves to others. The reader is shown again and again how Emezi is an outsider to our world’s standard binary terms and even their own flesh.
Emezi uses visceral language around their body, cutting off parts they don’t need to be their most authentic self. In their letter “Propagation (Dear Katherine),” they discuss their 30 plants and love of pothos, or climbing ivy. They can cut away at the plant, nourish it in water and grow something completely new. This is not unlike how Emezi treats themselves, snipping away body parts and relationships that cannot help them grow. The plants serve another purpose as well. Emezi describes the way it reminds them how long they have survived.
“Dear Senthuran” takes the brutalities of the world and challenges the reader to sit with them. Reading these descriptions brings up a fraction of the discomfort it takes to navigate the world as a marginalized person. It is a refreshing take in a society that places so much importance on being beautiful and acceptable. While dominant society emphasizes the idea of flawlessness, Emezi finds reassurance in their keloid scars, their many masks and being in control of their destiny rather than being another person’s idea of perfection.
Being Black is also an incredibly important part of Emezi and their identity. As a Black person, Emezi has navigated suicidal ideation and attempts that are too fresh. The intrusive thoughts that Emezi experienced were uncomfortably familiar.
When they set boundaries for their mental health, Emezi is punished again and again, just like many Black people. They write about disappointing who they call their “flesh mother,” being shunned by their cohort during their MFA and fearing that others think they are arrogant or haughty just for preferring to work on their craft. It is an echo of what is currently happening with tennis star Naomi Osaka, who was fined $15,000 and, facing expulsion from the French Open for not speaking to the media at that event, chose instead to not compete rather than not prioritize her mental health.
Emezi describes how they considered suicide over and over again, in anticipation of the release of their debut novel. They found themselves thinking that news of their death would help book sales. It was hard for them to ignore that Black bodies have a larger effect on people dead than alive. The resulting success and critical reviews of that novel, “Freshwater,” didn’t bring peace. Being dead, their brain kept suggesting, would provide some assurance, relief and shelter.
A therapist might classify these as intrusive thoughts. But, as a Black person witnessing America in the wake of George Floyd, how it took eight horrifying, recorded and broadcasted minutes of a man dying for his murderer, a police officer, to be convicted. Describing these suicidal tendencies as intrusive almost feels invalidating to Black people, when it is very much how we are seen in the United States. Charleena Lyles. Tamir Rice. Tyianna Alexandra.
Emezi exists at many intersections — and none of them can be separated from who they are. Their writing is both evocative and provocative. The chapters centered around their hometown of Aba, Nigeria, are particularly striking. In one letter, they describe being surrounded by books and light, about devouring every piece of literature in their home. In another, they talk about the piles of bodies that float down the streets when it rains.
From Aba, Emezi takes us to Seattle, Berlin, New York, Trinidad and elsewhere around the world. Like with their “flesh terms,” Emezi finds it difficult to pin themselves down to a single location. They do not adhere to the physical realm in such a way. They are ogbanje.
Although Emezi talks literally about how they got to where they are and their experiences, “Dear Senthuran” feels like a metaphysical memoir. They share that their success is largely due to a spell, one that requires a specific task every day: writing. This framing seems obvious and simple; yet to me, it was revolutionary. Emezi shows us there is magic in the repetitive things that we do and we can create success.
The chapters may not be long if you’re accustomed to fiction, but there are no wasted words. Everything Emezi writes holds importance and deserves space. “Dear Senthuran” is not a read you can binge in one day, and I recommend you don’t. My own copy has now been marked up and down, circled and highlighted.
Typically at the end of my reviews, I like to do a “If you like this, you may also like ...” section, but that would be doing a disservice to “Dear Senthuran.” As Emezi points out, there is nothing out there comparable to what they are writing. They have created an entire universe within themselves that they have deigned to share with the readers.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the June 2-8, 2021 issue.