Reviewed: Akwaeke Emezi, Dear Senthuran, Penguin, 240 pp.
I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central.
Akwaeke Emezi echoes the words of Toni Morrison as an invocation, as a birthright, as a map for how to shape a world and rewrite yourself into it. Dear Senthuran is an unfurling, a declaration of being. Written as a series of letters to various acquaintances, lovers, friends and godly figures such as Christian deity Yshwa, Emezi’s memoir shows what it means to exist in this world as an ọgbanje—an Igbo spirit embodied in human form.
The book centres Igbo ontology. Even the word ‘ontology’ has limited reach in defining what goes beyond the boundaries of human understanding. Much of Emezi’s early life and education was subject to the frameworks of Western thought and practice. For the author, who uses they/them pronouns, their work actively offers alternative ways of being in the world. Instead of questioning the validity of Western ideology, Emezi opens up pathways for multiplicity and a broadening of how identity, trauma and relationships can manifest in our lives.
This divergence from a Western-centric narrative landscape undeniably offers challenges to readers who are unfamiliar with the culture and history Emezi draws from. Ideas and literary techniques largely unexplored in the mainstream can be met with resistance by those who find the craftwork unfamiliar. However, Dear Senthuran is intended to rattle the concept of ‘the reader’, challenging the typical default to whiteness that these notions encourage. The subtitle—A Black spirit memoir—is a clear indication that the book has no interest in adhering to mainstream parameters. This becomes the memoir’s power, revealing an opportunity to examine the malleability of literary canon(s) and the way minoritised people present ourselves in the world.
Much like Emezi’s previous work, Dear Senthuran dances with death wildly and often. The ọgbanje are born to die, and so to Emezi, death is regarded not with a sense of morbidity but an almost playful fascination, treated with the reverence of a worthy adversary. Emezi describes their multiple suicide attempts as sparring matches with death, a game they play knowing that ultimately death prevails and claims us all.
The epistolary mode showcases Emezi’s comfort and skill within the boundaries of prose. A storyteller extraordinaire, they beautifully balance the line between poeticism and candid conversation. What could easily be haphazard, journal-scrawled notes are instead curated pocket dimensions that allow the reader to traverse the gallery of Emezi’s existence to date.
Their debut novel, Freshwater (2018), is referenced often in the memoir, as Emezi contemplates both the autofictive nature of its content and the practical process of how that book came to be. Read in conjunction, the two works complement each other as much of Freshwater references events that occurred in Emezi’s real life, later coming back to haunt the pages of Dear Senthuran.
In a letter titled ‘Canon | Dear Daniel’, Emezi recounts the difficulty in finding published stories that looked like those they were writing. Knowing that fiction can make complex truths easier to digest, they use the form as vehicle in part to unsettle the literary marketplace, while also paying homage to the oral storytelling tradition, where the focus is not on genre distinctions. Instead, the story is allowed to come alive and in time evolve into myth and legend while still holding its fundamental message.
In Dear Senthuran, love is a central theme. There is a certain intimacy in the choice to frame the memoir through letters, which serve as portals that allow readers to feel like a fly on the wall—we’re peering into the most vulnerable parts of Emezi’s experiences and psyche. A key relationship is Emezi’s hurricane romance with someone affectionately dubbed ‘The Magician’. Their time together is a tapestry of peaks and troughs, showing the idealised hopes for connection and the sobering truths that can make connection difficult. Although the memoir does not necessarily adhere to a strict chronology, the letters compose a loosely linear progression of the relationship and its turns in intensity. The Magician remains a clandestine figure of wonder until we are allowed to see him in the letter addressed to him.
• • •
If you are a thing that was born to die, you are a dead thing even while you live.
Throughout Dear Senthuran, Emezi reconciles with the body. To be Black and queer is to exist in defiance and at risk of death. To be an ọgbanje is to be born dying. The book is simultaneously an act of survival and surrender—Emezi writes about psychic and physical mutilation in a way that teeters on the edge of nonchalance. To an ogbanje, embodiment is a prison and a home; maintenance or alteration of that space become akin to architectural renovations, as material components deconstruct and expand to serve a practical purpose. Emezi presents the visceral reality of what it feels like to be in a body not made to contain you. The struggle that comes with shaping that body into a home for the spirit. The barrage of barriers present within the institutions of medical practice. A plight exacerbated by Blackness and queerness. They describe themselves as ‘a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature’. Each surgery, tattoo, mask and mark creates a ritual of self-actualisation.
Godhood and sacrifice are symbiotic. Much of Dear Senthuran describes the cost of being, the price we pay for loving, for thriving, for living, particularly as a Black person in a White world. Much of Emezi’s life is and has been paid for in blood, literally and metaphorically.
I know many people survive, but I also think people glorify resilience a little too much, forgetting that the fragile ones simply die as the world walks on over their bones.
In Dear Senthuran we travel the world through Emezi’s letters, as they whisk us through different periods of their tumultuous life. The book is written from a smattering of locations and the idea of home is a constant: their birth home in Nigeria; the built home in New Orleans aptly named Shiny; the godhouse—a home beyond the mortal realm where ọgbanje reunite with their kin, as is their perpetual cycle of birth and death. These letters often pose reflective questions to the named recipients, exploring how each distinct relationship has helped, hindered or shaped Emezi’s existence. They consider whether madness is a safer alternative—if the only way to engage in a world that is perpetually trying to harm you is to disregard it completely.
There is the undeniable temptation to view the spirit journey as metaphor and Emezi’s self-proclamation as a bratty deity to be somewhat self-indulgent. However, when we question a narrative’s validity, it’s possible to become so consumed in the search for evidence that we miss the real-world impact. What matters here are the tangible effects, and to Emezi they look like hurt, heartbreak, rebirth, forgiveness, redemption and stepping into one’s power.
The word ‘unapologetic’ comes to mind when searching for an adjective to encapsulate the emotional magnitude Dear Senthuran presents. The memoir makes no attempts to simplify, placate or plead for acceptance. Emezi discusses their hunger for glory and how, as a god, worship is expected.
It’s dangerous to not be afraid. Do you know what kinds of things we can do without fear?
Emezi’s rise in the literary world has been meteoric. They have written an astonishing four books in four years, with three additional titles slated for publication in 2022. They chart their writing trajectory and unpack some of the barriers and intricacies that exist in contemporary publishing, such as the focus on a book’s commercial viability as opposed to creative experimentation, and the hyper-visibility that accompanies sharing work in a large public arena. The memoir highlights the power of story to shape reality. This is Emezi’s purpose. Their work is the fearless driving force behind their existence.
Dear Senthuran can operate as an offering of permission, as a defiance of the status quo that is not necessarily steeped in rebellion, but in the determination of one’s truth. It offers the freedom to say ‘this is me’, in all our majesty, horror and confusion, and much like Emezi, I’m attempting to make sense of it all. I am invited to think through the necessity of community and how self-creation can be a tool for healing, as they write: ‘Maybe that’s something the pain has taught me—that I’m not alone.’ Although Emezi is an Igbo deity, they offer an experience that is deeply human.
Dear Senthuran is a memoir that doubles as a grimoire: filled with incantations for world bending, showing the squishy underbelly of a small god. It is a declaration of validity and a roar of defiance. Emezi places themselves at the centre and demands you either stand aside or be bowled over by their force. •
Thabani Tshuma is a Zimbabwean writer, performance poet and curator based in Naarm. His work can be found in publications such as Dichotomi Magazine, Next in Colour and Cordite.