Akwaeke Emezi Reinvents the Adage that Families Are Not What They Seem

Illustration for article titled Akwaeke Emezi Reinvents the Adage that Families Are Not What They Seem
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Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji opens and closes with photographs: “If this story was a stack of photographs—the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept in albums under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country—it would start with Vivek’s father Chika.” Vivek, the main character, is a softly-spoken, mysterious young man, whose life is narrated to us through a range of other characters and an omniscient narrator. But in the opening, Emezi focuses on the family before Vivek’s arrival into the world, giving a sense of the structure he is born into. They go on to describe two photographs, one that shows Chika as a young man going to visit his mother Ahunna in Owerri, and another of Chika with his sister-in-law Mary. “These would be the happy pictures,” they note.

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The opening roots the novel in the family, while simultaneously suggesting that families aren’t always what they seem. In making these domestic, everyday images a central part of the narrative, Emezi invokes not just the photograph as a method of recording family life, but as a framing of life itself. As the novel continues, photographs become a crucial part of showing alternatives to the family unit, ways of being that are not to do with the nuclear family, or that are actively created outside of it. The frame of the photograph then becomes a way of showing the boundary between things—what is allowed to be shown and what is kept outside.

Emezi, who was born and raised in Nigeria and later moved to the US, came to prominence with their first book Freshwater, about a young girl born of and inhabited by multiple spirits, published in 2018 to much critical acclaim. They subsequently published a novel for young adults, Pet, the following year. In just three short years, the young writer has produced three novels, with a TV adaptation of Freshwater already in the works at FX. In their bio, they write that they work in “liminal spaces.” This liminality means that much of Emezi’s writing deals with this sense of in-betweenness, traversing gender, cultural boundaries, and spiritual planes. In a letter addressed to the late Toni Morrison, Emezi describes how a section of an interview from after Morrison’s Nobel Prize win transformed their notion of the self in the world. “I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central,” Morrison said, “Claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” For Emezi, this quote was a gift from the acclaimed writer that helped them realize “there didn’t need to be a map, because I wasn’t going anywhere. All I needed to do was stand exactly where I was, name that the center, and refuse to move.”

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In claiming this space as their milieu, Emezi’s writing opens out to new possibilities for the self, and across their writing expresses the necessity for varying selves. The Death of Vivek Oji uses the death as a method of framing the book, but it is by no means only about that death. Instead, Emezi recounts the life of Vivek from multiple perspectives, allowing him to be strange, secretive, and alluring simultaneously. Vivek is born to Chika and his wife Kavita, and lives closely with his aunt Mary, uncle Ekene, and cousin Osita. His grandmother Ahunna dies on the day of his birth, and a starfish shaped scar on her foot (from an injury she receives at the beginning of the book) seems to somehow transmute from her body to his. As Emezi notes in an interview with NPR, they were inspired by Igbo spirituality and reincarnation, and how “even in a contemporary context, these aspects of our indigenous faith traditions still come through.” Though Vivek emerges into the world “after death and into grief,” Emezi shows that this coincidence shapes his life in multiple ways, and forges an indelible link between himself and his grandmother that only becomes stronger with time.

Vivek seems quietly at peace within himself, but as the novel progresses the community of people around him often question him and find him strange. As a child Vivek experiences blackouts and inexplicable fugue states: as his cousin Osita describes, “There were moments when he would become very, very still, just stop moving while the world continued around him.” The writer is careful not to describe exactly what is happening to him in those moments, and he never visits a doctor nor receives a diagnosis. Instead, as he grows up, the immediate family and the larger circle of friends of his mother believe that he is more generally “sick.” Again, the precise nature of this sickness is never made clear; instead, it seems that those around him are responding to his apparent difference by thinking there must be something wrong with him physically. This is brought to a head when he returns from university, seems changed, and—most shockingly for everyone, including Osita—wears his hair very long. His mother’s friends interrogate her, looking for ways to find out what is wrong with her son, but she stays loyal to him, even if she herself isn’t quite sure what is happening, or how to respond to the child she raised.

The responses of the other characters to Vivek demonstrate the conventional society in which he is brought up, which is partially shaped by religion. A deeply shocking moment comes when Mary insists on taking Vivek to her church and allows an “exorcism” where he is flogged by the priest in order to beat the “demon inside him.” In this way Emezi creates a stark gap between the older and younger generations of Nigerians, suggesting that the young generation of the ’90s, growing up in a tumultuous time, are seeking new ways to live and express themselves against the background of their conservative parents. The differences between the various communities of the novel are vividly drawn: from those of the more immediate family, to the Nigerwives (a group of foreign-born women married to Nigerian citizens), and then more secretive queer community that forms between the children. Vivek and Osita embark on a semi-incestuous affair, protected by their friends Olunne, Somto, Juju and her girlfriend Elizabeth. Through the conflicting world-views of these groups, Emezi demonstrates how many of the characters are caught at the intersections of these different kinds of life, no one more so than Vivek.

Even so, within this community of his cousin and friends, Vivek does indeed find some happiness and freedom. This happiness is never presented to the reader directly, but instead comes, again, in the form of photographs. Rather than the snapshots that open the book and become part of the narrative framework, these are literal photographs that show Vivek dressed up as another version of himself, a woman named Nnemdi. After the death of her son, his mother Kavita becomes completely obsessed with finding out what had happened, convinced that his friends are not telling her the truth. When she sees these pictures, in which Vivek is dressing “as himself,” as Somto puts it, Kavita realizes that she had not adequately acknowledged her son, or seen his difference. As Vivek puts it earlier: “If nobody sees you, are you still there?” But though Kavita may be dumbfounded by the revelations, she uses this new evidence of her son’s life as a new method to get to him. As Emezi writes “…she took [the photographs] out of the drawer and arranged them in an album, which she hid under her side of the mattress. She pored over it for hours when Chika was out of the house, trying to find the child she’d lost, trying to commit to memory the child she’d found.” In making them into their own separate album, Kavita demonstrates her desire to integrate this new aspect of her child into her life, even if it is only through his memory.

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Though the relationships of the characters are intensely rendered, the structure of the novel does not always serve the narrative well, and there often feels to be lapses and gaps in the plot itself, even repetitive phrases about the apparent mystery of Vivek’s death, which lessens any narrative tension the opening scenes had created. But I wonder if Emezi wanted to write this choppy narrative to disrupt what could be a more traditionally linear plot, just as they describe their desire to disrupt the flow of Vivek’s coming out narrative. “I don’t believe in that for everyone,” they say in an interview, “because it’s not that simple and it’s not that straight of a line.” Though the book might sometimes lose its way, Emezi gives worthwhile attention to the ways that a young person can carve out an identity for themselves that isn’t straightforward nor easily understood.

Katie da Cunha Lewin’s writing and reviews have been published at the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Prospect, among other places. See more of her work at kdclewin.com or follow her at @kdc_lewin

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