By Kim Tran
A Black Spirit Memoir
By Akwaeke Emezi
Queer and transgender people of color perpetually ask whether our deviance from expected ways of loving, living and being in our bodies renders us disgusting, frightening — even monstrous. Amid parades and rainbow-clad products, this is a line of inquiry approached in private. It is a tally of aberrance that we perform in our darkest hours, when families of origin and childhood friends remind us, yet again, of our undeniable difference. Akwaeke Emezi’s fourth book, “Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir,” provides this perennial question with a definitive answer. Yes, the author seems to say, we are monsters. But only if monstrosity is defined as the explicit refusal to abide by the binaries that surround us. In a world predisposed to queer villainy, “Dear Senthuran” claims monstrosity as a space of intentional rejection.BOOKS: Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in The New York Times Book Review.Sign Up
The book is a metaphysical journey told through Igbo cosmology. Emezi, who grew up in Aba, Nigeria, invites the reader to “imagine being ogbanje, like me.” Divine spirits born to human mothers, ogbanje are liminal deities in constant transit. In order to rejoin the spirit world, they die over and over again, deliberately leaving their human families bereft.
In context and content, “Dear Senthuran” is molded by departure and what it requires. The book is structured as a series of letters from the author to their friends, lovers, other writers, divine and human family. In them Emezi recounts episodes in their life, from their gender confirmation surgeries to purchasing a home (a place they call their “godhouse”), to betrayal at the hands of literary mentors. Each letter chronicles a tension — between Western constructions of gender and “people like me: embodied but not human, terrified that they’re going mad, unable to talk about it, and estranged from the Indigenous Black realities that might make some sense of it all.” But also between the euphoria and heartbreak of love, professional triumph and personal failure, the finality of life and death. Emezi proves these oppositions artificial, while establishing the very real solitude and weight of being uninterested in them. Incrementally, the chapters inch closer and closer to a frightening reality. “There is something bright and brilliant in me,” they write. “It doesn’t make me feel special. It makes me terribly alone.”
Identity is an undeniable part of Emezi’s project, but the memoir strays far from a traditional story of diaspora or gender. Monsters are preoccupied with power. The Lambda Award-winning writer and activist Susan Stryker wrote that when she came out as transsexual, she claimed for herself the transformative capacity of Frankenstein’s monster. She said it gave her a “potent voice” with which to confront the “drama of familial abandonment, a fantasy of revenge against those who had cast me out, and a yearning for personal redemption.” “Dear Senthuran” operates in a parallel fashion. It was not written for you or for me; Emezi is not concerned with such earthly things. This is a book about terms, and the agency we can afford ourselves by doing away with them altogether. It is also an audacious sojourn through the terror and beauty of refusing to explain yourself in the relentless pursuit of self-actualization.
[ Read an excerpt from “Dear Senthuran.” ]
Emezi begins the book by celebrating the fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s courage to forgo convention, “to not care what you think of yourself.” By the end, the author arrives at an uneasy truce, somewhere between recognizing material constraints and feeling free of them. “How far will we go to protect ourselves?” they ask. In other words, to what extent do we contort ourselves in order to conform to expectations of gender, race, success? When finally they say, “Maybe all of this makes no sense; maybe it makes all the sense in the world. I don’t care anymore,” we are prepared. Emezi has spent pages showing us the strain of living in a world where we’re forced to decide between two choices, and find that neither will suffice. Only an alternate path will do.