The JRB presents an excerpt from Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi.
Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir
Read the excerpt:
Maps | Dear Toni
This letter isn’t for you.
I don’t mean the public persona of you, I mean the you behind the you, the one I didn’t know and never met. I’ve read your books, but your legacy extends far beyond anything you wrote, beyond what I can touch. I hear it when Tamara talks about you: the way you shifted realities for Black Americans, for your community. If I was inside that, perhaps I would write a different letter. Still, there’s something of your spirit that touched my head, so I’m writing this letter to her—that elderspirit spun from a whisper of power.
She leapt from you as surely as if you’d pulled out a rib and molded her around it, whispering things of self and legend into her ear. I wanted so badly to meet you, just so I could look for her in you, to see if I could find her in the edge of your cheekbone, the overlap of your smiles. Maybe she’d lean into your ear and introduce us; only a spirit could, after all, us being what we are. She saw my work so clearly, and I knew you would, too. You knew about the dark folds of people, their sliding underbellies, and you spoke about looking at these things without blinking. So many people are too afraid to look. You gave me permission to lean into the terrible, of both myself and the people I wrote into existence.
Up in Syracuse, I took a seminar on your work with your friend Janis Mayes. In her classroom, I saw how agitated your work made the other students—because you wrote people who did horrific things, but you didn’t tell the reader how to feel about these people. ‘What are we supposed to think?’ one of them asked, visibly upset. ‘What is Morrison saying about this?’
‘You figure out what you think about it,’ Professor Mayes said with a smile, and I was delighted. So, you could just show a terrible thing and let the showing be the strength of it? I thought it was brilliant.
The elderspirit of you leapt into my head the day Professor Mayes played a VHS tape from her archive of an interview you gave after you won the Nobel Prize. ‘I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central,’ you said, your voice weighted with intent. ‘Claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.’
Your words reached like an arm of fire out of that television screen, and I swear they were just for me. This is the you I know. It is no small thing to give a being like me language. I had never heard or read that quote of yours before—in fact, it took me a long time to find a transcript of that interview, so that I could pull those lines out and write them down myself. For years, video of it wasn’t readily available. When I used the quote, people would try to correct me. ‘That’s from The Paris Review, right?’ they’d say, and they’d cite a different quote. Earlier this year a clip of the video went viral and I finally found the full footage on YouTube. People all over the internet are sharing that clip now, but it cuts off before the part I think of as mine. Territorial, I know, but if you knew the kind of spirit I am, it would make sense.
See, no one makes maps for things like me. I didn’t know how I was going to enter the literary world; I didn’t even know if I was going to survive much more of this embodiment, to be quite honest. But then you gave me that quote, touched my head with your spirit, and I realized 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.
It was one thing to do that while writing Freshwater, but it was a whole different beast once the book was entering the world. I remember they sent you a copy; I cannot imagine how many books you get. I wrote you a note anyway, on a card with a watercolor peach on the front. Suddenly, the career I had dreamed of was hanging low and sweet before me. My sister and I did a photo shoot at a bookshop for a full‑page spread in Vogue. I listened to Annie Leibovitz give my sister photography tips, and afterward I got her to buy one of Helen Oyeyemi’s books. It felt easy. I knew what was going to happen with my career if I let it.
Everyone thought I was a woman. I could be great. They thought my book was a metaphor for mental illness. You only get one debut. I could be great.
I listened to her, that elderspirit, to you. I wrote an essay disclosing that I wasn’t a woman, that I wasn’t even human, explaining some of what an ọgbanje is. When the press for Freshwater began, I made NPR acknowledge my multiplicity of self on air, made the press use plural pronouns, centered Igbo ontology as a valid reality made unreal only by colonialism. I repeated your words, that quote I hunted and wrote down, in every interview I gave. I taught it in indie bookstores, at book festivals, in the New York Public Library and the Schomburg. Publicly and privately, I amplified it until those lines took on a beating heart of their own. Let the world move over, you said, and I obeyed.
The unspoken part of that is that it means I cannot move; I cannot give ground or go to them. I must hold.
It is so much harder than it sounds.
What are the costs? I wonder what you paid for that lesson. I might never know some of what has been levied against me for claiming these centers. But I believe that our centers matter, that there were people out there who needed to know that their centers mattered. 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. Would I have died by now if I didn’t know what I was? I don’t think so, but I know I would have suffered even more than I already have, and that is a terrifying thought.
You understood better than most how we’re expected to move toward a certain center, to acknowledge it as the most powerful, twist our tongues toward it, hold up mirrors so it can see itself (it’s narcissistic like that), scold it if we must, but center it, always center it. And if we don’t, well—I don’t need to tell you all this, you quite literally wrote the book. My point is, it was terrifying to hold where I was, but your voice was strong and sure.
My debut went well. The work did what it was supposed to do. I’m shedding all these faces I thought I had to wear to survive. I’m exploring the idea of deepening what I know of where I stand, where I have claimed as center.
Since I’m not moving, how can I love on where I’m standing? Who can I stand with? How do we link arms? How do we counsel each other past the fear of being deviant, since we declared these rogue centers? How do we brace against the backlash? There is so much work to be done.
But look, you gave me a spell that I am using to become free. The only map I am making is the one within myself. I am translating less and less, and my writing is better for it. I’m trying to ignore the parts that sting—the consequences of choosing a certain full brilliance. You were exemplary. I know the work I have to do. I don’t know if you’d be proud of me, we never met, but it doesn’t matter. You already gave me everything I needed, and I am so grateful.
This letter isn’t for you. You don’t need it; you’re already everything. It’s for all of us, those whose heads you touched. You should see my centers, Ms. Morrison. They’re glorious. They pull with the force of a planet and I’m patient; it’s only a matter of time.
I’m just waiting on the world.
- Akwaeke Emezi (they/them) is the author of the New York Times bestseller 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.
In letters addressed to their friends, to members of their family—both biological and chosen—and to fellow storytellers, Akwaeke Emezi describes the shape of a life lived in overlapping realities. Through heartbreak, chronic pain, intimacy with death, becoming a beast, this is embodiment as a nonhuman: outside the boundaries imposed by expectations and legibility. This book is an account of the gruelling work of realignment and remaking necessary to carve out a future for oneself.
The result is a Black spirit memoir: a powerful, raw unfolding of identity.