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March 22, 2018

Akwaeke Emezi's Playlist for Her Novel "Freshwater"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Akwaeke Emezi's novel Freshwater is one of the strongest debuts I have read in years, an innovatively told and engrossing book.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Remarkable and daring . . . Poetic and disturbing . . . Rooting Ada's story in Igbo cosmology forces us to further question our paradigm for what causes mental illness and how it manifests. It causes us to question science and reason."

In her own words, here is Akwaeke Emezi's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Freshwater:

Freshwater is a book about multiple realities existing at the same time, disjoint and dissociating worlds, clashing in their overlap. I find that making a playlist for it, like writing it, rather echoes that experience.

Big Big World, by Emilia
When I held the finished copy of my book in my hands for the first time, one of the things that struck me the most was the copyright page, where this song is mentioned. I remember listening to it as a teenager in Nigeria and back then, there was no world in which I could have predicted that I’d end up having to clear the copyright for that song because I used it in my book. For the Ada, this song begins as part of her homesickness when she arrives in the US, but it also bonds her and Soren, another international student, and that catalyzes some rather brutal things later on.

Eleko, by Mayorkun
I’ve spoken elsewhere about how writing my book required me to step into the Igbo spiritual reality that it’s centered in, and how, even after the book was done, I never left. Part of that immersion involved accepting the existence of forms of communication that were new to me. Anyway, the brothersisters who I wrote about in the book sent me this song once as an admonition against stubbornness and a reminder to surrender. It was a delightful surprise—spirits speaking through afropop and I loved it. Writing Freshwater was one of the first surrenders, there have been many more since then.

Zero, by Lamb
This is a love song that plays in the marble room with the Ada, Asughara, and Saint Vincent. They’re all into the strings, and it makes sense how much loss is in the song, how much hurt, how it’s still a love song with all of that, how it manages to hold all their energies at different points. I see them lying in a pile against the cool floor, heads resting on each other’s bodies, playing the song in an infinite loop.

Monster, by The Automatic
There’s actually a nod to the chorus of this song in the text of Freshwater itself. In exploring both Ada and Asughara’s characters, I thought a lot about monsters—that feeling of being a terrible thing, of trying to hide it from other people or in Asughara’s case, being frustrated that no one can see you. The idea of a monster coming over a hill resonated strongly with me because the anticipation of that approach speaks of recognition.

Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia), by Us3
This is the song referenced on page 53 of Freshwater—the song the Ada danced to in the house down the hill, when she was in college, the one that the volleyball boys played for her on a loop, with the horns blasting. It was like a drug for her, the way it shifted realities, a door or a portal, if you will, leading into a suspended space.

All I Believe In, by Amadou & Mariam & The Magic Numbers
This was another song in which the chorus was used as a message. A few years ago, I was in suicidal in Accra—one of those moments when embodiment hurts too much to live but I’m not allowed to die. The book goes very much into detail about what that’s like. I mention Baron Samedi briefly in Freshwater and chose not to go into more detail, but he sent me this song when I was curled up sobbing in bed from the pain. Much later, one of my friends who was there told me she saw him around for the rest of the trip.

Say Nada (Remix), by Shakka ft JME
I like this song because so much of it embodies Asughara’s energy, but also because the vibe it has aligns with my personal ambition. I grew up as a kid who loved the spotlight and when I was seven, I wrote a third person bio describing my goal of being ‘a world famous writer and artist.’ Twenty years later, I left my job to focus on my art full-time and I wrote Freshwater. I listen to this song for the lyrics—One day I’ll make a million/I’ll get that four finger ring/I’ll be hustling until then—and it hypes me up, you know? To keep writing these books, to believe that not only can I survive by my work, I can thrive. Also, I genuinely intend to get a four finger ring at some point.

Akwaeke Emezi and Freshwater links:

the author's website

Los Angeles Times review
New Republic review
New Yorker review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Toronto Star review

BTW interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Ms. Magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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