Dear Senthuran is an epistolary memoir—the different chapters are letters addressed to various people in Emezi’s life. The memoir is very evocative and honest. It weaves a tale of Emezi’s journey of self-actualization in a non-chronological order, narrating their childhood in Aba, Nigeria, their time in graduate school, their spiritual journey as an ogbanje, and everything in between. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ogbanje, an ogbanje is a reincarnating Igbo spirit, a child that dies and keeps being born over again with the goal of tormenting its human mother. The memoir is especially great for those who are familiar with Emezi’s work, as it explores the ogbanje identity more precisely than their semi-autobiographical debut, Freshwater. I appreciate that Akwaeke Emezi does not try to make their identity as a trans non-binary, nonhuman more palatable to the masses. It’s quite ironic that I am writing about all the ways Dear Senthuran has taught me to be a better human considering that its author is nonhuman, but that’s where we find ourselves.
Anyways, here are 5 things I learnt from Akwaeke Emezi’s memoir, Dear Senthuran.
1. I don’t know a lot about ogbanje or Igbo religious traditions
I think I would understand Dear Senthuran more if I had more than just a basic understanding of ogbanjes, especially since Emezi discusses this aspect of their identity at length in certain sections of the memoir. It was nice to get a glimpse into Emezi’s relationship with God, diety-mother Ala, and the brothersisters, but I don’t think I fully understood the theology and I’m looking into resources to learn more about it. Nevertheless, Emezi’s centering of Igbo spirituality enriches the memoir. Once Emezi establishes that they are literally a god (and not on the same level as the rest of us mere mortals) it was quite exciting to see their self-assuredness and confidence come to life on the page. I wanted to mirror some of that energy in my own life. While I may not be part of the target audience that Emezi describes as those “still with one foot on the other side”, I was still able to appreciate and learn from their experience.
2. You have to write or manifest the things you want for yourself
Emezi wrote about how they hoped to secure a seven-figure deal for their next book. This might have seemed like a reach to some people, given that Emezi only received a $10,000 advance for Freshwater, but they were still daring enough to aspire to that, and of course they put in the work to make it happen. In April, it was announced that they got a seven-figure deal for their UNPUBLISHED romance novel, which would be adapted into a movie by Michael B. Jordan’s production company. Emezi also wrote about the concept of outlining exactly what happiness looks like, so you can recognize it once you achieve it. I think that is so smart because we tend to diminish or ignore all the great things that happen to us while we’re living in it just because some less-positive things are also going on in the background. Having a written idea of what you need to be happy and/or things that make you happy will help you visualise the future you want for yourself, while cementing that sense of gratitude when it does come to fruition.
3. Social media is only a highlight reel
This is common knowledge already, but sometimes we just need a little reminder you know? So here it goes: we should not judge people’s lives based on their social media, and neither should we feel entitled to their time just because they are smiling or dancing on social media. You literally don’t know what is going on in anyone’s life. I’ve been following Akwaeke Emezi on social media for about 5 years now, ever since I was introduced to their brilliance through their sister, Yagazie Emezi’s instagram. In Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi described a period in their life where they were living out of a suitcase and essentially homeless. In their words, “it looked marvellous on Instagram, and it was hellish offline.” During that time, I remember feeling so envious of them and the ‘glamorous’ life they were living, taking colourful tropical pictures, smiling and sometimes on the beach. No one is going to show you their tears or low points on social media because a) they shouldn’t have to—they don’t know you like that, and b) people are cruel, you don’t want to give them ammunition to use against you in the future. So, you know, don’t beat yourself up over the highlights that you’re seeing, just focus on your work and try to create your own moments as well.
4. I am very nosy
There were many times while reading this memoir that I just kept trying to connect the dots. A reference to someone named Chinelo would have me thinking “Is this Chinelo Okparanta?”, or wondering whether “Deity | Dear Eloghosa” is addressed to Eloghosa Osunde, and let’s not even speak of the amount of time I spent reading about Senthuran, the person who the memoir is named after. The mention of a chocolate-and-coconut cake that Emezi made in Trinidad sent me on a quest to find a picture of the cake (because I remember admiring a picture of it when Akwaeke posted it on her Instagram many years ago). None of this information is pertinent to the message that Akwaeke Emezi is communicating, but I just could not help myself! I felt a little like I was invading people’s privacy. Like it wasn’t enough that Emezi provided a really intimate look into their life, I had to find out information about all the other people in their lives too. Feeling bad didn’t necessarily stop me from going down internet rabbit holes, but it did make me more aware of my behaviour and likely to check my nosiness when it was getting out of hand.
5. We should not view people who survive suicide attempts as weaklings or victims, but as survivors
There’s a tendency to view people with mental illness as weaklings or as victims of their illness. While it’s great to show people empathy as they navigate their mental illness, the victim narrative can sometimes be restrictive. This memoir discusses Emezi’s suicidality at length, from past suicide attempts to their battle with suicidal thoughts (especially around their book launches). The chapter, “Undefeated | Dear Kanninchen” shifted my thinking about suicide because Emezi described their suicidal ideations as a fight with death. An actual fight: like a step into the ring and fight death, bargain with death, stall, and do whatever it takes to come out alive type of fight. With the way Emezi described their fights with death, it became clear how frustrating it can be for someone to then view them as a weakling, when they have successfully beat death many times (i.e. they are still alive in spite of the suicidal thoughts or attempts). In Emezi’s words:
“I have been alive for more than thirty years; I am undefeated in this ring. I wish you could see that about me—not when I am struck down and bleeding against the floor, begging [Death] to take me, to end the pain and free me from the flesh. I wish you could see the tenacity I have, the iron jaw locked onto life, the fact that Death has never won, that I am a champion in one of the most brutal games anyone could be playing.”
If you’re looking for an inside-look into the publishing industry from a Black, Queer, African perspective, or you need a reminder to own your greatness and put in the work, I highly recommend this memoir.
Dear Senthuran was published on June 8, 2021. I received a free e-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Have you read Dear Senthuran? If so, let me hear your thoughts about it in the comments! Oh, I’d also like recommendations of African memoirs.