Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir is a set of epistolary sketches, sometimes set to strident hard bop, sometimes set to coffeehouse trip-hop, sometimes set to bird songs in the park. However, that is a deceptively simple description of a book that is as lush, as rocky, as prosaic as listening to Tina Turner sing Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin.”
If Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name had a trans child, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir is the literary progeny. Lorde’s “biomythography” made the complex realities of her self-described “[B]lack, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” flesh—including her lovemaking—into a tome, Emezi’s “spirit memoir” makes missives about their transitioning gendered and creative flesh into the liminal—a person claiming not only to have the powers of gods, but to be a god, to bring forth new existences, sometimes out of sheer dint of will. Eleven pages into their book, Emezi stakes their particularly embodied space as a trans person—specifically a Nigerian trans person in the tradition of an ogbanje, or an Igbo trickster spirit—who refuses to reinscribe themselves into the gender binary:
Igbo ontology explains that everyone is in a cycle of reincarnation anyway: you are your ancestor, you will become an ancestor, the loop will keep looping within the lineage. [Ogbanjes] do not come from the lineage; they come from nowhere, so it’s important for an ogbanje never to reproduce…[r]removing a uterus is an efficient way to make sure this never happens.
Sometimes, back when I thought flesh terms were the only language I could use, I’d look at [the scars] to remind myself that I was “trans enough” because I’d chosen to modify my body. Even though dysphoria and surgery aren’t prerequisites for being trans, the scars still served as a grounding reflection of my own certainty. I wasn’t sure what I was transitioning my body to, but I was clear that the gender I’d been raised as was inaccurate—I’d never been a woman.
They described a similarly self-forging experience in a creative-writing program:
Here was a rich, successful writer, suggesting that I would make more money than I’d ever had in my life, for a single book. Surely he knew enough about the industry, surely his estimate was realistic. Looking back, he was probably assuming that I would stay and graduate from the program; or maybe his estimate was for people who looked like him, maybe it would only apply if I was a white male writer with an MFA. I was assumed to be a woman, a Black one, an African. I don’t think many of the people at that institution thought I’d get to where I am now, especially not after I walked out, but I couldn’t have stayed. There’s no separation between my professional and my spirit life, they are the same thing. Nothing was allowed to come before the work—not power, not money, not institutional politics. All that mattered was that I took care of the book, that I become a stronger writer so I could keep telling these stories. Anything that got in the way of that had to be burned down, so I burned it down.
Emezi can go from mystical to gorgeously quotidian in describing the existence-generating power of the word, as so many authorial ancestors before them have done:
You know how people are so in awe of Octavia Butler’s journal, the way she wrote down what she wanted with her books? I think it’s because written worldbending resonates so widely. I’ve been curious about what other languages one can worldbend in, though, languages of manifestations, if you like. Writing things down, using images to make vision boards, speaking things out loud—these are all spells. Most of my worldbending is action-based: I move as if the future I want is absolutely assured…
Emezi not only harnesses the power of the word but also the carnal to create a space between the sacred and the profane. Their letters move from the mundane to the sensual in describing, say, the cannibalism of the Christian rite of communion:
But I wonder how personal those interests are for you—if it’s a love language in your mouth, too, this terribly Catholic thing of eating the flesh and drinking the blood. Isn’t that such ritualistic dedication? Every week, to line up, to swallow a wound in the side, a flood from the wrists, the top of the foot, flavored with the wood of the cross, thousands of years in vintage. I wonder what other parts of the Christ we’d be eating. The soft of his lower lip. A strip of his bellyskin. A thin slice from his inner thigh. His body, dividing endlessly like bread, like fish. Where was the blood drained from? Was it rich in oxygen, a bright bubbling red? Was it dark, deep, gasping?
In the midst of the lush prose-poetry that is Emezi’s memoir are stark, almost clarion-call clear reminders that their life as a minoritized writer can be crushingly lonely, especially as they are dealing with depression. Literature-producing institutions like MFA programs and book publishers play so much of Black intellectual creativity cheap by lowballing them, as one publisher offered Emezi a mere $10,000 for their first book, Freshwater. They explain such dismissal can exacerbate a creative’s mental health. They talk about the added pressure of housing insecurity in the midst of securing their book deal and leaving the creative-writing program.
Like their literary “elderspirits” Lorde, Butler, and Toni Morrison—to whom Emezi writes a letter about making the edge of where they write as a marginalized person the center and having “the world move over to where” they are—they write this memoir for themselves as a record of their journey from margin to center and as a gift for the rest of us minoritized writers who want to know the “spell for storytellers.” It is Emezi’s spell of blood and bone as much as sweat and tears. It works not because Emezi beelined their way to a shiny, happy ending with grit and perseverance, but because they moved with their sometimes dolorous, sometimes pleasantly surprising moments to a realistically successful writerly life as of the book’s publication.
Emezi’s memoir falls into what I call “MFAer lit,” where its craft, regardless of the genre, shows the handiwork of someone privileged enough to attend such a program, whether they completed it or not. However, this author’s work is one of the best of the genre, in that the formally trained flourishes, such as the aforementioned prose-poetry cadences, fortify the author’s truths—in this case, the truths about the author’s creative life in shifting flesh and word.
In essence, Dear Senthuran further solidifies Emezi as a literary rock god among us—and, like the best rock gods before them, they remind us that such work comes from a creative soil as Black as Lorde, as Turner, as Butler, as Morrison, and as the earth that birthed the rocks themselves.