Cover of three Emezi books. (Image: Random House, Children's Books, Riverhead Books, and Grove Press)

Now More Than Ever Is the Time to Read Akwaeke Emezi’s Books

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After months and months of watching Jesse from Bowties And Books fawn over Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi, I finally gave them a try. In June, I read The Death of Vivek Oji.

This book has a fairly simple premise. After finding Vivek dead, wrapped in fabric and laid on the doorstep of their parents’ house, Vivek’s mother desperately tries to find out what happened. The story is supported by flashbacks from different characters and, occasionally, Vivek. Until a falling out, Vivek’s cousin Osita was their closest bond and aside from Vivek’s mother, Osita struggles the most with Vivek death.

Caught between a distant father and an overprotective mother, Vivek has little space to find themselves until they leave the walls of their home. When they are home, they get comments about their weight loss or the decision to grow their own hair long. There are also abrasive, vocal concerns about Vivek’s perceived softness and blackouts, further disconnecting Vivek from their surroundings.

In life, everyone is reconciling with what it means to live with Vivek, and in death, they are dealing with what it means to live in a world that refused to accept him—including themselves.

This book gives family and community politics that feels similar, but the story is distinctly theirs. By the end of the novel, you feel the loss that Vivek’s family and friends felt.

The Death of Vivek Oji book cover. (Image: Riverhead Books)

(Image: Riverhead Books)

From what I have read about Emezi’s other work, The Death of Vivek Oji continues the conversation about being between two things. In the story, this involves gender, expectations, class, religion, and more. Regarding gender, there is not much in text discussions with Vivek trying on labels. They just are Vivek. While many find the unifying and liberating power to put their identity on phrases, it is different to see Vivek just be interested in “just” being. Both versions of self acceptance are valid.

This book alone has made Emezi a must-read and, when finances allow, a must-buy author. I have not even read their previous works, Freshwater and Pet. If you are wooed by authors with fancy book awards, know that each one of Emezi’s books is decorated.

Cover of Freshwater. (Image: Grove Press.)

(Image: Grove Press.)

Their debut novel, Freshwater, follows Ada as they struggle to fit in with their Nigerian family due to the pressures of being born with multiple selves. Gods live in Ada, and with few exceptions, Ada can contain the deities. After traveling to the United States to attend college, a traumatic event on campus causes the gods to emerge and take over Ada’s mind and body. The novel shares the perspective of Ada and the gods.

Pet book cover.(Image: Random House Children's Books)

(Image: Random House Children’s Books)

Set in a utopian society where angels have rid the world of its ills, the YA novel Pet follows a young transgender teen, Jam, who finds a monster named Pet. Emerging from her mother’s painting and Jam’s blood, Pet has come to hunt a monster—a beast that Jam finds no one will admit exists.

Side note: Time Magazine recently published an excellent list of “The 100 Best YA Books of All Time”, and Pet made this list. The list was created by panelists Elizabeth Acevedo (A QUEEN), Kacen Callender, Jenny Han, Jason Reynolds, Adam Silvera, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon. Even the selected panelists are Grade A, so you know going in their list will be fire.

Emezi’s latest book, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir , discusses Emezi’s journey through their relationships, gender, and path to becoming a successful writer “through intimate, candid correspondence with friends, lovers, and family.”

While Pet looks interesting, I am really interested in Freshwater and Dear Senthuran. This is because, while The Death of Vivek Oji was not a memoir, many elements of Emezi’s background were present in the novel. Part of this curiosity is the Nigerian settings and exploration of gender. However, as someone biracial who grew up in a space with little of either of my identities, I am most interested in the convergence of cultures, especially through family and public spaces we return to often like school, work, etc.

Emezi is Igbo (coming from a specific part of Nigeria) and Tamil. While there are Tamil people worldwide, they mostly live in Sri Lanka and southeast India. Vivek’s family heritage blends in with these similar peoples. The novel describes a whole area of Nigeria where Nigerian men marry mostly south Asian women. In the very white world of publishing, Asian and Black voices are scarce so seeing these intersections is fascinating.

Why share this now? Well, a few reasons, the most pressing of which is that Emezi announced they are releasing three books in 2022! THREE!

With Bitter supposed to be a prequel to Pet, that makes the duology the first series by Emezi. Pet, Bitter, and the adult romance You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, Emezi said, are all on the lighter side.

Because soon we’ll be showered with adaptations, now is the perfect time to pick up one or more of their books. FX picked up Freshwater, and Amazon Studios picked up You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty. Though the plots of the books will be similar and interesting, Emezi is not read for “this happened, then this happened.” They write in a way that is both approachable and yet will leave you in pieces and changed.

Also, their books will become required readings in schools in the near future, if they are not already.

Emezi is a rising star, and if you wait too long (and they keep churning out hits), you may feel overwhelmed with all the options and not know where to start. That is how I felt trying to get into Octavia Butler, until I finally picked up Fledging. Learn from me and do better.

(Featured image: Random House, Children’s Books, Riverhead Books, and Grove Press.)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.