A review of ‘Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit memoir’ by Akwaeke Emezi

Originally published in The Washington Post

“You are yourself a haunting thing.”

These words come as no great shock to Nigerian-Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi. After all, they believe they were born an ogbanje, or Igbo spirit. “Ogbanje come and go,” Emezi writes in “Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit memoir.” “They are never really here — if you are a thing that was born to die, you are a dead thing even while you live.”

Naturally then, every day is an existential crisis, trying to navigate a world that doesn’t recognize Emezi’s reality, not just as a “small deity” but also as a nonbinary transgender person of color. That life is painful, but it’s also fertile ground for a disturbing, haunting memoir that comprises 33 letters to biological family, chosen family, friends and other storytellers, including Toni Morrison. Fresh off the success of their third novel, “The Death of Vivek Oji,” Emezi delivers a sharp, raw, propulsive and always honest account of the trials they endure as a person “categorized as other.”

The first letter, titled “Nowhere,” introduces the author as a fragile being, floating and suspended in air — almost nonexistent. Emezi’s declaration, “I want to be nothing, nowhere,” is the beginning of a tumultuous, fast-paced tale of self-loathing, self-harm and searching.

Their life is in a constant state of transition. Emezi tells of the journey to transform their body to rectify the physical dysphoria affecting them mentally and emotionally. “I wasn’t sure then what I was transitioning my body to,” they write, “but I was clear that the gender I’d been raised as was inaccurate — I’d never been a woman.”

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