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Akwaeke Emezi’s memoir is a healing ritual for the displaced

“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.”

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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.”

Emezi recalls attempting to get a breast reduction — the first surgery in their transformation — and the surgeon being unable to wrap his head around “this in-between thing.” The fact that Emezi wanted to be neither a man nor a woman was unfathomable. Their experiences serve as a microcosm of what it’s like to be a nonbinary transgender person, their physical problems often dismissed as a mental issue — even by doctors.

But Emezi thrives. By talking and writing, they convey how it feels to have a “spirit at odds with flesh.” The secret to the success of their life, according to Emezi, is their ability to bend this world. “I move as if the future I want is absolutely assured,” they write, “making choices and spending money like a prophet — buying clothes for galas before I was ever invited to one, paintings for a bungalow I had no idea how I’d ever afford, the pink faux fur for my book launch before I even had a book deal.” Their actions manifest the world they want to live in. Their ability to move through life wearing many different masks also helps. Emezi is from the Igbo tribe and understands the spiritual power of masks. They pride themself on transforming to fit, concealing parts of themself or completely revealing the “roughly sixty-seven” other selves that live in them.

Emezi continually attempts to ground themself, but the efforts are often thwarted. They try to find maternal solace from a woman in Trinidad; look for approval from their deity mother, Ala, in Nigeria; create a gilded cage in the form of a house; search for a “partnerspirit” that bends worlds as they do.

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“Dear Senthuran” is not for the fainthearted. Many of the personal anecdotes can be gruesome and disturbing — thoughts of skinning and cannibalistic desire, stories of dead bodies and maggot-infested dogs — but they are written in an enthralling visceral stream of consciousness. At times, there is a pretentiousness to Emezi’s writing, when they do find the voice to talk about their greatness. But arrogance suits them.

Though the book can be difficult to read, Emezi carefully captures the struggle of what it means to be a person — or an entity — in a world that is not designed to accommodate their existence.

Letter writing is cathartic. It’s a way to provide emotional release and healing, something Emezi finds. “I wrote these letters to remind myself that there is always a hack. There is always something I can do, even if it is the smallest seed that will grow into something almost as unrecognizable as I am becoming,” they write. A powerful memoir such as this benefits greatly from this epistolary structure. Such intimacy deserves a proper release. “Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir” is written for those searching for kindred spirits in a world that makes them hard to find.

Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian-American book reviewer, arts and culture writer and editor.

Dear Senthuran

A Black Spirit Memoir

By Akwaeke Emezi

Riverhead. 240 pp. $27

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