Good news: Life Balms — an interview-driven series on the things, people, and practices that keep us well and thriving — is back.

Bad news: This installation spotlighting the inimitable Akwaeke Emezi is its final one. For this run, anyway. But let’s not bury the lede.

Since publishing “Freshwater,” a book about exploring “the metaphysics of identity and being,” Emezi’s whole life has changed.

That’s to be expected for any first-time author, but especially one who describes themselves as a nonhuman living in liminal spaces. From beginning to end, the autobiographical novel finds itself full-bloomed in unchartered territories, at least in the imaginations of readers in “the west,” where the book was initially released.

In Emezi’s home of Nigeria, however, this age-old Igbo reality is far from new. “For some people this book is work,” Emezi said. And that work — of writing, of reading, of relating even when a thing is foreign — is something “Freshwater” commands.

While the road since the novel’s introduction into the world has been anything but dull, “Freshwater” is merely the beginning. (Emezi has already sold two more books with two more in progress, all chronicled through their personal Twitter feed.)

“[M]ore importantly + in flesh terms,” Emezi tweeted, “an out queer + trans black/african/nigerian author writing about marginalized realities, about queer + trans ppl, and thriving while making this work is significant.”

Read our chat below to peek into Emezi’s world and process as they adjust and recalibrate to the success that’s undoubtedly far from over.

For now, I don’t wanna say goodbye to you, so I’ll just say goodnight to you. Thank you for reading the series. It’s been real.


Amani Bin Shikhan: I like to start these off by asking a very basic question: How are you?

Akwaeke Emezi: I’m good! I had my last book event for the year last week so I’m in semi-vacation mode, and it’s been such a relief to get time back for myself and my writing.

AB: Ah, congratulations! I know you’ve been working around-the-clock in promotion of your debut novel, “Freshwater,” while somehow simultaneously working on future projects. How have you been easing back into having a bit more time again? How are you decompressing from that initial run?

AE: I lay on my couch and watched Netflix for two days, haha! And I tried to be gentle with myself — like not feel as if I absolutely must jump back into revisions and the other projects, like it’s OK to take a few days off.

AB: Which shows are you watching?

AE: Currently watching “BoJack Horseman” and “Psych.” I jump around shows a lot.

AB: How else are you gentle with yourself? You often tweet about things like #operationbeast that have you executing, executing, executing. How do you balance the two sides?

AE: I learned that being gentle with myself is part of the productivity. If I burn out, I won’t be making work at the pace or quality I want, so rest isn’t a guilty luxury, it’s a necessity. Like, being well is the priority, because the best work comes after that, instead of pushing the work first and thinking, Oh I’ll just catch up on my wellness later. That’s unsustainable and inefficient, to be honest.

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AB: Has that idea of rest being a vital aspect of your work regimen always been a part of you? Or has it been something you’ve learned along the way?

AE: I think I learned it by force, haha. I was in the ER this summer and have been in physical therapy for most of the year from the damage stress is causing to my body.

AB: Damn, I’m sorry. Could you briefly outline what that time looked like for you, workwise?

AE: Yeah, sure. I’ve been on three little “tours”: when the book launched; London in June to prelaunch the U.K. edition; Germany in September to launch the German edition. And each time I ended it early because I was having a hard time staying alive. The events themselves are wonderful, I love connecting with people, but there’s a crash that happens afterward and a loneliness that’s really dangerous for me.

So my team and I are figuring out what accommodations I need in the future to make touring feasible. It’s looking like I will always need a close friend with me. There’s this wonderful essay by Rivers Solomon that had me thinking about the myth that we can make it alone, how we actually do need other people to keep us alive, and understanding how that’s not a “weakness,” so we can let go of the shame and guilt of not being able to do it alone.

I have no interest in being resilient. I have an interest in people being gentle with me, making sure I’m getting what I need. But we don’t live in a tender world.

AB: How often did you find yourself traveling this year?

AE: Each leg was maybe a week of traveling? Honestly, I don’t quite remember… so much of the year has been a haze. It’s like your life changes at breakneck speed and you have to keep changing to keep up with it, and you barely have the breath to process those changes for yourself, let alone how everyone around you is also reacting to those changes. You lose a s*** ton of people.

AB: From the outside looking in, it felt like a lot of the year consisted of you having to assert and reassert yourself too, in terms of how people would gender and categorize you as a person and author. Is that an accurate thing to say?

AE: Yeah, it felt like a lot of fighting not to be unseen, for the integrity of the work to have a chance out there, to not be consumed by other people’s stories and realities.

AB: What were you watching, reading in that time?

AE: I’m always reading speculative fiction to take me to other worlds so I can get a break from this one. I also spend a lot of time daydreaming about building the life I want, and connecting that to the stories I wanna tell, because writing these books is my happy place, and it’s such a gift that they take care of me in return by actually giving me financial stability. That s*** is life-changing.

AB: So you write this book, publish it, and the better part of your year is consumed by it. How do you make it out of that process?

AE: The book actually wasn’t the most demanding thing in this year. It was definitely a huge and intense part, but at the same time, my body was in crisis. So there’s multiple health issues, we sold my third and fourth books, all the interpersonal stress, so it’s like there was a flock of different things consuming at the same time.

I had to learn to tell people how bad it was getting so that they could help, because I wasn’t going to make it out alone. On the outside, it looks all shiny, because yay you’re having all this career success.

AB: I find that that is one of the hardest things: reminding people that outwardly looking shiny doesn’t actually reveal anything about one’s personal life. Speaking personally, it has been extremely jarring to have one of the hardest years of my personal life be one of the best years professionally.

AE: Ugh, yes! There are so many times I want to shake people and yell in their faces that Instagram is not an accurate representation of anything! It’s weird becoming more and more visible, and more and more unseen at the same time.

AB: How do you reckon with that? What are the negotiations you’ve made with that experience?

AE: I think the biggest shift was that my social media is far less personal since the book came out. I’ve had to filter in a way I didn’t have to before, to protect myself and create a necessary distance between that visible public self that is still me, but just not the other me who is now more private.

AB: Yes, totally get that. What about off social media?

AE: I’ve generally become less accessible. I keep thinking of that description of Beyoncé as hypervisible but inaccessible, and I kinda love it. For me, a lack of accessibility is very much about protection. My capacity has not increased with this success. If anything, I have become far more fragile.

I have no interest in being resilient. I have an interest in people being gentle with me, making sure I’m getting what I need. But we don’t live in a tender world.

Stress is lethal at this point, so I’ve adjusted for that, because other people often won’t adjust for you unless you demand it. Like, mostly all inquiries go through my agents, I got an assistant, I put buffers in place to protect myself.

I didn’t figure out the rising part until after Prince died, and I looked it up and realized we have the same sun/rising signs, which made me happy.

AB: I’m so glad you’re finding some stability in pacing that suits your needs. This s*** is so grueling and is so often about everything but the work. On those exceptionally trying days, what would you consider to be your “life balms”? What brings you peace of mind and heart these days?

AE: One of my life balms is interior design, haha. As soon as I got paid for part of the two-book deal, I redid my entire apartment over the course of about a month, and now it’s like this little haven with gold accents and tons of plants.

I’m really good at making my homes feel like quiet sanctuaries, and it functions as a safe bubble that can recharge and center me.

My ideal balance is being at home and leisurely working on the multiple books I have in progress. That’s a whole lot of peace right there.

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AB: This is energy. What is your birth chart?

AE: OK, so I’m a Gemini sun, Libra moon, and a Scorpio rising. I didn’t figure out the rising part until after Prince died, and I looked it up and realized we have the same sun/rising signs, which made me happy.

AB: Wow, two legends. Talk to me about your world; how you create new constellations for yourself entirely. How does that practice keep you alive when all else threatens?

AE: One of the things that’s really intimate about “Freshwater” is that it shows the world I always secretly had in the first place. Nearly dying from suicide a couple of times really drove it home for me that I can’t survive in this world, so remaining in my own world is the only way to survive this embodiment.

I’m grateful to “Freshwater,” because writing it carved a door into this reality for me, and it was like, oh s*** this is what’s real, this is what’s true. I have to stay here to be OK. No wonder I’ve always had trouble in that other flesh world.

I’m also really lucky to have nonhuman friends who aren’t based in [a] flesh world either, so I’m not alone and we can share and connect, and that helps us all cope with the embodiment a bit better. One of my great hopes for “Freshwater” is that it opens possibilities for other isolated, embodied nonhumans out there — possibilities that they’re not alone, not crazy, and that those worlds of their own are totally valid.

Akwaeke’s Life Balms

  • Reading. Currently the “Saga” comic book series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. My magician recommended it for me, and I’m savoring it issue by issue.
  • Interior design. I recently spent a month redoing my apartment in Brooklyn. I love projects like that. Designing spaces is meditative for me; I can spend hours just planning it in my head. It also keeps me busy and off social media in a good way. It’s a hobby I get to keep to and for myself, this carving out of private sanctuaries.
  • Sunlight. I’m trying to get back to a life without winter. I did that one year when I lived in Trinidad. It cut my depression down enormously, plus my skin looked amazing.

Like Akwaeke’s thoughts? Follow their journey on Twitter and Instagram.


Amani Bin Shikhan is a culture writer and researcher with a focus on music, movement, tradition, and memory — when they coincide, especially. Photo by Asmaà Bana.