Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater was announced the winner of the Otherwise Award 2019 on April 11, 2020.
The Otherwise Award celebrates science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative narrative that expand and explore our understanding of gender. The jury that selects the Award’s winner and the Honour List is encouraged to take an expansive view of “science fiction and fantasy” and to seek out works that have a broad, intersectional, trans-inclusive understanding of gender in the context of race, class, nationality, disability, and more. With winners like Gabriela Damián Miravete (2018), Virginia Bergin (2017), Anna-Marie McLemore (2016), there have been no Africans getting the honours since it was founded in 1991.
This year, the honour list and winner was judged by Bogi Takács, Edmond Y. Chang, Debbie Notkin, and Mariana Calderon. Those who made the honour list are Kylie Ariel Bemis, Meg Elison, Kameron Hurley, Innocent Chizaram Ilo, Mary Robinette Kowal, Laurie J. Marks, Yukiko Motoya, and Rivers Solomon. Winning the award is Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017 winner Akwaeke Emezi for the novel Freshwater.
“Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is beautiful, complicated, magical, challenging, and sometimes vividly cruel,” writes juror Edmond Y. Chang. “Told from multiple, overlapping, and often conflicted perspectives, the novel tells the story of Ada, who is caught between worlds, trying to navigate family, education, migration and immigration, Catholicism and Igbo spirituality, and what it means to be a self, a person. The novel does not shy away from explorations of gender nonconformity (particularly for people of colour), sexuality, toxic masculinity, race, mental illness, and trauma. There are no easy paths or answers for Ada (or the reader), and therefore the novel imagines alternative, even radical forms of identity and most importantly survival. I will continue to think about Freshwater for a long, long time, adding it to my constellation of gorgeously intense stories like Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, and Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy.”
Another juror Bogi Takács said, “Sometimes a work comes that says something you carry in yourself as intimately as flesh and bones, but you’ve never seen reflected in fiction; speculative or otherwise. For me, Freshwater by Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi was one of those works, straining against the constraints of Western literary genres and bursting them in a luminous display of strength…. Freshwater gives me hope, room to grow into myself as a reader, and a sense of relation that emerges across continents and traditions; with all our commonalities and differences.”
The winner of the Otherwise Award will receive $1000 in prize money, a specially commissioned piece of original artwork, and chocolate.