New Understandings of Death: Call Me Cassandra by Marcial Gala and Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi

Swati Sudarsan
March 20, 2023

Western culture has problematically fixated on death, especially in literature. It valorizes the heroics of transcending death, or at least staving off the inevitable for a little bit longer. It romanticizes survivorship and revere those with the gumption to live. Technosciences promise advancements that can extend life indefinitely, or even abolish death. However, throughout history, the normative engagement with death has been in large part a consequence of capitalistic exploitation, environmental degradation, the exacerbation of inequities, and political violence. Consistently, western hegemonic powers have defined which deaths are worth grieving and which deaths are disposable under capitalism.

In Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran, the author summons Igbo ontology and queer identity to resist the western canon of death. It is an intrinsically queer Black spirit memoir told in a series of letters to friends, family, deities and lovers. This epistolary format allows us to immerse ourselves in their personal journey in identity politics and art, but it also conjures brutal intimacy. It’s as if the reader has drawn back the curtains of Emezi’s private chambers and are stuck in the eye of an emotional storm. It’s tense, nearly violent. But it is also an act of worldbending - writing things down in order to create a sort of incantation or spell to manifest. Emezi writes ogbanje truth into human terms, which requires a queer reinterpretation of death.

Emezi identifies as an ogbanje — a trickster spirit. They are born to die again and again until they rejoin their spirit world. To ogbanje, rebirth is painful as human existence is painful. Emezi explains that they started to identify as trans before they recognized this disillusionment with their body was related to the fact they are ogbanje. This is because ogbanje contain multitudes, which does not allow them to identify with human norms of gender. This understanding contextualized Emezi’s relationship with death, given that part of fulfilling an ogbanje’s purpose is to die. It also transformed their views on their disillusionment with life and their attempts to complete suicide had context beyond mental illness. Now, Emezi knows their goal in death is to return to the divine world of spirits, reunite with their brother and sisters, and go home to their spirit mother.

Throughout the memoir, Emezi is fearless in their depiction of selfhood, refusing to bow to the demands of the publishing industry to temper their experiences and beliefs for the sake of making their work more “sellable”. In fact, it has been reviewed as touting a “lack of modesty and lack of self-awareness”, but it’s important to remember that a book like this, which depicts multiple suicide attempts without remorse and is adamantly at odds with the cruel optimism of American capitalism, might not have been sold if Emezi had not catapulted to fame after their debut novel Freshwater and subsequent successes. In fact, these successes are what paved the way for Emezi to write their memoir. They say, “Freshwater was masked as fiction, so it trojan-horsed its way through the machine. Dear Senthuran wears no disguise, only the accumulation of bloody skins that have been flayed off me.”

Despite the accumulation of material wealth, Emezi refuses to frame their body as indispensable in this memoir, instead using their non-human identity to render the physical book all the more corporal. This dissent is where the memoir finds its strengths and must be considered a landmark within the western canon of necropolitics and queer death studies.

Marcial Gala’s Call Me Cassandra also provides alternative cosmologies to interpret death in wartime. Published on the heels of The Black Cathedral (2020), Call Me Cassandra portrays the life of effeminate and bookish Rauli Iriarte in Cuba. Rauli knows the future and the past, and he knows he was the Greek prophetess Cassandra in another life. He knows he will die at the age of 18 as a soldier in Angola, essentially reliving the Trojan War as he is part of The Iliad’s cycle of violence.

Throughout the novel, Rauli’s voice reads like a haunting. He speaks in prophecies throughout the novel, dictating the fates of himself and those around him. Almost as if an incantation, the effect is that the book’s plot bleeds into itself - the end is gutted onto the page from the beginning. With this collapsing of time, death loses meaning since it is not truly an end. The expectation of reincarnation takes away its power, which effectively also declaws the carnage of war and the sexual violence Rauli experiences.

Call Me Cassandra embraces multiple worldviews at once - the Greek myths, Santeria, African spirits, reincarnation- but also communism and capitalism, violence and beauty, ghosts and goddesses. Living in a world ravaged by toxic masculine violence and state hegemonic powers, Rauli constantly chooses softness. When it comes to his prophecies, he chooses what to reveal with kindness. It is a rarity in his world. Where we lack tension in narrative, we are instead propelled by the question of whether Rauli will attempt to subvert his fate of death. He seems to subvert political and metaphysical borders constantly - futures, pasts, and myths, but also the borders of life itself. In another book, perhaps Rauli would be institutionalized or medicalized, given that Eurocentric models of death have been used to stigmatize, dehumanize, and marginalize those who see death as a passage rather than an ending to the human form. In Call Me Cassandra, Gala has made Rauli a hero and a heroine, a child and a soldier, a goddess and a ghost. He is male as much as female. He is Rauli as much as he is Cassandra. We are constantly asked to expand our views on being in this narrative, as the western fear of death becomes an aside. Gala’s novel does not look to subvert fate and avoid death, but instead explores expansive ways of knowing and unknowing in the carnage of small and large violences.

The publishing industry has not been kind to authors who defy our western normative understandings of death, in part because it relinquishes western power over who is defined as a worthwhile human. In Emezi’s Dear Senthuran, they speak extensively about the difficulties of publishing honest stories, as if their relationship to the spirit world diminishes their publishing power. Likewise, when it comes to war, Gala’s Call Me Cassandra defies the ongoing narrative of “senseless deaths” and the acceptability of losing lives for a “a greater purpose.” As a young soldier, part of Rauli’s worth in the army is his body, which is a site of sexual violence at the hands of his captain. Rauli is more invested in his death as a passage to his past as Cassandra, just as Emezi’s memoir explores death as a passage home to their spirit world. In both cases, a rebirth is expected. By refusing to embrace traditional expectations of necropolitics, these books destabilize the western understanding of death. Importantly, these two works only expand the canon of rich literature that has deviated from Western views of death – take for example, literature from Japan and Iran which centers death as a noble sacrifice, or literature from India which contextualized death in the pursuit of enlightenment. The refusal to take western understandings of death at face value diminishes the inequities they have caused.

Marcial Gala’s Call Me Cassandra is available now from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran is available now from Riverhead Books.

Swati Sudarsan was the runner-up of the 2022 So to Speak Contest Issue and is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and she has received support from Tin House, the Kenyon Review, Kweli Journal, and more. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Catapult, Denver Quarterly, among other places. She edits at Moot Point Magazine and lives in Oakland, CA, where she works as a public health scientist.