In 2010, Chibundu Onuzo, a 19-year-old Nigerian undergraduate at the King’s College London made the headlines, from BBC to CNN, after signing a two-novel deal with revered British publisher of literary fiction, Faber & Faber, making her its youngest ever female author. She started writing The Spider King’s Daughter when she was 17, got an agent at 18, signed with Faber at 19, finished editing while 20 and got published at 21. When she started writing at ten, her first inspirations included English classics like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, after which she discovered the rich literary tradition of Nigeria in her favourite authors – Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In this exclusive interview with Gbenga Awomodu, Chibundu who has recently completed her first degree in History talks about her debut novel, published in March 2012, writing, faith, Lagos, Nigeria and much more.
Please tell us a bit about yourself – what you do; your education and where you grew up.
My full name is Imachibundu Oluwadara Onuzo – Oluwadara because my mother is Yoruba; Imachibundu because my father is Igbo. I grew up in a very quiet estate in Lagos. I know almost all my neighbours by name and in turn most of them know me as ‘one of Dr. Onuzo’s daughters.’ Both my parents are doctors and are still practising. My primary school was called Corona Gbagada. Our school anthem described us as ‘the centre of excellence’ a motto borrowed from my much beloved Lagos State. I then proceeded to Atlantic Hall where once a week we sang lustily, ‘We love thee o, Great Atlantic Hall.’ It was perhaps an attempt by the anthem writer to brainwash us unruly adolescents. After three years at ‘A-Hall’ as her alumni call her, I went to St. Swithuns, a school in Winchester, where I perfected my phonetics and shortened my name to ‘Chibs.’ I then went to University in London, King’s College, where I dropped my phonetics and lengthened my name once more to Chibundu. Now, on the cusp of graduation, as I prepare for the next phase in my life; perhaps, I will assume the name of Dara.
Could you share some of your favourite childhood memories, growing up in Nigeria?
Anyone with an Igbo father will tell you that Christmas meant going to the village and going to the village meant family, udala (or agbalumo) and masquerades. Unfailingly the masquerades came out on Boxing Day and me and my cousins would drive down to the village square to be scared out of our wits. There was the rare female masquerade, glittering with mirrors and very difficult to catch sight of. Then there were the dancing masquerades which raised small clouds of dust when they hit their wooden heads on the ground. Then last and scariest were the evil masquerades that chased people down and flogged them. Once I ran into a stranger’s house and hid under his table because maoun na bia (masquerade is coming).
And then I loved going to my maternal grandfather’s house in Isale Eko. He died before I was born but he left in his house, shelves and shelves of books. Every time we visited I would go to these shelves and rummage through them. Most of what I gathered was old and musty but books are more than the paper they are printed on and I gained many classics from this foraging of Baba’s shelves.
What were your childhood dreams and aspirations?
I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. When I was growing up, it was assumed that if you were good at Maths you would be an engineer. If you were good at sciences, you would be a doctor and if you talked too much, you would be a lawyer. I was a very voluble child and so I took it for granted that I was destined to become a learned friend. I also dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. I played and still play the piano, but you won’t be seeing me performing at the Royal Albert Hall anytime soon.
Considering the common sentiment amongst many Nigerian parents who want their children to become lawyers, doctors, Engineers or Pharmacists, why did you decide to study History, and what was the initial reaction of your parents to this?
They disowned me and I’m now living with my adopted parents. On a more serious note, I think being the last born helped. My oldest sister is a barrister, my brother is an economist and my other sister is an engineer so my parents were more open to one child experimenting. Sometimes, wistfully I think if I had studied medicine, my parents would have had that invaluable collector’s item: a complete set of professional offspring. And for a while I did dabble with the idea of becoming another Dr. Onuzo but medicine of all the professions, is not one you enter lightly so I withdrew when I realised the matter was too serious for me.
Your debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, was published last March by Faber & Faber, UK. It must have been a really long process. How do you feel about that milestone?
Relieved. The publishing process does take a long time if you want to get it as right as you possibly can. Sometimes you feel that the day when you’ll hold a finished copy of your book will never arrive so we thank God it has come and we’re all alive to see The Spider King’s Daughter being read in as far flung places as Singapore and Dubai.
The Spider King’s Daughter touches on the cliche poor-boy-meets-rich-girl story. What (new) perspective do you bring to this concept in your novel for your readers?
All over the world, the rich and poor hardly meet on an equal footing, but in every region, there’s a particular flavour to this meeting of social classes. For example, in England as in Nigeria, people hire maids but to slap your maid in England is viewed as criminal assault whereas in our country, at best it would be frowned upon. So to find out why I think the social structure of Lagos adds its own twist to the ‘cliche poor-boy-meets-rich-girl story’, as you have termed it, I suppose you’ll have to read ‘The Spider King’s Daughter’.
When did you start writing poems and stories; and what are the special memories in the process of getting your first book published?
I’ve never really written poetry, at least not seriously; but I attempted my first novel when I was ten. It was about a group of white American children who went back in time and met some Native American children with whom they then proceed to have many adventures. It was very bad. What looms the largest in the publishing process was when my agent sent me an email saying she would like to represent the book. I actually dropped to the ground and rolled from one end of my living room to the other.
How do you plan to make your book accessible to readers here in Nigeria, aside online orders from Amazon and similar platforms? Any plans for a Nigerian publisher soon?
Fingers crossed for a Nigerian publisher. That’s all I will say for now.
Which writers have influenced your writing over the years?
Influence is a tricky word when it comes to assessing your own writing. I think only a reasonably objective third party can tell you what influences they can see in your work. There are some writers I particularly love reading though. Dickens for his liveliness and Tolstoy for the unflinching gaze he casts on his characters. There are no heroes with Tolstoy work, only human beings. Then, of course, the African great: Soyinka’s controlled flamboyance, especially in Ake, I read with envy and Achebe I read with the deepest respect. I almost feel the urge to kunle [Yoruba, meaning: kneel down in obeisance] whenever I see a copy of Things Fall Apart. And last, the new generation of writers who made contemporary Nigeria interesting again. No-one does Eko like Sefi Atta.
How and from where do you draw inspiration as a writer?
You never know. You’re just inspired. You see an image and it strikes you, you hear a snippet of someone’s life story and you immediately want to embellish it into a piece of fiction. Maybe it’s because of your childhood, or your Sunday School, or your primary two teacher that some things capture your imagination as an author more than others. It would take some serious unravelling to discover why and how something embeds itself into your subconscious and becomes the inspiration for a piece. It just does.
What inspired the SKD story – do you have any personal experiences woven in there; how did it come about?
When I was much younger, I interviewed a hawker for an essay competition my mother entered me for. This hawker was about twenty one (my age now) but she had been hawking for years and expected to continue hawking for many more years, if not the rest of her life. Even at that young age, I could sense that she felt trapped by her life which offered no opportunity of escape from the daily grind of hawking, but in the answers she gave me, there also seemed to be a lot of resignation. Also, whenever I drove around Lagos, I would often see hawkers running after cars. The owners hadn’t paid, but they’d collected what the hawker was selling. It’s not that they planned to steal from these hawkers; it’s just that traffic was moving and so if the hawker wanted to get his money, he had to run after them. It was too much to expect that the owner of a car would have enough courtesy to park and pay for what he or she had bought. Such images stuck in my mind and in retrospect, I can see that they were the germ for the novel.
Do you experience the writer’s block, and how do you handle it?
I experience writer’s procrastination. I sit at my laptop and play a game of solitaire to ‘focus my mind.’ Then I play another round, then another. Then I think, ‘why don’t I check my email?’ Then I realise I haven’t eaten anything in the last half hour, so I get up and go and have a look at what’s in the fridge. On my way, my phone rings. It’s my sister. One hour gone and I still haven’t eaten. Let me just boil some rice. Oh look, The Apprentice is on. What an interesting episode. Now time to get back to work but I’m feeling sleepy. I’ve been putting off writing this new chapter for days now but abeg man must sleep, body no be wood. I say to myself just before I fall asleep, ‘This procrastination of mine is getting bad. I’ll sort it out tomorrow.’
Given Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s trajectory in the literary world – and many people probably already see you in her mould, do you not sometimes feel pressured to accomplish more than she has done; any nominations for awards yet?
Most comparisons between myself and Chimamanda Adichie or any other Nigerian female writer who has an Igbo first name, are quite superficial and have little to do with our writing styles. I admire Chimamanda’s work for its vast scope which is paired with an intense detail in execution but the themes we write about are very different because what we find interesting about Nigeria is different because our backgrounds are different and so I can read her work, love it, but not feel any pressure about it.
But speaking of awards, earlier this year I was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize which is for debut novelists published in England.
In what ways do you seek to improve your writing?
I try and read widely. I’ve recently been given a kindle and I’ve downloaded dozens of free classics. It’s good to read contemporary fiction and keep yourself abreast of the new ways writers are finding to express themselves but at the same time, I think it’s important to also read those writers who are long dead but whose works still teach many lessons about the writer’s craft. I also try to take every chance I have to write as an opportunity to hone my craft. So for example when I blog, even though I do it for fun and make no money out of it, I read over my work, I edit it and I try to make sure my prose isn’t becoming sloppy. Every time you put your fingers to the keypad, even if it’s just an email, is a chance to improve your relationship with words.
In one of your blog posts, you talk about the state of origin issue, arguing that a Nigerian should be able to say, “I was born and bred in Lagos, so even though my parents originate from other states, I am a Lagos indigene as well.” How soon do you think this would be established, if at all it comes to pass?
The quote you’ve used isn’t a direct quote from my blog but the sentiment expressed in it, mirrors what I have said accurately. I find it incredibly saddening that a man with a Kenyan father, with a name like Barack can be President of the United States of America but if a Mohammed who has grown up in Imo state wants to be even a local government chairman in Oru West L.G.A., there would be such an uproar. People would tell him to go back to Kano, or Katsina or Kaduna if he wants to get into politics in Nigeria. Can you imagine if the American electorate had told Obama to go back to Kenya?
This doesn’t mean I dismiss our cultural heritage. The Igbo, Efik, Ijaw, Nupe cultures are all to be celebrated but it is not our ethnic identity that gives us a share in our polity. It is because I am Nigerian not because I am Yoruba or Hausa or Ibira that I can exercise my rights as a citizen in any part of the country I find myself in.
I’m not a prophet so I don’t know when it will come to pass but it must, if we are to begin to see lasting changes in our country.
What does your personal library look like; and which kinds of book are your favourites?
My personal libraries are the public libraries of North London. I still find it miraculous that I can walk into a building and leave with fourteen books for no fee at all. On trips to my local library, I usually gravitate towards books set in India and the Middle East even though I can’t explain my fascination for this part of the world. Of course, every time I hear that a new African writer has been published in England, I begin to scour the shelves for their title. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
Sometime in 2010 when you first made the headlines, I found out you sang in a track titled “I Will Wait”, produced by London-based music producer, Tolu Okeowo. Could you tell us something about that too?
I sing and play the piano and I can usually do both at the same time. Perhaps because of this, it naturally followed that I would write my own music so the song “I Will Wait” was actually composed by me and on the track, I am the one playing the piano. Tolu and I went to the same church in London and we worked together on a soundtrack for a movie called ‘Holding On’ where one of my songs was used as the title track. So in about 2009 when Tolu decided he wanted to make a compilation album, he asked if I had any songs I wanted to submit. I played ‘I Will Wait’ for him, he liked it and it became one of the songs on ‘A Perfect Progression.’ You can download it from iTunes till date.
You are fond of saying, “We thank God!”, so much that in response to an interview you granted The Guardian UK last year, a commenter referred to you as being too religious. What is the connection between your writing and your faith?
My saying we thank God is not a religious habit I’ve picked up. It’s just giving honour where honour is due. You need patience to write a book, you need joy for when you don’t feel the writing is going well, you need peace when you’re worrying that it will never get published, you need humility so that when you have a little measure of success you won’t start thinking you’ve ‘arrived’ as a writer and all these, I believe, are the fruits that the Holy Spirit grows when He lives with you. And of course, I’m glad I can pray. I don’t know how other writers cope with rejection but as for me, I’m glad I can pray.
As a citizen living abroad, what is your take on Nigeria’s image and its national security issues at the moment?
I have no vested interest in seeing Nigeria portrayed positively. What I want to help build is a Nigeria that is actually a positive place. It’s because we are so concerned about having a good image abroad that so many atrocities are swept under the carpet and problems are downplayed. Things need to be aired and if our national news agencies out of a sense of misplaced national pride will not air them, then let CNN break the news to me that yet another massacre has occurred in a village in the North. Let BBC show me the thousands of people in Lagos that scavenge off a refuse dump to make a living.
As for the security issues, I have no original views on them. I want the economic inequalities that have fuelled this insurgency to be addressed and I want Muslims and Christians to present a united front against this menace.
What is the role of writers in helping to effect the change we desire in our nation?
Mine is the same as yours and any man or woman you stop on the street. We have civic duties towards our nation that go beyond just paying taxes, even though that is always a good place to start. The government may not have done enough but neither have I. I’m expert at listing what’s wrong with Nigeria, less skilled at saying what practical steps I can take to help tidy up my own little corner.
What do you plan to do next after graduation?
Finish writing my second book and in doing so, work on my craft. Hopefully do a Masters in a degree that will enable me to effectively and efficiently assist with the development that is going on in this country.
Any other thing you would love to tell BN readers?
Thank you for reading all the way to the last question. Una don try.
Thanks for your time Chibundu.
Photo credit: Shade Olutobi, Ezinne Edemobi, Bill Knight, and Chibundu Onuzo.
Gbenga Awomodu is an Editorial Assistant at Bainstone Ltd./BellaNaija.com. When he is not reading or writing, Gbenga is listening to good music or playing the piano. Follow him on Twitter: @gbengaawomodu | Gbenga’s Notebook: www.gbengaawomodu.com | Facebook Page: Gbenga Awomodu