Interview with an author: Chibundu Onuzo

Kingston MA Publishing and Creative Writing graduate Edel Meremikwu recently interviewed Chibundu Onuzo, the youngest female novelist ever to sign up with Faber & Faber.

Chibundu Onuzo (image courtesy Johnny RIng)

Faber & Faber are known for publishing award-winning writers such as T. S. Eliot and P.D. James. As the youngest author to be shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, 21-year old Chibundu Onuzu might not be far behind. Not long ago she was preoccupied with juggling lectures, essay deadlines and writing a dissertation for her history degree at King’s College London. But she had something else on her plate too – promoting her debut novel The Spider King’s Daughter, written when she was just 18 and published by Faber earlier this year.

Chibundu is delightfully down to earth, sometimes quiet but hardly nervous as she shares the story of how she started on her writing journey.

The novel has been described as ‘A thrilling debut novel about love and divided loyalties in contemporary Lagos’. Tell us more . . .
It’s about two teenagers from very different strata of society. Abike Johnson is 17 and the favourite child of her wealthy father. The other main character is an 18-year old hawker struggling to make ends meet for his mother and sister. One day, Abike is sitting in traffic in her jeep and the hawker tries to sell ice-cream to her. She is intrigued by his looks and his good English, something she doesn’t expect from a hawker so she decides to buy his ice-cream. The next day she buys from him and the day after that until they strike up a sort of friendship.

What was the inspiration behind the book?
There was no specific moment of inspiration.  I started telling the story from the hawker’s point of view and the narrative just developed from there. It also helped that the book was set in Lagos because Lagos as a setting is so diverse – there is extreme power, wealth, poverty and all living side by side. You can never run out of things to say if you write a book set in Lagos.

You have been hailed as ‘one of Nigeria’s freshest young writers’. How does it feel to be given such a description?
Well we thank God. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide if my work is worthy of the description.

What were the key decisions that you made in the creation of characters?
I didn’t really create my characters. Their stories just came to me. The fun part was putting these characters in very specific settings and then watching how they reacted. So, for example, Abike is someone who likes to be in control. Put her in an élite private school and instinctively she tries to run things. The hawker on the other hand is a quieter character who is forced to assert himself to survive as a hawker on the very aggressive Lagos streets.

How much of the story is based on fiction or true life? In what ways do you draw on your own experiences and research?
I wrote about parts of Lagos that I experienced whilst growing up. The Lagos I’ve portrayed is only a slice of my city. It would be impossible to contain Lagos in one novel.

What are the central themes in the book?
I tried to explore the dynamics of relationships, especially the power structure of a relationship: who is in control? Who only think they’re in control. I was also interested in how people from different classes related. And of course Lagos, the city and how it shapes its inhabitants is another central theme.

How did the book get published?
I read a newspaper article by a writer I admired. I then discovered from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (a handbook of UK publishers and agents) that they were represented by Capel & Land literary agents. So I sent off my manuscript to Capel & Land.  The women who read it liked it and so I was taken on by the agency. After six months of editing, my agent felt it was ready for submission to editors at publishing houses. An editor at Faber liked the manuscript, and offered to buy it along with the second book I would write. The rest is history I suppose.

How long did it take to write?
It took ten months to write, six months of editing with my agent and a further year and half of refining with my editor.

What has been the most memorable moment in the journey of writing the book?
I think it’s probably the whole journey, starting at 17 and now at 21 seeing it published. From start to finish it was four years.

To what extent do you think contemporary African fiction is represented in the publishing industry?
I think there are certainly a growing number of African writers represented on the international scene. There could always be more but generally, I think it’s a good time for the African writer.

Which writers do you admire?
The Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro pays a lot of attention to his craft. You can see he spends time perfecting his work. I also like the usual African suspects: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta. And then the classics: Dickens, Austen, Brontë and so on.

What are you currently reading?
Olaudah Equiano’s biography. It’s a fascinating story about a slave who was captured in what is now Nigeria and eventually worked his way to freedom.

What do your parents think of you writing and how have they encouraged you?
In many ways. There were always books in our house when I was growing up and I was encouraged to read for pleasure. I was never forced to read though, so I’ve always associated reading with fun and leisure.  Also, they taught me about God and I don’t think I could have finished this book if I hadn’t felt that God was behind me.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully still writing and doing whatever God wants me to do. I am interested in development. However, I’m still trying to decide if politics is the most efficient way to effect developmental changes in Nigeria.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
Keep going. The more you read, the better your craft becomes. Also, be patient. Writing takes time if you want to do it well.

Edel Meremikwu is a Kingston University graduate and a trained journalist who works in communications. Specialising in consulting, writing, editing and PR campaigns, Edel blogs at The King’s Daughter.

This interview is an edited extract of a piece which first appeared in the March 2012 edition of Outflow magazine.

Read more author interviews with Wendy Perriam and Mike Loveday.


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