Chibundu Onuzo is the youngest author to be published by Faber and Faber. Her debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter is a love story between two teenagers, one the daughter of a rich man, the other an enigmatic hawker. But at the heart of the story lurks a dark secret.
In this interview, Chibundu, with her cutting wit and humour, talks about her writing, her forthcoming novel and literature on Africa
Your first book, The Spider King’s Daughter, which you wrote while still a teenager focused on the relationship between two teenagers from very diverse backgrounds. And your next novel, as excerpted in the Africa39 Anthology revolves around soldiers, wars and killings. How far has Chibundu Onuzo come from that girl who wrote that first book?
I don’t know. I don’t think of myself in the third person very often. I think Chibundu Onuzo has grown taller. Not by very much, because she was seventeen when she began The Spider King’s Daughter and already at the end of her growth spurt. But judging from old photos, I would say she has grown by about half an inch.
Ok. Let me put it this way. How far has Chibundu grown as a writer, from that person who wrote the Spider King’s Daughter?
Sadly in this case, clarifying your question won’t really help. I can’t tell you how much I’ve grown. It’s like when you’re a child and someone says to you after they haven’t seen you in two years, ‘You’ve grown.’ You don’t feel like you’ve grown but then, slowly, incrementally, night after night, your cells have divided and you have. So it’s for outsiders to assess growth and those on the inside, to keep eating their beans and other growth inducing proteins. So Abubakar, when my next novel comes out, you can tell me how far I’ve grown…if I have.
I look forward to that. Clearly you are a fan of Nollywood, and I think you aspire to someday feature in a Nollywood film, so is it deliberate that SKD had Nolllywoodish qualities?
I think this is where we declare that we are friends because I have never made my aspiration to feature in a Nollywood film public. So the only way the interviewer knows this, is because I have told him personally. And yes, I’ve wanted to act in a Nollywood movie for a long time (shoutout to any director that wants to make my dream come true). Having said that, what are Nollywoodish qualities? The way I end some chapters on a cliffhanger and switch to another scene is a technique I borrowed from Nollywood. Also, people keep asking for a part two, so perhaps it’s more Nollywood than I realise.
So will there be a part two then?
No. Not in the near future. Some writers write sequels later on in their careers. So perhaps, in the distant future, I might feel like returning to the lives of Abike and the hawker. But for now anyway, this is not likely. Too many new stories to tell.
Being Faber and Faber’s youngest ever author must be quite a feat. You signed a two-book contract. You are a very confident person, but what kind of pressure did this put on you, especially in regards to writing this second novel?
Well I’m their youngest female author, which is kind of a made up prize because before me, they hadn’t been religiously checking the ages of their female authors. So I don’t think anybody actually knows who is the second youngest female author signed by Faber. I was 19 when I signed, which was great because it meant there was a lot of publicity around the signing but after the book came out, I realized that writing is not like tennis or athletics or football where you have junior and senior division. You’re not reviewed as the youngest this or that. If a reader doesn’t like the book, they don’t care that you were eighteen when you wrote it. And also, you don’t want people to say, “This is good….for a 19 year old.” So you have to focus on craft and not get carried away by being the youngest this or that.
As to pressure for my second novel, I want it to do well and do better than my first as every writer wants their next novel to be better than their last. I don’t think this has anything to do with age.
Since the publication of SKD you have been prominent in activism, participating in protests over the Chibok Abductions among many others and your story in Africa39 hints at taking on the human rights abuses by the Nigerian military. What burden does writing place on the people who write to make a stand on these issues?
I don’t know. For me, the actual act of fictional writing, is just so sedate and dull that to talk about burdens, just makes it sound so heroic and melodramatic. I write out of anger sometimes. I put these things on my blog or in my comment pieces for the Guardian. But when you actually sit down to create this fictional place, with characters and back-stories, and plot, you’re not really thinking of burdens.
You are also a talented singer and have launched a campaign alongside your sister, Dinachi, using a song to ask Nigerians to choose wisely. How did that idea come about?
It was all Dinachi’s idea. She wrote the lyrics (apart from one line. I’m sure you can guess which line is mine), wrote the music, arranged the studio session. I just rocked up on the day and sang.
I have an idea and I think that verse has something to do with eating and what follows. But on a serious note, how much traction do you think that campaign got?
It got carried on quite a few websites, SaharaReporters, bellanaija and so on. So we were very happy with that. We’re just two people adding our voices to a wider focus on good governance.
That sounds to me like someone using her talent to impact on society. And you wanted to be a concert pianist when you were younger. Is this something you still think of doing at some point?
I still play the piano. I play in my church, which I love doing. I do want to do more with my music so we’ll see.
The future of African literature is said to be bright, and considering you are one of the 39 writers selected by the Hay Festival as those who will define writing trends on the continent, what are your thoughts on this? Where do you see African writing going to?
I don’t want to define African Literature. I’m not a dictionary. And African writing can go where it wants to go. I’m not the driver of the train. Nor am I the conductor of the bus. Those that have given themselves that work, good luck o.
We have had publications by writers like Ben Okri saying African writers are bound by some restrictions in publishing in the West, and another by Adaobi Nwaubani suggesting that Western institutions determine which African writers to place on a pedestal or which African stories to promote. As someone published in the West, what do you make of this?
Where is the West? So if you live in Nigeria, the West of you is actually Brazil. I’m sadly not published in Brazil yet so I can’t comment about being published in the West. If you’re taking England as my starting point, then West of England is Canada. Again, I’m not published in Canada so both from my place of birth and my place of abode, I have no experience of being published in the West.
Ok. Let me break it down. By the “West” I refer to, as most people in the literary circle do, publishers in the UK and the US. But how important do you think it is to develop publishing structures in Africa?
Eheeen. Writers have to be precise in our language. Now I think it’s very important for there to be better publishing structures in Africa. But at the same time, I think we also have to be innovative. So because American and British publishing is still largely a paper affair, doesn’t mean that this has to be our trajectory. I’ve seen some very interesting apps for reading, Okada Books, World Reader etc and they are connecting with readers who have smart phones and want to use them as books. So the distribution network for books needs to be strengthened but not only along the lines of traditional publishing.
I would also add, there really is a need for more pan African, cross continent publishing. I only read French West African authors when they’ve been translated into English abroad. And they are literally next-door to Nigeria. So more collaboration would be great. In this internet age, people don’t have to meet for translations to happen. So hopefully, we’ll be seeing more of those partnerships in future.