Born in Lagos, Nigeria, but now based in the United Kingdom, Chibundu Onuzo, at 25, has accomplished what many still dream of. At the tender age of 10, she wrote a collection of short stories. In 2010, at age 19, she achieved a milestone by being the youngest female author to be signed to renowned global publishing house, Faber & Faber. At 21, she published her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter. Onuzo has a bachelor’s degree in history from King’s College, London, a master’s degree in public policy from University College, London, and is currently studying for a PhD at King’s College, London.
The young author lists the likes of Charles Dickens, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, among others, as her literary influences. With her first novel, ‘The Spider King’s Daughter’ – which won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize – Onuzo may have, indeed, climbed on the shoulders of literary giants who have gone before her.
In this exclusive interview with Sam Umukoro in London, Onuzo talks about her writing and the inspiration behind her second novel, ‘Welcome to Lagos’. She also talks about her desire to run for public office in Nigeria in the future.
At 19, you are the youngest female author to sign to Faber & Faber. What were the odds you battled with to get your first book published?
I think the biggest odd was actually finishing a project. I attempted my first novel when I was 10 and I was living in Nigeria at the time. There were so many projects I started along the way that went unfinished, so my biggest obstacle, I would say, was finally finishing a project. The Spider King’s Daughter was actually first novel I finished. Before that, I wrote my short story collection at about age 15, I sent it off to one agent because my sister had bought me a book called The Writers and Artists Yearbook which had a list of all the agents and how to approach them. But I got a rejection from the agent about a week later. I cried and said I wasn’t going to be a writer. While it is not easy to get rejected at a young age, young people exaggerate but they are also very elastic. After I got the rejection I was thinking, “This is so terrible. I’m never going to write again.” But I continued writing after taking a break. So, finishing (a project) and rejection were major obstacles.
How did you successfully manage writing a novel at 21 while studying for a degree at King’s College?
I thank God, really. I thought :“How am I going to publish a book and finish my 20,000 words dissertations”? I felt like it wouldn’t be possible and I would be able to finish everything. On the weekends, I was also going for literary festivals; I spoke at the Cambridge literary festival, and would come back for weekly lectures. Looking back, I’m rather impressed because I still don’t know how I did it. It’s quite miraculous.
Did you have a set routine, like waking up every morning or evening to write?
At that point, I had started writing Welcome to Lagos, but I think I stopped in my final year because the book had just come out and I was doing a lot of publicity for it. I was doing the kind of things I’d never done before, like speaking on panels and featuring on radio shows. All of that was incredibly new and daunting, at the same time, I was in my final year of University and all I wanted was to get a First. I think I just had periods of very intense working, three weeks where I would just be in the library all the time if I wasn’t doing any publicity, and all my focus would be on History.
How did you feel getting published at 21?
To be honest, it was very overwhelming. I didn’t know what to expect. I was very happy and excited to get a publisher, but I didn’t know what getting published would be like. Most of the time, I would be on panels where I was the youngest person by far. And watching it was very different from doing it. I felt everyone else was better than me. Then I started enjoying it by the second year once I hit my stride and got more comfortable. It wasn’t because I was shy or easily overwhelmed, but to be so much younger and inexperienced in writing where, in your 30s you’re still being described as young; but, at 21, I felt like a child.
Do you think literary glass ceilings still exist for female writers considering the success of the likes of Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel and Chimamanda Adichie?
Does it exist for women? I don’t know enough about it statistically to say so. I think the big debate now is more about racial diversity in publishing than gender. You did mention Chimamanda, Zadie, Hilary, and I can think of many other big name female authors. Now, in most big prizes, you will see female authors on the list. I’m not saying it’s 50 per cent parity, but I still think there are a lot of prominent female writers.
What inspired you to start writing at age 10?
My parents always had books around the house, which helped. I was an avid reader and I enjoyed it because it was a fun thing for me to do. What they did was give me the space to pursue what I thought was fun by providing me with books. I remember when we would come to the UK on holiday, one of the things I loved to do, besides clothes shopping, was to go to used books stores and buy books for 50p. I remember there was a library close to our house in Lagos where you had to pay to borrow books and you had to return it in two days or renew. I went to good schools, but we didn’t have a proper school library in my primary school. And in secondary school, we weren’t allowed to borrow books from the library and had to read them there. We were paying school fees, but couldn’t borrow books from the library. So, while books were scarce, my parents did a good job of making sure that there were books around the house. It felt very natural to go from reading so much into writing.
As a child, you had wanted to be a concert pianist, amongst many other things. Do you still hope to achieve this someday?
I don’t know about concert pianist, but I definitely want to be a musician. I want to perform more. Now, I play the keyboards at my church and I sing as well.
Should we be expecting an album from you someday?
Someday, maybe. I sang on BBC Focus on Africa and the online reaction was surprising. Yes, I would definitely like to sing more and do more music.
You once said that you would like to run for public office in Nigeria someday. Do you still have that ambition and why?
I think there is definitely a lot of youthful idealism in the sense of my love for Nigeria and wanting to be a part of change, even though that has become a discredited word as a result of recent political developments, but I want to be part of the difference, of the critical mass. No one person can do it alone, but there is this idea of putting worthy individuals in different areas and thing starting to tip in the right direction. The problem is all the corrupt people are working together. Every time I talk about politics, people say it can’t be done without some corruption involved, but at the same time I don’t think many have tried the legal route. For example, I live in London at the moment and every election season, my local MP comes knocking at my door to talk about their party and manifesto. I have been in Nigeria during elections at least three times and no candidate has ever come to knock at my door.
It takes a lot to do things this way and I’ve never seen this in Nigeria. There are only rallies, photo-ops, and ad-campaigns. These things are idealistic, but, personally, I would like to try doing things like this before giving up. I still want to be a part of it or, at least, give it a shot. I don’t think alternative ideas have been fully performed and I believe it’s because in Nigeria one feels powerless. People turned up during the Occupy Nigeria project, but it was not enough to make an impact. If you could reach those who are still cynical about Nigeria politics and convince them to join you, they can fund campaigns, but it will take a lot of work to reach them because they have become disillusioned.
Do you think the present government has what it takes to bring about change?
I don’t know. I was in Nigeria for the election. While I wasn’t registered to vote, I did go to the polling station to see what was going on and people turned up and there was optimism when this present government came in.
In an interview with the BBC interview, you spoke about your love for Lagos, but noted that, at the same time, you couldn’t romanticise about it, even from afar. Why is that so and what was the inspiration behind your new novel, Welcome to Lagos?
You can’t romanticise Lagos because you can love the city and its energy, but you have to keep your eyes open at all times. My sisters always make fun of me when I go to Lagos because I get a bit louder and more aggressive. Sometimes, you feel you just have to be ready for anything. We went out at night to eat and when we were done, we saw a guard under my friend’s car. We couldn’t work out what he was trying to do, but these are the kind of incidents that are normal in Lagos so you just have to be on your guard at all times. You have to be ready to tell people “Better take your time o!” There’s also the familial spirit. Lagos is also the type of place where if you’re polite you will find someone with whom you can share a meal. I say this because when you greet someone they will reply and might ask you to join them if they are having a meal. I’ve never accepted, but in general I feel more at ease discussing with strangers in Lagos than in London. My relationship with Lagos is more like a love and awareness kind; awareness being the contradictions of Lagos.
In your new book, Welcome to Lagos, you made significant references to Bible readings from a character. How does the Christian faith influence your writing?
I guess in writing you explore themes you are interested in. I’m interested in politics; it is the same with the Bible. I think what I struggled with earlier was how to do it in a way that was authentic, but I didn’t want to preach, I just wanted to explore with fiction. Often when I read about Christianity in novels, it’s either the pastor is stealing or a crusader is against traditional African practices, and it’s not necessarily relating to the message. I’m not saying it’s not interesting, but I was more interested in seeing how this one man (Chike inWelcome to Lagos), who is agnostic but open minded, relates to spiritual text.
Tell us about your literary influences, specifically African influences.
Of course, Chinua Achebe must be there. It’s not allowed to be a Nigerian writer and Chinua Achebe is not one of your influences. I met him for the first time in London. When I first I saw Things Fall Apart on a library shelf in England and it had a different cover from the other African Writers Series, I was intrigued. I finished it in a day or a day and a half and thought it was really good! Luckily, my school library had a few other novels of his such as A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah. I also read some of Wole Soyinka’s works, etc. It was Chinua Achebe who made me start searching for African fiction. Before, I read books like One Week One Trouble, Bottled Leopard, etc. and I enjoyed them all. But the books that really stuck with me were not Nigerian books; there was a lot of Charles Dickens’ works and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, amongst others. I also started reading novels written by other African (Non-Nigerian) authors in England.
Do you honestly think a formal training like a Masters in Creative Writing necessarily applies if one wants to become a writer or hone one’s craft as a writer?
Obviously, if you ask me, I would say no, because I don’t have any sort of formal training; but I don’t have anything against it. There are some writers who don’t like it because they feel there’s no variety and it stifles the creative process. I disagree, but, at the same time, I feel there are things you can learn and it doesn’t have to be in a classroom. The Paris Review was very important for me because I was reading about the writing experiences of older writers and that’s maybe what creative writing courses teach. You have an established writer who teaches from his/her own experience. The Paris Review had writers who spoke about their craft, their work-life balance, almost holistically; so it wasn’t just writing alone, which is why I found it so helpful. It might not be a teaching relationship, but that kind of learning from older writers is important. It doesn’t have to be a physical relationship either. I’ve never met Toni Morrison, but her Paris Review was helpful.
As a Nigerian, what do you think is Nigeria’s biggest problem and how do we solve it?
Our biggest problem is resolution. Nigeria has just been potential for 57 years, since independence, even though we are the most populous black nation and one of the biggest oil producers worldwide. Now, the new kind of potential people are talking about is our young population and how we might be able to replicate what China did by producing by ourselves first and start exporting later. I think our potential has been unharnessed; we will become stronger only if we can make something of it. Just by our potential, we are the biggest economy in Africa, One cannot compare Nigeria and South Africa in terms of infrastructure, but our potential speaks for us.