Chibundu Onuzo was born in 1991 in Lagos, Nigeria. While studying History at the King’s College London she signed a two novel deal with Faber&Faber. Her debut, The Spider King’s Daughter, is currently winning much acclaim: long-listed for the prestigious Desmond Elliot and Dylan Thomas prizes.
The novel, set in Lagos Nigeria, is about the relationship between Abike, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and a Hawker (Runner G) she buys ice cream from. Abike, impressed by Runner G’s looks and command of English, stages a car breakdown to check if Runner G has the mindset and mannerisms fit for her collection of friends. Runner G impresses enough to turn Abike’s curiosity into affection. A romance ensues. But revelations from the past threaten their relationship and lead to thrilling twists in their lives and the lives of the people around them.
In our wide-ranging interview, Chibundu reveals how she deals with criticism, the way her faith shapes her interests and how she maintains her hair.
Mahala: When did you first start writing and when did you finish The Spider King’s Daughter?
Chibundu Onuzo: I started writing in nursery school. I was taught the alphabet and was neither overly fast nor overly slow in learning how to fashion three letter words. I finished a first draft of The Spider King’s Daughter when I was 18 so there was quite a gap between my first words and my first completed book.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
I really don’t know. Reviewers are generally not tough on debut authors so we’ll have to wait for my second novel to see. My favourite compliments are when someone who knows Lagos reads my book and say words to the effect of ‘that’s so Lagos!’
How do you react to a bad review of your book?
I’ve actually only read one review that I would call ‘bad’ (as I mentioned above people are nice to debuts). I read it twice to see if I missed anything constructive in my first natural repulsion and then to be honest I forgot it. You forget the substance of most of your reviews over time, even the positive ones.
The Spider King’s Daughter is partly a story of love. Did any of your previous relationships play a role in the creation of the romance between Abike and the Runner G?
Wouldn’t you like to know.
In a recent interview you said, “We [Nigerians] have civic duties towards our nation that go beyond just paying taxes…” the United Nations estimates that around 100 million Nigerians live under a dollar a day despite Nigeria being the second largest economy on the continent. Was writing about the disparity in wealth between your characters Abike and Runner G an act of civic duty?
Not really. I wrote about the disparity of wealth between Abike and the hawker because if you’re going to write about a relationship between two people of such different socio-economic groups, the income gap is going to come up at some point.
Abike encounters a different Lagos to the one she is accustomed to during her rendezvous with Runner G. Many tourists visiting Lagos, like Abike, may overlook visiting certain parts of Lagos. What places do you recommend tourists that want to have an out-and-out experience of Lagos go to?
I don’t know. I don’t really think of Lagos as a place for tourists. I think of Calabar (which I’ve never been to) as a place for tourists and Jos and Abuja. But if you come to Lagos, you come with a purpose not just to look. And in trying to achieve your goal, which for newcomers is usually of a pecuniary nature, you see the most fantastic things while sitting in traffic or waiting in the queue at the bank.
You were recently longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize. How did you react when you first learned of your nomination? And what impact has the nomination had on your writing?
I smiled. I thanked God and because it was towards the end of my final year, I probably went to the library. As to what impact it has had, none that I’m aware of. If I were to stick a poster that said LONGLISTED FOR THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE on the wall opposite the table where I write, then it might affect me, but as I’m not willing to attempt this experiment, we will never discover the effects, if any, the longlist has had.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book?
No. Let it suffice that I am writing it.
You dedicated your debut novel to your “Father in heaven”, and often tweet about your faith in God. Have your religious beliefs ever caused you to self–censor your writing?
Censorship is an interesting word to use in relation to writing. Is editing censoring yourself? What makes you think one sentence sounds better than the other if not the type of literary cannon you’ve grown up reading (which in my case was very Western.) So perhaps my early reading patterns censor me. To directly answer your question, my faith, which I’ve had from a young age, shapes what I’m interested in and wish to explore about human nature in my fiction. I wouldn't say it censors me (2 Corinthians 3:17: in the presence of the Lord there is liberty) but it certainly guides me.
Finally, on a topic that is totally unrelated to your writing, do you have any hair tips for African women who say they cannot keep natural hair because they find kinky hair difficult to maintain but want to grow their hair naturally?
It’s not by force o, as we say in Nigeria. If you like your hair permed, perm it. If you want natural, stop perming it. I have very little stress with mine. I comb it when its wet and don’t touch it til the next time I have a shower and it’s worked for me for two years.
*You can buy The Spider King’s Daughter online here.