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.
Continue reading here: Meet Chibundu Onuzo, 21-year Old Author of “The Spider King’s Daughter”