Chuku's Chats with Award-Winning Novelist Chibundu Onuzo

At aged 19 Chibundu Onuzo became the youngest person to be signed to publisher Faber and Faber but her accomplishments didn't stop there. Publishing her first book at 21, her debut novel saw her shortlisted for numerous writing awards and at the beginning of this year she published her much-awaited second novel - Welcome to Lagos - all this while studying at university. Attending her book launch at the beginning of this year, we fell in love with the energetic writer and for World Book Day we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Your new book is called Welcome to Lagos but what was your welcome to the UK like when you moved to England? Can you remember your first impressions?

I'd visited England in the summer but I'd never experienced a winter before so the cold was a shock. My most intense experience of cold prior to that was an AC switched on too high. Going to school was also interesting because I had to completely recalibrate my understanding of cool and uncool. At fourteen cool was incredibly important. So in Nigeria for example, owning a pair of Nike trainers added to one's social cachet. In my school in Winchester however, nobody cared about the ticks on my shoes and any overt display of materialism was actually considered passé and nouveau. It was all snobbery of course both in Nigeria and here but it was a new type of snobbery that had different markers.  

What is the inspiration behind Welcome to Lagos?

I wanted to write a book with a large cast of characters. That's where the novel began. I didn't know my merry band was going to end up in Lagos but once I assembled them, Lagos was the obvious setting for them to have adventures. Out of all the cities in Nigeria, I know Lagos the best. 

At your book launch you described Lagos as “the best place in the world”. Why do you say this?

Well, Lagos is not the most obvious place to give that title. People can get hung up on superficial attributes like traffic, ease of doing business, waste disposal etc and dismiss Lagos as a nightmare. If you focus solely on these things, you miss the energy of Lagos and the intense way people just throw themselves into life. Lagos is life caffeinated. 

And Lagos is also a place where strangers are kind. I remember once our car broke down in Lagos and an itinerant tailor stopped to help us. He was one of those tailors who walk around with a sewing machine balanced on their head, drawing attention to themselves by hitting a pair of scissors or something metal against the body of their Singer. Anyway, he saw my mum and I pushing the car and the driver trying to start it. It was a quiet side street with few people passing by. He put down his machine, smiled at us and just came and added his effort to our pushing. Afterwards he refused to take money and just walked off, clacking his machine. This can happen anywhere in the world but in particular in Lagos, I have experienced the kindness of strangers, from a man giving me Tom Tom when I had a coughing fit, to strangers paying for my trolley at the airport. I've also received the unsolicited advice of strangers as well.That one is not so fun.

Chibundu Onuzo with Ellah Allfrey at Welcome to Lagos launch

Chibundu Onuzo with Ellah Allfrey at Welcome to Lagos launch

You’ve spoken previously about how you focus on one project at a time, whether it’s your PhD or a book, citing the Yoruba proverb “If you chase two rats at the same time, you will catch none”. Do you have any tips for anyone looking to do more by doing less?

So I heard a proverb, I learnt from it and I shared it at my book launch but I refuse to be a tip dispenser o. As you're looking at me, me too I'm still learning about doing more by doing less. What tips do you have for me? 

We'll get back to you on that but are there any other Nigerian sayings you live by?

Honesty is the best policy.

At Chuku's Nigerian food is at the heart of what we do. What role does Nigerian food play in your life? And what are your favourite dishes?

I eat Nigerian food and as you need food to stay alive, Nigerian food plays a very important role in my life. My mum is Yoruba and my dad is Igbo so what each person calls 'soup' is very different. My favourite soup is okro and ogbono cooked in the Igbo way. But I've also discovered that Ila Alasepo (a Yoruba-style okro soup) is very similar to what I thought was the 'Igbo' way of cooking okro. Therefore, my favourite soup is both Igbo and Yoruba, like me. 

Ila Asepo by 9jafoodie

Ila Asepo by 9jafoodie

I like the pounded yam made from boiled yam that is pounded using a mortar and a pestle. Not yam flour mixed with potato flour, cassava flour and dead skin cells for all we know. But since I live in London, I just have to manage poundo. In fact, in many homes and restaurants in Lagos now,  people are eating poundo as well. I have to go back to my village to be sure I'm eating 100% yam. When you eat the real pounded yam the difference is clear to your stomach. Eat a spoonful and it's like you've eaten two wraps of poundo.  

Your writing is famed for bringing people into Nigeria. How would you describe Nigeria to somebody who’s never been and what would you like them to know?

I'd like them to know that even Nigerians don't know enough about the diversity and beauty and breadth of our country so don't expect the Economist to know, or the Financial Times or the New York Times. They're all great publications and you should read them for one perspective on Nigeria but then come and see for yourself.   

Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge in Lagos, Nigeria

Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge in Lagos, Nigeria

What advice would you give to any aspiring writers amongst our chop-chat-chillers?

Read. Write. Keep your eyes open on public transport. 

Who are your favourite authors and why?

I don't know if I have favourite authors but I have books that have made a lasting impression on me. Toni Morrison's, Song of Solomon is just an outstanding book that shows what wonders can be done with language. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a quiet masterpiece. I re-read Sefi Atta's Everything Good Will Come every three years or so to remind me how writing a novel set in Lagos should be done. In fact, I might go and read it again now.

And when you’re not writing, singing or studying – how do you like to chill out?

I read a lot. At the moment I'm reading 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth,' by Chrid Hadfield, 'Reader I Married Him,' a collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre and 'Coconut,' by the South African author, Kopano Matlwa. A kindle makes reading more than one book at a time so much easier. I never lose my place. 

You can get your own copy of Welcome to Lagos here or enter our competition to win signed copies of the new book and her debut novel The Spider King's Daughter. For details on how to enter, see our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Competition closes on Thursday 9th March 2017.