Interesting stuff keeps coming out of the Nigerian literary scene, the most recent of which is the publication of Chibundu Onuzu’s Spider King’s Daughter by prestigious British publishing house, Faber and Faber. Spider King’s Daughter is a dark love story set in Nigeria’s megalopolis, Lagos. From the moment I started reading the novel, I knew I wanted to have a chat with Chibundu. As with every really cool book, you leave it with more questions than when you began reading it. So here we are. I live in a little glorified village here in the US called Durham. She lives all the way in the sexy city of London. So we decided that email was as good as any face-to-face meeting. No shocking steamy revelations. *sad face* But Chibundu makes quite a few surprising comments on writing, like how nollywood film techniques gave her ideas on how to structure her novel. And she has a sense of humor to last her for days, so look out for her reason why Lagos is a bonafide city of romance. Anyway, enjoy her fun and, sometimes, cheeky responses to my silly questions. Congrats to Chibundu for her lovely novel.
I started writing The Spider King’s Daughter when I was 17, got an agent at 18, signed with Faber at 19, finished editing while 20 and got published at 21. Condensed into this sentence, the whole thing looks incredibly neat and simple.–bookdiva
Why did you choose to set your first novel in Lagos?
I grew up there so I know the city quite well and I suppose with your first novel, you want to be writing about home territory. There are so many things you have to grapple with as an inexperienced writer and adding an unfamiliar setting is just an extra difficulty. It’s hard enough trying to evoke a place you know.
I’d never have thought of Lagos as a city of love, but you convinced me. What made you think of a Lagos romance?
Have you ever been to Tantalizers or Mr Biggs? Lagos is the Nigerian capital of romance. Every guy is a toaster and every girl is a babe in Eko.
Abike and Runner G are the two love birds. Can I confess that my favorite of the two is Runner G? I find his strength in the face of so much suffering both sexy and inspiring. Can you tell us how that character came to life?
I just started telling the story from his point of view. His voice came naturally to me because I think in personality, we’re quite similar. You say he’s strong in the face of suffering but some readers have complained about his passivity in the face of adversity. If I suddenly woke up poor, I’d hope to be like the hawker, I’d be capable of eking out some sort of living and putting away a few hundred Naira a week. If Abike suddenly woke up poor and was forced to become a hawker, she would organise all the other hawkers and form a hawker’s union and become the State Commissioner for the informal economy by the time she was done.
Why doesn’t Runner G have a “real” name?
I couldn’t find one. I just got to the end and nothing fit so I left him nameless and then his namelessness became a wider metaphor for the faceless poor in Lagos. When I was in primary school, there was an ice cream seller I used to buy ice lollies from almost every day and till today, I don’t know his name.
Isn’t Abike kind of a bitch? Lol.
Not really. When viewed in the context of her childhood, she’s actually quite humane, maybe even more humane than the hawker who had role models and a close family structure. I always tell harsh readers that any kind act you see Abike perform (such as the way she stands up for her driver) must be magnified because of her upbringing.
My love affair with Abike is a bit different. I feel really drawn to the very things that made Runner G have such a hard time being her lover–her snarkiness, snobbishness, “sharp mouth,” her queen-of-my-domain mentality. Was her character difficult to write? Did you have to tap into your inner bitchiness? 🙂
Giving Abike a narrative voice started off as a plot device. I only had one narrator in my first attempt at the book. As I’ve mentioned, the hawker is in many ways quite a passive character so not much had happened by page thirty. He was just walking round Lagos and describing things and musing. So when Abike came along, she was in the worst instances, not much more than bullet points and in the best instances, very, very obnoxious. So she certainly went through many rounds of editing.
Abike’s mother is a Nollywood actress. Your description of her odd ways is pretty hilarious. Could you talk a little bit about the Nollywood reference? What is it about Nollywood that made you want to say something about it in Spider King’s Daugther?
Abike’s mother is not my only reference to Nollywood in the book. The way I’ve structured the scenes borrows quite heavily from Nollywood filming techniques. If you’ve ever watched a Nollywood movie, the main character will walk in on her husband cheating on her, the camera will zoom to her eyes widening in horror, then the scene will change and we have to wait to find out what happens next. I do this kind of thing quite a few times in the Spider King’s Daughter.
You touch on depression a little bit–Runner G’s mother is a depressive. Were you trying to speak to the popular misconception that Africans don’t suffer depression?
I don’t really like the word depression. There are many shades and manifestations of sadness and depression is such a blanket term. The hawker’s mother has a very deep and quiet melancholia. Her shade of sadness would be mauve. But yes, Africans just like all human beings get depressed.
None of the above really. You’ll have to come up with a few more.
You do something quirky with the narrative structure. You tell and retell the same events form Abike and Runner G’s perspectives. Is this a decision you made earlier on in the writing process or is it something that got added in the mix much later?
Very early, about thirty pages into the book.
I think it’s awesome. It’s fun to see what Abike and Runner G leave out or include in their separate accounts of a particular event. You did a good job of not making the telling and retelling tiresome for the reader? How did you do that?
Abike and the hawker are very different people. If my sister and I tell the story of the same event, the second time will definitely bore you but the hawker and Abike notice different things and they lay emphasis on different things because their experiences of life are so different.
Abike and Runner G definitely have great chemistry. But would you say that their romance was pretty PG-13? Why didn’t you give us a bit more steaminess? I don’t mean a 50 Shades kinda steamy. Just a bit more touching, kissing, making out, etc.
It seemed an accurate amount of steaminess to me. From what I remember (and it wasn’t that long ago), secondary school relationships in Nigeria were pretty vapourless. I don’t know about your school but in my boarding school, kissing your boyfriend was quite a big deal. It didn’t often happen when you were ‘having something.’ You would normally wait until you were officially going out. One of my very close friends who was four years my senior, told me before he kissed his girlfriend for the first time. He planned it a couple of days in advance. You had to be quite savvy about these things and find a private place because there were always teachers prowling around who would swoop down to separate couples if they saw them holding hands for too long.
The ending. Wow! What can I say? I didn’t see it coming. The story takes a rather unexpected turn, leaving things a bit unresolved. Is there going to be a part two?
No part two or at least none is planned. Even though I refer to Nollywood and borrow some techniques, this is not a Nollywood production.
My review of Spider King’s Daughter HERE.
Get a copy of Spider King’s Daughter HERE