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GLAMOUR Women in Charge: Chibundu Onuzo

Chibundu Onuzo. Image: Blayke Images
Chibundu Onuzo. Image: Blayke Images

There’s greatness in my history

There’s strength in my blood

There’s wealth in my legacy, crowns in my ancestry

We’ve been through the fire, we’ve come through the flood, we rise from the ashes, we rise to the dawn

My roots, run deeper than your untruths

This tree, grows tall

It’s anchored in good soil, in good soil

These potent, life-giving words are from Chibundu Onuzo’s new song, ‘Good Soil.’ It’s the official single for her latest novel, SANKOFA. Delivered in one of the most rich and soothing voices, ‘Good Soil’ is a flawless anthem on identity. A feel-good jam, written for such a time as this. It’s literally one for the books.

‘I love writing so I wrote a novel. I love singing, so I wrote a song reflecting on the themes in the book. If movies have soundtracks, then so can books,’ she says.

Dr Imachibundu Onuzo (yes, she holds a PhD in History from King’s College in London) — is a Nigerian novelist, based in London. Did we mention she is also a singer? As well as a playwright, co-writer and co-producer of award-winning short film, Dolapo is Fine, and a columnist for the Guardian.

At the age of 17 she wrote The SPIDER KING’S DAUGHTER, which won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas and Commonwealth Book Prize. Her second novel, WELCOME TO LAGOS was published in 2016 and her latest release, SANKOFA was inspired by her PhD research (more on that later).

Chibundu lets us in on the writers that have had a great impact on her, the important elements of good writing, and her views on social media cancel culture (especially after that fiery Chimamanda Ngozi essay).

How long have you been writing? (When and how did it all start for you)

I started my first novel when I was ten. It was set in America and the protagonists were three white American children who travelled back in time to meet indigenous Americans. I think I was very heavily influenced by Disney’s Pocahontas. My mother advised me to write about things closer to home. It took me a few years to take that advice and start setting my fiction in Nigeria. I had to overcome the idea that stories about things I knew were somehow less interesting.

At which point do you think someone can call themselves a writer?

Call yourself a writer. Don’t call yourself a writer. Just make sure you’re actually doing the writing.

In your view, is there really a difference between a writer and an author?

None really. I just think author sounds a little fancier than writer. In my mind, authors are rich people who write leisurely in large studies that face an ocean view. On the other hand, I think the term writer conjures up a hustler figure, who’s always on the lookout for the next writing gig.

What are the most important elements of good writing?

It starts at the sentence level for me. A well written sentence is compelling in its own right. Does the sentence make a picture in my mind? Does it read smoothly? Does it draw me into a character’s mind, their thought process, their point of view?

Chibundu Onuzo. Image: Instagram

Tell us about your latest offering, SANKOFA. (What inspired the idea for the book, the significance of the title, the process and how long it took to write it)

SANKOFA took about four years to write and it was inspired by my PhD research on the West African Student’s Union, a group based in London from 1925 to 1970. Many of its members went on to become prominent leaders in post-colonial West Africa and I was very interested by their lives as students. Anna, the protagonist of SANKOFA, has a father who came to England from West Africa as a student, got involved in student politics, had a relationship with her white mother, and then returned home. It’s only when Anna is forty-eight that she finally discovers what became of her father after he left England. I drew heavily on my research to inform the character of Kofi, Anna’s father.

All three of your books, have absolutely stunning covers. How involved were you with each cover and who is the artists/illustrator behind SANKOFA?

For THE SPIDER KING’S DAUGHTER, I didn’t alter much. I had the chance to but I was happy with what was proposed. For WELCOME TO LAGOS, I was quite involved. I knew I wanted to depict the traffic of Lagos and I knew that animation would be an exciting way to do it. However, the artist, Bill Bragg went above and beyond with that cover. The mythological Sankofa bird is a recognisable motif, so it was a good starting point when we started thinking about cover options. I loved how the cover designer, Sophie Harris, took this motif and turned it into something stunning.

'Giving a book a soundtrack is a novel idea if you permit the pun' reads one YouTube. Please share how the concept for ’Good Soil’ came about, and who did the styling, because you are serving seriously hot lewks in this video?

My friend suggested I release a song along with the novel. I didn’t think I would have enough time to do it but then the pandemic struck and suddenly, everybody had time. I call ‘Good Soil’ the book soundtrack for SANKOFA. Through the song, I want to explore the themes of ancestry and identity I write about in the book.

As for the looks in the video, completely and totally styled by myself. Where was I going to find money for a stylist? I’m wearing mostly Nigerian designers that I’ve had in my wardrobe for years. So Imad Eduso, Fashpa, Urez Kulture and Zeala Couture.

Which writers/authors have had an influence on you as a writer?

Sefi Atta without a shadow of a doubt. Her first novel, ‘Everything Good Will Come,’ has been very important for my writing. Nobody writes the Lagos experience quite like Sefi. Then Toni Morrison and in particular Song of Solomon and Maryse Condé’s Segu. I’m still hoping to write a multi-generational novel like Segu one day.

I am sure you read Chimamanda Adichie's recent essay 'It is Obscene... 'rendered in scorched-earth language' as one critic eloquently put it. Without going into the explosive fallout between Adichie and fellow Nigerian writer Akwaeki Emezi, what are your views and thoughts on social media cancel culture?

I think Jesus said it best on cancel culture, “He without sin cast the first stone.” I think we all just need to give others and ourselves a little more grace.

You are a classically trained pianist. I love your rendition of South African worship band We Will Worship's 'Like Oil.' Any South African musician, band or vocalists are you listening to right now?

I love Zahara. I discovered her music on my first trip to South Africa in 2013 and I’ve listened to all her albums. I also love the greats like Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie.

Watch the video for 'Good Soil' here:

'Good Soil' is available on Spotify and iTunes.

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