‘…I always wanted to read a book that had people like me in it – mixed-race, middle-class’
Nigerian-British writer Nikki May is in Nigeria to promote her maiden novel WAHALA. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, May reflects on her own life and that of four fictional, mixed-race women in British society, how they joggle their dual nationalities and identities and the complexities that come into the mix
The first terrible vibe is that the story recalls the Danish man who murdered his wife and daughter in Lagos in cold blood. Although the dead got justice here, in slow Nigeria judicial system, Ronke does not get justice for losing both father and fiancé to Isobel and her dad in Britain. What does it say about the British justice system?
I guess I was trying to show that wealth can sometimes be a ‘get out of jail free card’ wherever you are – Britain, Nigeria or pretty much anywhere. Ronke doesn’t get justice for her father in Lagos or for her boyfriend in London. Some people (thankfully not too many) have obscene amounts of money and influence and this allows them to flout the laws the rest of us have to abide by. WAHALA is fiction, but you only have to open a newspaper to see it happening, it’s a global problem; no country is exempt.
You chose to write about what might be called ‘exotic’ specie of women, according to Neil, children born to Nigerian men and English women. At what point did you so decide on them as subject? What was the motivation?
I always wanted to read a book that had people like me in it – I’m mixed-race and middle-class, so for me it was a natural choice to put characters like me on the page. It didn’t cross my mind once to do anything different. I wanted to read about characters whose lives include egusi soup, aso ebi and hair weaves in the same breath as roast dinners, ski holidays and winter coats. However, I always knew it would touch on issues because it’s impossible to be mixed-race woman and not bump into race, colourism or fetishization. Neil is a classic example – dehumanising Boo by referring to her as exotic. Often it’s a food term – caramel, honey, chocolate. I didn’t set out to solve these issues, just to show how the reality of being mixed. This is my lived experience; I’m often accused of being too black or too white, unless of course I’m being accused of being not black enough or not white enough.
Of course, fiction about ‘black and white’ in love is not new. But is there something unique, something special about these people in British society? Or does their presence generate some sort of tension?
Mixed-race Britons are the UK’s fastest-growing minority group. According to some forecasts, by the end of the century, one in three of Britain’s population will be mixed. We are literally the future! I don’t think there is anything unique about us at all, melanin does not affect personality. But of course there is tension – to most white people we are black; to some black people we are guilty of exploiting our proximity to whiteness.
One of your characters wondered what their British mothers were thinking when they agreed to pair up with Nigerian men. Is British society still unforgiving about such liaison even now? Would you say acceptance is taking long to come?
I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this question – I think some people will always object. But I’m an eternal optimist and I do think things are getting better. I was born in 1965, so I’m one of the older generation of Anglo-Nigerians; we were a rarity. My British grandparents wanted nothing to do with me. I didn’t miss them – you can’t miss what you don’t know and I had wonderful Nigerian grandparents who loved me and more than compensated for any loss.
One would have thought that by now, places like Buka, Obalende Suya and the likes would have made Nigerian culture a lot more acceptable to British society, but that seems not the case. Or is it?
In the UK, Nigerian food is still ‘exotic’ (to steal a word from Neil!). Outside of London, you will struggle to find an African restaurant, talk less of a Nigerian one. Yet you will find Chinese and Indian restaurants on every single high street, even in the smallest and most remote English village. I sincerely hope WAHALA plays a part in changing this. Nigerian culture is wonderful and should be celebrated on the world stage. Naija jollof is the best; we win the jollof war hands down and we certainly don’t need Jamie Oliver’s input. How dare he suggest we add coriander and parsley!
What was your writing process and what challenges did you face?
Writing a book is hard! Writing from three women’s alternating points of view makes it even harder. I had to get to know my characters inside and out – it took time and a lot of planning, my excel spreadsheet was legendary. Writing is a lonely pursuit and self-doubt is the author’s constant companion. It takes a lot of perseverance and commitment. Luckily, I loved my characters, so when I thought of giving up, they appeared in my dreams and wouldn’t let me go. I had no choice but to tell their story.
The last bit when Ronke pulls open the door and steps into downtown Lagos almost had me fooled. Buka is Lagos in London! That’s some apt writing, transporting readers effortlessly between Lagos and London. Nostalgia ripples through the novel. Was it hard, writing like that?
Thank you! Without sounding big-headed, I have to say that bit was easy! I was writing from my lived experience. Every month, the Naija girls, my tight knit group of Anglo-Nigerians friends living in England, meet for a very long and loud lunch in a Nigerian restaurant in London. The first scene in my book was written on the journey home after one of those lunches.
And your grasp about food is amazing, from Nigeria to English or continental dishes. Are you a cook?
No! I’m not a cook – but I love cooking and I love eating. My paternal grandmother taught me to love pepper. She made the best obe ata dindin in the world, all it needed was fresh Agege bread to dip in it. My Dad lives in a small village near Sagamu; he’s never approved of street food but he makes an exception when I visit. We go to my favourite buka in Sagamu for ayamase stew and ofada rice. We eat it under the canopy in his garden. That’s what I will be doing this weekend (when I arrive Nigeria) and I can’t wait!
What exactly does this book mean to you? And is there a way you want readers to see it?
I’m very proud of WAHALA. I set out to write an entertaining, contemporary novel which puts successful Anglo-Nigerian women front and centre and I think I’ve succeeded! At its heart, WAHALA is a story about identity and belonging, so I hope it makes people think about what it means to straddle two cultures. I want readers to enjoy it – my goal was to write a book that was fun. If it makes them laugh and gasp, that will be perfect. If it makes them hungry, even better!
Little Sofia brags about having three cultures, her mum two and sad that her dad has just one. It’s something you also celebrate in the book, didn’t you? But is such celebration as real as it’s fictional in British society?
Being mixed-race is complicated. Sometimes my sense of belonging is concrete, other times it’s elusive. And I’m used to people telling me what they think I am, rather than asking how I identify. It doesn’t really matter what other people think; I will always celebrate both my cultures, as far as I am concerned, two homes is twice the joy.
Isobel is the ultimate manipulative woman who comes to rip the lives of three women apart, so they are unhappy like her. She looks more real than fictional. Is she someone you know, knew or encountered?
Abeg o! I don’t know any Isobel! But she was such good fun to write – flawed characters are so much more interesting than perfect ones. And so much more dramatic! There are people in this world who are obscenely rich, overwhelmingly privileged and obnoxiously entitled. I have met some of them. Add psychopath to that mix and you get Isobel, the master manipulator who knows how to tell people what they want to hear and how to ruin their lives.
You’re among a crop of London-based Nigerian women writing great fiction – Chibundu Onuzo, Ayobami Adebayo, Abe Dare, etc., – and exploring subjects rooted at home, Naija life. How have you managed to hold on to your roots in your writing? Is Lagos your root? Do you visit often?
I was raised in Lagos, it will always be home. I visit every couple of years – this weekend I’ll be celebrating my father’s eighty-eighth birthday, wearing aso ebi and eating small chops. But even when I’m away, freezing in a British winter, Lagos is in my heart. And when it comes to football, I will always be supporting the Super Eagles (please, let’s not talk about World Cup 2022!).
Your title is curious, WAHALA. Why did you choose it? What was the reception in the UK after its release? Is Nigerian pidgin gaining wide acceptance in Britain?
WAHALA was the natural and only title from day one. I was worried that my publishers would want to change it and overjoyed that both my UK and US publishers kept the title. The BBC are adapting my book into a six-part major TV series and yes, it will be called WAHALA. If Indian words like doolally can find their way into English, then there shouldn’t be a problem with the word wahala. And if people don’t know what it means, well, google is their friend!
The lives of Boo, Ronke and Simi were almost perfect until Isobel showed up. And then Boo yearned for the unattainable and got her fingers burnt, and it’s at the heart of WAHALA. What does that say about the human condition?
The heart wants what the heart wants! I sometimes think human beings can only recognise happiness in a rear view mirror, and by then, it’s often too late.