It's quite rare for me to conduct interviews with authors whilst sitting in front of a piano, but that's exactly what happened recently when Chibundu Onuzo came to the NYLON office to talk about her new novel, Welcome to Lagos. Ostensibly, the piano was there so Onuzo could teach me how to play while we chatted. And while we did wind up playing a brief rendition of "Heart and Soul" together, the real draw of having the piano there was in having Onuzo play and sing on her own—which she did beautifully, with a sublime rendition of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears."
But before the music, the London-based and Nigerian-born Onuzo and I spoke about the novel—her second, though the first to be published in the U.S.—which, as I wrote in a review earlier this month, "follows the stories of Chike, an officer in the Nigerian army who deserts his post rather than kill innocent civilians; Yemi, who served under Chike in the army and also wants to leave; Fineboy, who has been fighting with a rebel group but wants out of that; Isoken, a teenager who fears for her safety if she stays at home; and Oma, who has been suffering under the hand of an abusive husband. Together, this group heads toward Lagos, uncertain of what they will find, only certain that they must keep moving forward."
Onuzo tells me that the inspiration for the novel came from an unlikely place: "It started off with a dream actually, I dreamt about two soldiers who disobeyed an order and decided to run away." What resulted from that dream is a rich tapestry of narratives, one which doesn't try to encompass all of life in Nigeria, but rather, concentrates on specific, intimate portraits of individuals and the myriad types of lives they lead.
Though born in Lagos, Onuzo didn't always write about her home. She tells me that when she first started writing as a young child, "All my novels were set in America, actually; my first novel was set in an America town with white American children as my protagonists." Onuzo explains that she and her friends didn't think there was that much of interest to write about Nigeria, saying, "We felt the world was happening somewhere else. There were things happening at home, but I missed it."
However, Onuzo's mother helped redirect her daughter's focus: "Why don't you write about what you know?"
The result of that is a stunning, profound novel which will stay with you long after you turn its final page, resonating inside of you like the last note of a soulful song.
Watch my conversation with Onuzo in the video, above, and enjoy her gorgeous rendition of "Tracks of My Tears."
Welcome to Lagos is available for purchase here.
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