Growing up in Nigeria, Francesca Ekwuyasi was always drawn to writing. But it wasn’t until her teenage years when she finally saw a pathway for herself to actually become a writer.
It was then that she first picked up Sefi Atta’s award-winning novel, Everything Good Will Come, about a young Nigerian woman coming of age in the same Lagos neighbourhood Ekwuyasi grew up in.
“It was really powerful to see, ‘Oh, this is allowed,’” says Ekwuyasi, the author of the acclaimed debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread. “I felt similar reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I was like, ‘Oh, a young girl living in Nigeria in a certain culture and a certain time,’ and that was really validating to see because I always wanted to write.”
At its core a tale of family, food and forgiveness, Butter Honey Pig Bread should serve as a similar inspiration to emerging writers that have struggled to find characters like themselves on the page. The debut novel is about twin sisters Kehinde and Taiye, and their dreamy mother, Kambirinachi, who believes she was born an Ogbanje, a spirit that plagues families with misfortune by dying in childhood. By surviving, Kambirinachi is convinced she has cursed her family, a fear that seems to come to life after Kehinde suffers a trauma that fractures the family in irrevocable ways and estranges the twins from each other. Years later, the three women reconnect, and are forced to reckon with their pasts if they want to move on.
Spanning three generations and three continents, Butter Honey Pig Bread explores the same kind of “diasporic angst” that immigrants like Ekwuyasi often feel.
“Living in a diaspora, I’m so grateful to be in Canada and I feel in many ways like I’ve grown up here, because 23 to 31 [years old] are pretty formative years,” she explains. “However, I feel in many ways like I only live half a life, and then I go home to visit [Nigeria] and realize I only live half a life there. I don’t know how to articulate it properly but it’s a distinct feeling that a lot of immigrants and people who have to or choose to leave the places they were born can feel.”
Forgiveness is an underlying theme throughout, something that has always interested Ekwuyasi in her personal life.
“I’m often thinking about forgiveness, because the truth is we’re flawed,” she says. “We’re just supposed to trust that people love us as we are, because often we’re trying to earn it, which is such a nightmare. So we’re flawed in relationships all the time, whatever that relationship looks like: family, platonic, romantic, professional … I think forgiveness is crucial for the survival of any relationship. I think we need to understand what forgiveness is. I need to understand what forgiveness really is, whether it’s wiping the slate clean or making sure we acknowledge this scar and the need to learn from it.”
What’s clear from this dazzling debut is Ekwuyasi is first and foremost a writer for the senses, whether she is describing the streets of Halifax, her home for the past eight years, the burning passion of a queer romance, or a sumptuous meal shared by loved ones. In fact, food makes frequent appearances throughout the book, often as a lead-in to the immensely difficult conversations the three women at the centre of the story are reluctant to have.
“Giving someone a gift [like food] is a way to open a door or soften the beginning of something that could be hard,” Ekwuyasi says. “I love to eat. For me, it’s one of the more innately human, intuitive and mundane things we can do as an introduction to a conversation. ‘Let’s go grab a bite.’ ‘I made you a sandwich.’”
With her debut novel earning glittering acclaim across North America, including being short-listed for Canada Reads, the Amazon First Novel Award, and the Governor General’s Literary Award, Ekwuyasi says the added attention has been both humbling and “overwhelming, in the best way possible.”
“Along with being wildly, wildly grateful, I’m definitely intimidated,” she says. “I’m nervous now that people will find old things I wrote that suck, or when I want to experiment with different forms, there’s the fear of people now having an idea of what my writing is like and expecting the same. No hiding anymore. But the gratitude definitely outweighs the intimidation.”
Ekwuyasi will be part of the Whistler Writing Society’s virtual reading event and Q&A, A Mighty Balance, on Saturday, July 10, from 6 to 7 p.m. Also featuring Angie Abdou (This One Wild Life), Hassan Al Kontar (Man at the Airport: How Social Media Saved My Life), Bruce Kirkby (Blue Sky Kingdom: A Family Journey to the Heart of the Himalaya), and Nisha Patel (Coconut), tickets are $10, available at whistlerwritersfest.ticketleap.com.