Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread (Arsenal Pulp, Dec.) explores a cursed mother’s complicated relationship with her daughters, as well as the lives of queer Nigerians.
What was the inspiration for Kambirinachi, an O. gbanje who resists the curse befallen to her as a child to repeatedly die and be reborn, in order to have children of her own?
I was thinking of absent mothers, and mothers who do their best but their children don’t recognize it. The O. gbanje part is inspired by Wole Soyinka’s poem “Abiku” [about an analogous Yoruba belief]. In European culture, if the mother doesn’t feel connected to the baby, they say the baby is a changeling. In Nigerian culture, we think such a child is a witch. Maybe the child has behavioral issues, I don’t know. I wanted to play with that.
Tell me about the role food plays in the novel.
While I was growing up, food was how my family showed affection. My grandmother doesn’t say “I love you.” She says, “Have you eaten?” My aunty in New York with whom I lived for a while, who was also very strict, she didn’t want to say “I love you, I am thinking of you.” She’d say, “I made shrimp jollof rice, come and eat.” I wanted to include that with all the silence between [Kambirinachi’s daughters, Taiye and Kehinde], and between Kehinde and her mother.
Nigeria criminalized same-sex relationships in 2014. Why was it important for you to write a book that makes space for queer people in Nigeria?
A lot of what has been written has been set in the diaspora. I do go home often, and every time I see queer people living their lives. We all know queer people, and I wanted to point it out. There are so many obviously queer Nigerians on social media and TV, but they never speak about it; they can’t talk about their loves, can’t talk about their experiences, can’t talk about dating, sex even. I wanted to write it because I know it’s real.
Taiye is accepting of her queer identity but she is a churchgoer. There’s never any tension between her spirituality and her queer identity.
A lot of literature and movies seem to focus on characters trying to reconcile their queerness with their faith or trying to come out. The idea of coming out as a grand gesture does not happen in Nigerian culture, the way my North American friends do it. I wanted Taiye’s main struggle to not be her queerness. It has more to do with her boundary issues and her trauma. On the flip side, it was important to show the struggle for a lot of Nigerian queers who have a spiritual leaning. My faith is very important to me and I am queer, and that’s just a fact. There are people in my life whom I love dearly and my queerness causes so much tension. I wanted to show both sides: where it could be a big deal and then this character who doesn’t need to do any reconciling.