Chibundu Onuzo: ‘I love Lagos, but it is not a place you can romanticise’

The young Nigerian novelist on her birthplace, Christianity and her love of the Paris Review

Chibundu Onuzo was born in Nigeria in 1991 and is currently studying for a PhD at Kings College London. Her first novel was 2012’s The Spider King’s Daughter, which she began writing aged 17. Her follow-up is the powerful Welcome to Lagos.

How did it feel having your first novel published aged 21?
There’s an Igbo proverb: “Whenever a person wakes up is his own morning.” It was a brilliant, miraculous experience – but also really overwhelming​, which meant m​y second book​, Welcome to Lagos, was difficult to write. In my first novel there are only two main characters ​but ​this time I decided I wanted to write an ensemble novel but didn’t know how, so I went through lots of drafts trying out viewpoints – I think the beauty of it is working it out yourself.

What was the inspiration behind your second novel?
I was going to write a novel about a teenager moving to England, which would have been incredibly autobiographical because I moved to England aged 14 – but I wouldn’t have been able to write it with detachment and humour. I do want to write about that one day. Then I had a dream about two soldiers. The impetus, the seed of the idea was that dream. I’d also just read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and I really liked the ensemble cast.

In the acknowledgments you thank “Lagos, city of my birth, my dreams, my frustrations, my imagination”…
I started writing in primary school but Lagos wasn’t a place where I set my fiction until I moved to England. When I went to Lagos to visit I began to question things and not just passively move through the city. I began to wonder a lot more. In Americanah [by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie] there’s this idea that life is happening outside and then you get into the great outside and realise that life was happening in Lagos. I really love Lagos. At the same time, it is not a place you can romanticise – even from afar.

Tell me about your research process...
What happens in the book is a version of a real event – the Odi massacre​ in 1999​. Interviews were very important to get the range of perspectives, from a woman who works for a charity with former militants in the Niger Delta to someone who’d interacted with politicians. I visit Lagos a lot – my parents and brother live there. I refresh my sense of Lagos as often as possible.

You powerfully explore faith in this novel…
Christianity is a big part of my life. One of my favourite CS Lewis books is Surprised By Joy. In my first year of university I was exploring and questioning my faith, and I wanted to capture that rumination in this novel. Faith isn’t often explored in literary fiction from the inside although Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Gilead are brilliant.

How did you become interested in the theme of social divides?
I knew from a young age about injustice and was aware of that aspect of Nigeria. There’s a baseline of opportunity that is not there for so many people. We went to a church where we had friends from across the social spectrum and we would go to each other’s houses and see that not everyone lived as ​we did. When we go back to the village where my father is from, I can see where he springs from – the roads are still not tarred, there isn’t good access to healthcare and running water. They started off in a hut and that hut is still in the family compound – so there’s no need for any airs and graces.

Tell me about your literary influences.
My dad was the oral storyteller and my mum bought us the books she read as a child, as she had a very colonial education – David Copperfield and Rebecca and Little Women. During the school lunch break, I felt transported to 19th-century England. I really feel that the Paris Review was like my creative writing master. It gave so much good advice – some of my favourites are Toni Morrison’s and John Steinbeck’s interviews. I went through a phase where I would read one interview a day. I felt mentored by all these writers.

Are you still a voracious reader?
Yes. I’ve just started The Goldfinch​ by Donna Tartt. Libraries are so miraculous. It’s really sad that they’re closing libraries; it’s cutting off people’s opportunities. I know what it is to come from a culture where books are a luxury. In the library I was a member of in Nigeria you could only borrow one book at a time. Here, I discovered you could borrow 10 books at a time – riches! Wealth beyond measure! Books are expensive in Nigeria. So reading is an expensive habit. I became aware at an early age of the power of books.

• Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Anita Sethi

The GuardianTramp

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