Spotlight: Meet Chibundu Onuzo

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1991. I went to primary and secondary school in Nigeria and then moved to England when I was 14, completing secondary school and university. I started writing from a young age; I wrote my first novel at the age of 10. I took it very seriously; it was going to be a masterpiece! Growing up in Nigeria, the media was western facing, with a huge fascination with America and England. So, while living in Nigeria, my writing reflected the media I was exposed to. My stories were full of white American or British characters. Funny enough, I only started telling Nigerian stories when I moved to England. It is the irony of life, moving away from home, made me appreciate it.

When did you formally decide on writing as a career?

I had a lot of encouragement for my family, and I now realise how important it is to have somebody older encourage your ideas and ambitions and take steps to help make things happen. My oldest sister, Denise, was very instrumental in that way. Although I started writing stories at a young age, I didn’t know how my stories would go from my computer into a bookshop, like Waterstone’s. My sister bought me a book called “Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook” which is published every year in the UK. It has a list of agents and publishing houses. It walks you through the process of getting published. Knowledge is power, and there was a massive advantage to getting that kind of experience at the age of 14. Once I got the book, I went through the steps, emailed several agents, and so the journey began. I got an agent at the age of 17. Then they submitted me to different publishing houses. I signed my contract with my first publisher at age 19.

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Did you have any formal training?

No. I have always been interested in books. And I’ve ever read a lot. Growing up, I had books at home but, there was never any pressure to write. The environment was there for me to develop this interest. I studied history as my undergraduate degree at King’s College London.

Who did you most admire growing up?

I commend my parents; they took us seriously, but not too seriously. My aunt Mrs. Mobolaji Adenubi (also a writer in Nigeria) was a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors and a member of a female writer’s group. At the age of 10 or 11, she took me to one of their meetings. I was so impressed though I do not remember what was discussed. All I can remember is that from a young age, when I said I wanted to become a writer, no one said, I was too young. I felt it was within my reach. As I get older, I see that many people don’t have that kind of support and encouragement on their journey. I realise how blessed I was as a child.

Is there any particular writer who inspires you today, who you want to emulate?

When I was younger, I read a lot of European books. My mum grew up in colonial Nigeria, so her education was very colonial. So, all the books she read in her childhood were the classics, so those books she bought for us. When I was younger, I read a lot of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, etc. The irony is that I did not read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe until I moved to England. The moment I read the book, I began to explore other Nigerian authors. Then I read Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. I also read Wole Soyinka’s ‘Aké: The Years of Childhood’. Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda are inspiring writers. Sefi Atta is a great hero of mine; she wrote “Everything Good Will Come.” I “fan-girled” her so hard when I met her!!

When were you first published, and were there any challenges you faced?

My first book, “The Spider King’s Daughter,” was published in my final year of university, when I was 21. It’s funny looking back now. Yes, it was a bit of a struggle. I had to juggle speaking engagements, doing press, going on the radio and television while trying to complete my final year and submit my dissertation. I remember trying to get an extension on one of my papers, and I recall my lecturer telling me that unfortunately, extensions only really applied when bad things happen to people, and so a good thing, like being published at age 21, didn’t qualify for an extension! Fortunately, I still l graduated with a first-class degree.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

I love cycling, going to art galleries and museums. I also collect art.

How have you coped with life in lockdown?

It’s funny the texture of my days hasn’t changed that much. I decided to start writing full time in 2019. I just reached the point where I felt like I could get more writing done if I focused solely on writing. Before making that decision, I had always done something else besides writing. For example, doing my undergraduate degree and writing, doing my Ph.D., and writing, lecturing at SOAS, and writing. I realised that if I can focus solely on writing, I would get more out of it. So, in some ways, I was prepared for a solitary life in lockdown, as I was already working from home. However, I have built breaks into my day to ensure I am not at home all the time. I go cycling, on runs and walks. Everybody needs to see friends, so I try to see a friend or two when the situation permits. Asides from that, not much has changed for me.

Tell us about your other books?

I published my second book, “Welcome to Lagos” when I was 25. My third book Sankofa is coming out later this year, in June. I recently moved to a new publisher Virago. I am pleased about that as they publish other female authors I admire, like Maya Angelou.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a career as a writer?

The first thing I would say is to remember that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Writing is a solo career, and It’s hard to gauge your progress. There is no corporate structure of hierarchy to follow. It can sometimes feel like you are being left behind, so my advice would be to stay in your lane and focus on your personal development, what stories you want to tell and where you want to go. I advise that you read a lot and form a loose community, a community of people who enjoy books. They don’t have to be writers. This way, you can show your work to people who will give you intelligent comments and feedback.

How do you manage your savings and investments?

I think I’m reasonably good at saving. At the start of my career, I did not make a lot of money. So, I learned how to make the most of my money and live within my means. What I have had to learn about and what I am still learning is investing. One thing I will say is to read about things before you invest in them. For example, I collect art as an alternate investment. I think the reason I am comfortable with investing some of my money in art is that I read a lot about it. I am trying to get to that comfort level with stocks, shares, and other investment options to confidently invest in them. I am still on the learning journey.

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So, what’s next for Chibundu?

My next book, Sankofa, is coming out in June. I am working towards building a career in television. I have a short film on Netflix called ‘Dolapo is Fine’. I enjoyed making that film, and I am trying to do more in that area.

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