Chibundu Onuzo, SANKOFA

Chibundu Onuzo, SANKOFA

Chibundu Onuzo, author of the Resse’s and Amazon Editor’s Book Pick Sankofa, joins Zibby to discuss her recent six-year journey to publication. Following a book deal at age nineteen and the release of her acclaimed debut, The Spider King’s Daughter, at twenty-one, Chibundu pivoted to complete her Masters and PhD degrees— a move that inadvertently inspired her latest novel. Chibundu tells Zibby about that process, what inspired her to tell the story from the perspective of a woman twenty years her senior, and why she’s determined to eventually write a children’s book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chibundu. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Sankofa.

Chibundu Onuzo: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Congratulations on being a Reese’s Book pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick and everything, book review, oh, my gosh.

Chibundu: Thank you.

Zibby: You’ve had so much success. Were you prepared for that? Has it been a whirlwind or what?

Chibundu: I was prepared for some of it, but definitely not all of it. We knew about the Reese pick before. We knew about Amazon as well, but I didn’t know to what extent, Amazon. I was very excited to see a billboard. I have never had a billboard in my nine years of being a published writer. Yes, that was definitely a career milestone.

Zibby: Wow, that’s just amazing. I love it. Can you please tell listeners who might not know what your book is about a little bit about it? Sorry to make you do this elevator pitch, but I do think it’s useful if people are out and about listening today and don’t know what Sankofa‘s about.

Chibundu: Sankofa is a novel about Anna Graham. She’s forty-eight. Her mother has just died. Her marriage is falling apart. Her life is sort of adrift when she discovers a diary when she’s going through her mother’s things. It’s a diary written by the father she’s never met. Then she sets off on this discovery to find out who her father, Francis Aggrey, is/was. Once you read the book, you realize that the man in the diary and her father in real life may not necessarily be the same people anymore.

Zibby: Don’t give anything away.

Chibundu: Okay, I won’t, I won’t.

Zibby: That’s part of the fun. You get to discover along with the protagonist, what’s going on. Who is her father? How did he even meet her mom? How did he feel about it? The whole thing. I feel like we got to snoop. It’s the best feeling, being able to read someone else’s diary and learn about it. Plus, the diary is not just of her potential dad’s musings. It’s a lot of political and timely historical commentary because what he was doing was really interesting in and of its own right. I loved how you blended all of that with just his flatmate and what’s going on and all of that.

Chibundu: Thank you.

Zibby: Was the diary piece of it always part — was the germ of the idea for you?

Chibundu: The germ of the idea was the research I did. I have a PhD. I did it on a group called the West African Students’ Union, which had West African students in the ’20s, 1930s, 1940s in London. I actually read a lot of their first-person accounts of this period. That’s why I knew that I was definitely going to have a diary. I was very interested in the lives of these men. It was mostly men who went on to be these great political figures. I was very interested in this time in their lives before they became the famous men that we all knew. That was the germ of the idea.

Zibby: Very interesting. As I said, I also really liked seeing the development of the relationship with her mom and living that in real time. You have this one passage. Can I read from the diary?

Chibundu: Mm-hmm.

Zibby: This is Francis speaking. “What kind of love is this for a girl, never to be seen walking out with her man, to be sneaking to my room at night like ours is a transaction? Yet I lie in bed each night waiting for the sound of the door opening. I go through my lectures in a daze. I no longer visit Thomas,” his friend. “I saw my results and was neither pleased nor displeased by them. It is only Bronwyn I think of.” Then you go on to say — this is now the narrator. “Feverish as his tone was, Francis Aggrey’s affair with my mother was not a grand passion. If he wanted to stay in touch, he could simply have written a letter. He had rejected my mother. There was nothing to suggest he would not reject me tomorrow.” Dot, dot, dot… I loved that. It’s always such a crazy thing to think about your parents in their own relationship. It’s so uncomfortable and bizarre. It’s like she has to go through all of that cringeworthy stuff to get her own relationship formed. Tell me a little bit about developing the characters for this book and how you decided on who going to be who and how you crafted the plot and all the good, juicy stuff.

Chibundu: The first big decision I had to make was, who would actually be the main narrator in the story? Would Anna be the main narrator or would Francis? I chose Anna to be the narrator instead of her father, eventually, because I felt like you have a lot of first-person narratives of these great men. You don’t have as many as I would like, but you still have, for example, the autobiography of still. You still have memoirs. You still have . That’s another independence leader. You have their memoirs. Whereas their children and their families and all the other people that supported these great men, the so-called supporting cast, you don’t hear from them enough. I decided that Anna would tell the story. That was the first thing. Who’s going to be my main narrator? Then the next thing was — I was so much younger than Anna when I started out, in my mid-twenties. Anna is forty-eight. I thought, gosh, she’s so much older than I am. Her concerns are so different from mine.

Zibby: Just be careful, I’m forty-five years old. Don’t say anything too mean about women in their forties.

Chibundu: Tell me if I’m wrong. At twenty-four, what was my main concern? My skincare and making sure my Instagram was color-coordinated. I’m pretty sure that by the time I reach my forties, my priorities will have — hopefully, they would have changed.

Zibby: I don’t know. I’m still pretty concerned with my Instagram and my skincare.

Chibundu: Are you telling me it doesn’t get better? Are you telling me I’m still going to be obsessing about my picture size and the filters?

Zibby: I don’t know if that goes away.

Chibundu: I did feel I had to search out the voices of women in their forties. Maybe things have changed a little now. I started the novel maybe six years ago. I just felt magazine covers, it’s mostly women in their teens, their twenties, maybe their thirties, on television, in the TV series you watch. I felt that there’s a sort of an erasure just slowly pushing older women out of this “mainstream.” I listened to a lot of podcasts, actually, which is why it’s nice to come your podcast. I feel like that’s one thing the podcast space has done. Even if a radio show, a TV show, whoever, isn’t going to give you a platform, then you just make your own platform. I listened to a lot of podcasts, actually, one of them in particular, “Woman’s Hour.” It happens every weekday in the UK. It’s a really good program. They bring on women of all ages. You don’t have to be exceptional. You don’t have to be Dame Judi Dench or Helen Mirren or an Oscar winner to be a woman in their fifties or sixties given a platform on the show. You can just be an ordinary woman and have your time.

Zibby: Interesting. Podcasts as background character research, I like it. That is awesome. You wrote your first book and got a publishing deal when you were twenty-one. Is that right? That’s what I read. I was like, that can’t be right.

Chibundu: I got my deal when I was nineteen, actually.

Zibby: Nineteen? It came out when you were twenty-one?

Chibundu: Yes, it came out when I was twenty-one years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that is wild. I don’t even know what to ask about that other than, that must have been insane and amazing.

Chibundu: Yeah, I don’t think I knew how to enjoy it. Now from my grand old age of thirty, I could say that youth is wasted on the young. I just remember feeling very overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to enjoy it. I was always, am I going to make a mistake? Especially when I would go on things like this, when I’d have interviews, I’d always feel not smart enough and not eloquent enough and not clued up, and especially, especially if it was a panel interview. You’d have other people. I’d just be comparing myself to everybody else. I wouldn’t go back to my twenties for anything, for anything. They were so fraught with always thinking, how am I appearing? How am I looking? Can’t you just enjoy life?

Zibby: It’s exhausting. I agree. Wow. People assume that when you had all this success, you feel great. People would never think that — look at this woman. Look at all she’s achieved. She’s the one inside feeling like she’s not as good as these other people when so many people want to be you in that scenario. It’s really nice to hear you being open about all of that. There was this really popular book a long time ago, I don’t know if you read it, The Devil Wears Prada. It became a movie.

Chibundu: Yes, yes.

Zibby: You know. I interviewed Lauren Weisberger about it. That was a long time ago. She was very, very young. It became a huge hit and a movie and this whole big thing. She didn’t know what to expect. It’s a very similar story. I should connect you, unexpectedly. She was like, I didn’t know. Now she’s writing. She’s closer to my age, around there. In her twenties, she’s like, I had all this success. It just fell in my lap. I didn’t know how to appreciate that it was — you know that logically, but — I’m not saying this very well.

Chibundu: You are. Instead of appreciating it, you just worry. We spend all this time worrying. Now with Sankofa, having learned that lesson, I can sort of enjoy everything. I’m like, you know, this is fun. Don’t take it too seriously. Just enjoy it.

Zibby: Despite getting your novel published at twenty-one, you go on to get a master’s and PhD anyway. You’re like, I’m still on this path. Did you ever consider just going off and being a writer at that point? Were you always determined to get a PhD?

Chibundu: There was no money. What are you talking about? Who makes money from their first novel unless you write The Devil Wears Prada? No. It’s so interesting. With The Spider King’s Daughter, it was a great news story, so I got a lot of news features. I was on CNN. I was on BBC. I guess people just assume once they see you in the press that you’re now rolling in cash. It’s like, no, I cannot and say, here’s my CNN feature. Please, can I have some groceries? It doesn’t work like that. You need cash. It was great having all the press and the attention. They sold well. They earned , but that’s still well below minimum wage. My plan was to — it wasn’t really my plan. It was a suggested plan. It was a plan suggested to me by all the well-meaning adults in my life, which was, do a master’s. Do a PhD. Then you can lecture at a university. Then that will be a stable job. Then you can write in the evenings. Yes, I did the master’s. Then I did a PhD. Then I lectured for a year at a university. Then I was like, I don’t want to do this. I’ve wasted my twenties. Now I’m a full-time writer, so there we go. We ended up right at the same place, but I think the PhD helped. There would be no Sankofa without the PhD because, again, all the historical material for Sankofa came from the PhD. Then also, I think just being older, you can pivot better. Now I’ve started writing for television, for example. I’m moving into that space more. Now I can think creatively about writing. Yes, it would be nice to make all my money from my novels, but there’s other writing you can do that is also creative to make money.

Zibby: Interesting. I would think getting a PhD would not necessarily be the biggest money-maker either after spending an extra five years at school or something like that.

Chibundu: Who was advising me? Zibby, who?

Zibby: Who were these terrible people?

Chibundu: I should’ve gone to work in a bank.

Zibby: I was going to say, there are ways. That’s really funny. I was advised to go to business school even though I wanted to be a writer too, but who’s going to just be a writer? Also, you need all this experience. I interned at this magazine when I was in college still, at Vanity Fair. My job was to file the contracts for all these big-deal authors. I was like, but I want to be the big-deal author. I don’t want to be filing the contracts. I looked around. I was like, there is no path here to go from the file person to the writer person. I got to get out of the magazine industry and figure out a new way.

Chibundu: It’s true. Especially when you want to do something creative, you have to figure out your own route. There’s no one way. I think that’s what a lot of people find scary. There’s no one way.

Zibby: You might as well get your PhD. Maybe it was good advice because, as you said, you used it all. You made this great book. Who knows? Life is weird.

Chibundu: Now Reese Witherspoon likes my book. No PhD, no Reese Witherspoon.

Zibby: That’s right. Maybe now applications to PhD programs will rise after your trajectory.

Chibundu: This is the path to getting a Reese Book Club Pick. Do four years of a PhD. Write a book about it. Then there you go. Finished.

Zibby: There you go. Amazing. Watch out, PhD admissions officers. You will be flooded very soon.

Chibundu: a MasterClass. That can be another money spinner.

Zibby: True. I taught a class the other night. I was like, this is the most fun I’ve ever had. People are listening to me, and they paid me for this class. I can’t believe it. I’m used to doing all these Zooms. It would never occur to me. I do Zooms night and day. It was the coolest thing. I highly recommend it. I’m like, I think I just want to be a teacher. Anyway, so what’s coming next for you? TV writing? Another novel? What are you doing in your day-to-day life now?

Chibundu: I want to make more music. I released a single to go along with Sankofa called “Good Soil.” I really enjoyed doing that, actually, so I’m going to make more music. I’m definitely going to release another single this year. By God’s grace, at least another one this year. Then I don’t know. We’ll see what next happens with the music. TV writing, yes. TV writing is another — I almost feel like I’m learning a new job, a new job that has a lot of rejection. If anyone thinks writing novels, you get rejected, just come into television. If you feel like you haven’t had enough rejection in your life, come and write for TV. Then what else? I am working on a children’s novel as well in between stuff for TV. I’m working on children’s books. I have an eleven-year-old niece. She’s not allowed to read my novels. Apparently, they’re too adult for her. She keeps saying, “When are you going to write a book I can read? When are you going to write a book I can read?” Now I’m going to attempt to write a book she can read. The problem is, novels take so long that she might be sixteen or seventeen by the time I finish, in which case she can just read my other novels.

Zibby: There you go. It’s a win-win.

Chibundu: There are other children in the world except my niece.

Zibby: I’ve got some kids. They’ll read it. Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors, aside from, go get your PhD and live a completely untraditional path?

Chibundu: What advice would I have for aspiring authors? Draw closer, listeners, for this. I would tell them, stop asking for advice. You don’t need any advice. You have everything you need. Things that you create, they come from inside you. Then you don’t need anybody external to tell you about what’s inside you. You know best, the novel that’s in you or the song that’s in you or the film, play that’s in you. I’m not saying that you can’t take inspiration from people outside. Advice on how best to bring out the story inside you, you know best for your project. I think generally, most people who do want to be writers or who are writers, you have all the advice you need anyway. There’s nothing new that I’m going to say. Read widely. Start. Writers are people who write. Barriers to entry are low. You don’t even need a laptop. Get a piece of paper. Get a pencil. Get a notebook. Start. I don’t think I have anything particularly profound to say. You don’t need my advice. Just do it.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll just delete this whole section of the interview. Forget it. Goodbye. Chibundu, this has been so much fun. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Congratulations. I’m excited to follow whatever happens next for you. Enjoy it.

Chibundu: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Chibundu: Bye.

Chibundu Onuzo, SANKOFA

SANKOFA by Chibundu Onuzo

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