LIKE many 21-year-olds, Chibundu
Onuzo is basking in the satisfaction of having recently completed
her university finals. Although she is yet to receive her results,
she is turning over ideas about her future, and some of the big
decisions are still up in the air. "It's something I have to pray
about, to ask, 'What does God want for my life?'" she
She has a head start on her fellow
students, however: she has already published one novel, and is
working on her second. Since The Spider King's Daughter
came out, a couple of months ago, her time has been divided between
the demands of studying for her history degree at King's College,
London, and promoting her book. And, while her tutors have been
kind, "They haven't cut me any slack," she says. "There have been
no extensions on my essay deadlines."
When they offered her a two-book deal,
at 18 years of age, Onuzo became the youngest woman ever to be
signed up by Faber & Faber. She appears remarkably unfazed by
this, and points out that her fellow Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi
was published at much the same age.
Onuzo began writing as a child. She
completed her first novel, set in the United States, at the age of
ten. "My mum said: 'Why don't you write about what you know?' But
at 11, 12, 13, Nigeria didn't seem very interesting."
But moving to the UK as a teenager to
attend boarding school (St Swithun's, in Winchester, something of a
family tradition) changed all that. "I wasn't at home; so home
became interesting," she says. "I started setting my fiction in
There was an early draft of The
Spider King's Daughter when she was 15 or 16 years old, but
the serious work began while she was studying for A levels. "I
wrote a paragraph, and I had a title, and then I left it on my
laptop for a year," she says. After her AS levels, "I went back to
it, and wrote from there."
SHE picked an agent out of the
Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, and sent the first 33
pages. "I thought, if this agent doesn't like it, I'll stop writing
it. But Capel & Land wrote back and said: 'Can we have the rest
of the novel?' - this novel, which didn't exist! That encouraged me
to finish it."
Completing the book meant writing
through the night while at school. "My reports started saying
'Chibs has gone off the boil, and not handed in her prep.' No one
knew what I was doing." It took another six months of editing
before the agent thought her book was ready to sell, but, within
two weeks of putting it on the market, there were three publishers
in the bidding.
The Spider King's Daughter
tells the story of two young people who meet in Lagos.
Seventeen-year-old Abike Johnson is the favourite child of her
highly successful but brutal father. She lives in a huge mansion in
Lagos, surrounded by armed guards, and is driven to and from school
by a driver in a huge black jeep.
One day, she buys ice cream from a
hawker, who lives in the city's slums with his mother and sister.
Told in alternating voices, from their different perspectives, the
novel charts their unlikely friendship, which evolves from its
tentative roots into something more intense and complex, as a
previously hidden connection between the pair emerges. The tension
builds towards a dramatic conclusion.
THE picture that Onuzo creates of
contemporary life in Lagos is one of a society acutely divided, in
terms of wealth and opportunity, and riven by corruption -
something she has seen first-hand in Nigeria. "The extreme wealth
of Abike's family is not my background, although I went to private
"You can shut yourself off a bit, but
the church we went to has people of all social classes. My father
is from eastern Nigeria, and traditionally you go back to your
village; so we have seen subsistence living.
"The idea came to me when I was maybe
12, and there was a competition and I wrote an essay about child
labour. I interviewed a girl hawker. It struck me even then that,
as she looked into the future, this was the only life that she saw
The hawker in her book is never named
- he is just "the hawker" - which is, of course, a metaphor for his
powerlessness. "In Nigeria, you have very luxurious housing right
next to shacks and slums - it's a mish-mash. You can be insulated
only so much. But Abike realises her life is poorer for her
upbringing. She has never had a guide."
She defends Abike and her behaviour,
which, from the opening page of the book, can be extremely cruel.
"People need to cut her a bit of slack. Anything kind she does has
to be multiplied by ten because of her childhood," she says.
"Abike has, as her background, a
father who has trained her. She doesn't know how to be normal. She
sees things differently. The hawker isn't perfect, but he's easier
for the reader to forgive."
ONUZO grew up in a Christian home, and
has kept her faith, except during her first year at university,
which she admits was "a year of doubts". She says: "I was still
praying and reading the Bible, and going to church. In the end, I
had to make a decision: 'This is what I believe.' You ask yourself,
'How can you not believe?' That is faith."
She attends Jesus House, an
independent church in Brent Cross, where she is an instrumentalist
in the band. The week we met, her father, a medical doctor like her
mother, had come from Nigeria to preach at the church. She is the
youngest of four children, and is close to her two sisters and
She came to England, along with the
sister closest to her in age, to study for her GCSEs, and it took a
great deal of adjustment. "My sister and I were two of only three
black people in the school. I didn't like it for the first two
years, but, eventually, I got used to it, and made some real
She regards her writing as a God-given
gift. "I believe God puts gifts in all of us. But that doesn't mean
you don't have to work at it, or that you emerge fully formed. But
if something is your gift, it is easier to work at it. It's easier
for me to work at writing than at maths. When I feel discouraged
about my writing, I pray about it. And, because it is my gift, I
know it will work, no matter how long it takes."
Writing her second novel is proving a
little easier than the first, "because at least I know I've done it
before". She still writes through the night, and says that fitting
it in around her studies has worked, because a history degree has
fewer contact hours than many courses, and allowed some flexibility
in her timetable.
SHE is uncertain what the future
holds. "I do want to write more books, but I also want to do other
stuff. I may move to Nigeria, and move into development, or
politics. As a Christian, living in a country such as Nigeria and
seeing everything going downhill, you feel 'This has to stop.'
"The thing is, in Nigeria, the money
and resources are there. It's not about having grand designs, but
about the money that is meant for schools actually going to
schools. It's not about having a big macro-economic plan, but about
doing the right thing. That's how I feel. It's about finding any
way to stem the flow."
She admits that the situation gets her
down each time she returns to Nigeria. "Then you soon realise being
depressed is not going to help. For now, you pray. You pray God
will use you to answer your prayers. And you hope God will give you
grace to stand up for what you believe.
"But to go into politics, you need
personal courage. Just when things are getting better, you hear
that someone has been assassinated. My friends say: 'Why not start
a charity, or an NGO?' But there's only so much you can do from
outside government. As an NGO, you will always be on the
For now, though, there are graduation
to look forward to, literary festivals to attend, and the small
matter of the second novel to complete, before she sets about
changing the world. "If it is what God wants me to do, then he will
give me the courage to do it," she says.
The Spider King's Daughter
by Chibundu Onuzo is published by Faber & Faber at £12.99
(CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-0-571-26889-4.