Francesca Ekwuyasi is an incredible storyteller. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, she is currently based in Halifax(K’jipuktuk), where she produces poignant literature and multidisciplinary artwork from within her own universe. Her debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread has received much acclaim for its honest and heartfelt approach to themes of queerness, belonging, faith, family, and femininity. Notably longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize, the novel was a finalist for CBC's 2021 Canada Reads competition, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Governor General's Award, among a host of other recognitions. Moreover, Ekwuyasi goes beyond the literary form to tell stories. One of her film projects, Black + Belonging was screened at the Halifax Black Film Festival in March 2019, as well as the Montreal International Black Film Festival, and the Toronto Black Film Festival in February 2020. As is evident from the title, the film explores what it means to be black while occupying different spaces and places; the difficulty of navigating others’ perceptions of oneself while also discovering what that self is, and how that self might expand or contract according to the space which it occupies.
This theme is also explored in Butter Honey Pig Bread, but is further compounded by notions of queerness and womanhood, which allow us to appreciate the intersectional status that many members of minority groups within our society occupy. Ekwuyasi’s writing is remarkable for her use of sensual language, the manner in which she allows the reader to travel and encounter a range of environments through the characters’ eyes, creating a world so encompassing that one is reluctant to leave it even after the final page is turned.
I was fortunate enough to meet virtually with Francesca to discuss her work. Amidst the technical difficulties and time difference, her soft and cheerful voice was a warm, welcome icebreaker to our discussion.
I’ve been personally and creatively exhausted with the way Black women and Black femmes are done wrong. It’s just disheartening. We are crucial, and so often we exist in creative spaces just to uphold everyone else’s narrative
I’m going to start off by asking, what have you been curious about lately? It can be an idea, a person, a place, a topic; but what have you been thinking about, especially in regards to your art practice?
Francesca: I have been thinking about Spanish moss; I’m writing something right now where the character is going to places where parts of the landscape are taken over by this creature. It’s a particular thing that I imagine is quite prominent in the southern U.S., and southern parts of the Americas, so I’ve been really curious and researching a little bit about that:just the trees and botanical quality of that area in general. I’ve also been doing a lot of gardening, so plants have really been on my mind.
Well, that’s interesting. Speaking of your writing though, when and how did you begin that practice?
Thank you for asking, and also for reading my book! I started writing in 2013. I was home indefinitely and I didn’t really know where I wanted my life to go, or the steps to take in order to make that happen. I’ve always loved to write, and I’d even written one complete short story in the past. Prior to this, I’d also made some character sketches, but I hadn’t completed anything. I returned to my childhood library and began reading a lot, which inspired the decision to write something, and that ended up being the first chapter of Butter Honey Pig Bread.
That’s amazing. So it snowballed into this phenomenon; how does that feel for you?
It feels like a dream come true, because I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always loved stories, arcs, and films, and always wanted to create my own. It took a long time to even be sure what this book was, or that it was in fact a book. It took a long time to complete it. But yes, that’s how it started; 2013, I was reading a lot, and I just had an idea.
Okay. So I’m curious, do you feel that as an African woman, and as an African woman now living in diaspora, that you have a responsibility to reflect your experiences in your writing, with regards to your racial and cultural identity, and even extending to queerness, especially because you do have characters who are similar to you in those ways. Do you make a deliberate effort to ensure that these types of characters are being reflected, because of course, visibility and representation are so important; or is it more that these characters come to you and then you reflect them?
I mean, I try not to react to any sense of responsibility in terms of art, just because there is no valid generalization. There is no universal Nigerian, queer, or diasporic story. I honestly just write what I’m interested in, which is why I’m so grateful and in awe that people are both enjoying and finding resonance with the book. I do think that there is a lot of pressure on non-dominant perspective voices to be universal, and that’s not fair. I say that from a place of privilege. I have read so much because I’ve had access to time and culture and space. My grandparents raised me and my siblings, and they encouraged reading, they encouraged us to create, and I know that’s not true for everyone, or true for every Nigerian. My point is that, although I feel it’s a privilege to have learned enough, read enough, experienced enough to be who I am today, my place is not to tell a universal story or to explain entire identities. I consider this a complete privilege, because there are many brilliant writers who perhaps still feel this responsibility, and take it on. No, I write what I’m interested in, what excites me, what makes me want to read. As a kid I loved reading, and I still do, but I rarely find myself as transported as I did back then; that feeling of complete immersion in a book. In my writing, I’m trying to recreate that experience for myself.
That makes sense.
With regards to queer characters in my stories, I feel that they are crucial because my life has queer chracaters. I believe that stories that center women and femmes, especially Black femmes, are so important. I want to write myself into the story, and write myself as a lead, by which I mean to see myself reflected as a Black woman. There is a quote by Audre Lorde where she says: “If you don’t define yourself, you allow other people to define you.” I’ve been personally and creatively exhausted with the way Black women and Black femmes are done wrong. It’s just disheartening. We are crucial, and so often we exist in creative spaces just to uphold everyone else’s narrative. There’s ‘the Black fat best friend’ trope, or ‘the motherly Black woman who somehow has no life of her own’. Somehow we most often find ourselves being presented as an accessory or a trope. So in my writing, it’s not really a sense of responsibility, but a sense of reclamation. I want to see ‘the messy Black girl’, I want to see ‘the fat Black girl’ who isn’t the comedic relief. I want to see ‘the queer Black woman’ and I want to see ‘the Black woman who is dealing with mental health issues’ and still knows her worth. Because that’s real. I know so many Black women who are completely multifaceted. That’s what we are as human beings. But it seems in fiction, on TV, on reality TV , we are not allowed that. Everyone else gets to be nuanced, and I think a lot of people from historically marginalized groups can say the same thing. Particularly Asian people. If you look at American cinema, or European representations of Asian people, historically it’s been very narrow, very insulting. And so in my writing I want that to not be the case. But without it being a mission, just a desire. I hope that makes sense.
There is no universal Nigerian, queer, or diasporic story. I honestly just write what I’m interested in, which is why I’m so grateful and in awe that people like and are finding resonance with the book.
That was a great answer, actually. So, another question I had was about faith. I watched your film, On Faith and Queerness. I thought it was really beautiful. The editing and the background music made it very intimate, and I like that. But I want to talk about your own relationship with faith and queerness, because I know that a lot of queer people who come from religious backgrounds struggle of course, because of the religious ideologies that surround that. And then also, even translating that into your novel; I thought it was so interesting how Taide had this relationship with ‘Our Lady’ that grounded her in those first few lonely months in Halifax. That bordered on the mystical for me, which links to a follow up question: your novel situates spirituality and religion side-by-side, which is traditionally not the case; most of the time they are treated as very different, especially considering the cultural background in which the novel is set. Were you worried about how people might receive that, and how were you able to navigate those boundaries?
So, with regards to faith and queerness, I was raised catholic in Lagos, Nigeria, and it’s a very religious country. There are churches everywhere. A lot of them are charismatic churches with a focus on wealth and prosperity preaching, and they’re also quite beautiful. Nevertheless, Catholicism for me has always felt more ‘spiritual’, because the doctrine is the same all over the world, and that is comforting. That ability to say a prayer and meditate is something I appreciate as an adult, even though personally and politically I don’t subscribe to the hierarchy of power and wealth behind the institution. Because I don’t believe that’s where God is. When I talk about Catholicism, it’s not from a blindly religious place, it’s more like a culture, and it’s familiarity. But yes, spirituality is really important to me. I think worship is kind of innate;the way human beings are so tuned in to dance and worship. I love to sing at church, but I can’t separate that from my understanding of power in the world right now. So in terms of queerness, I’ve always been interested in how people who have had a faith practice – Christian, Muslim, whatever their faith background has been– reconcile it too. In Catholicism, queerness is not celebrated. In Nigeria, as a country, it’s criminalized. Not just from the city level, but it’s looked at with complete repulsion culturally. And personally, I don’t think it’s innate, I don’t think it’s against people’s culture to be queer, I think it’s actually homophobia and queer phobia that were brought to us by colonization.
I think that in a way, this shows up in my writing, the ways in which these characters navigate these spaces of opposites or opposition, where you can’t be queer and Christian. Even though, in fact, I know many queer Christians. I know many queer Muslims. A lot of what we are told and what we see is very different. You hear, “being gay is so un-Nigerian’”; so who are all these gay Nigerians then?
I grew up at an all girls school. A lot of these women were butches, or maybe they were Trans all along. These questions existed before I even had the language; before I knew what they really meant, and I wanted to touch on that in the book. So, for example, there is a minor character named Star, he’s a Nigerian, born and raised there, super femme, out and queer, because these people exist. Even in Isabella’s case, she is queer, maybe Bisexual, but she makes different choices to be in a heterosexual relationship whether or not she’s happy, because she has to survive, and people make choices to survive in different ways all the time.
The aspect of dark magic and mythology. You know, everything exists at once. I know people who are Anglican or Christian who also practice traditional religion. Then there’s igbo mythology; you can learn these things, and they are not contradicting what other faith you might have. Some people believe they are, but who told us that? Where did we get this idea that whatever plethora or ethnic religions we have today as a result of colonization are the right ones? We most likely had our own sense of what was evil in the first place. Europeans brought religion, and in that religion, they told us our own religion was bad, that our own beliefs, practices, and systems were wrong. We call Voodoo ‘black magic’, but it’s just another way of understanding the world, understanding your place in the world. Anyway, all this to say that everything exists in the same world, in the same timeline, and in this book it made sense to show how it all exists.
Okay. So, I’d like us to discuss the novel in more depth. The title made me very curious. I know food is a central theme to the novel as well, it allows us to travel and experience different places alongside the characters, especially Taide. But firstly, how did you come up with the name, and why did you choose it specifically? Especially because you use the different words in the title to segment the novel.
So, I originally called it something else, but by the time I had completed it, it was clear that the previous title wasn’t right. The name just comes from the most prominent ingredient used within that segment. I also feel that if this were a blank manuscript, and you read it, a different list of ingredients may have come to you. But for me, these were the ingredients that popped up. When I wrote it down, I had it in different orders, like, ‘honey butter bread pig’. ‘Butter Honey Pig Bread’ was the most appealing to me. I like the way it sounded.
Okay, interesting. And why did you decide to use food as the central theme of the novel, instead of fashion, for example?
It wasn’t necessarily intentional at first, and then the more I realized how it resurfaced, the more it became intentional. It was a way to ground the story around the senses. I wanted it to be a sensual book, a book that would make you think of taste, of sensation in general. Food is something that’s always there. We have to eat, whether or not we want to. We just have to eat, and some people will eat the same thing everyday, but that’s not my experience of the world, and I know that’s the case with many other people. To me, food becomes an anchor for conversation, it allows you to get to know people, even for travel. When I think of trips I want to take, I think of the food I want to eat when I get there.
In my early twenties, there was a brief window where I said to myself “I want to figure out this dating thing”, so I was going on a lot of dates. It became a way for me to check out new restaurants, so the rule I gave myself was no matter how weird the person is, I want to make sure I have a good time, and that includes eating food I like. I would always pick the location, and it would always be a restaurant. My characters were living the sort of lives that I could have lived. We would have been around the same age, and at certain points in time, traveling around the same places. I would think to myself, “where would I go? What would I eat?”.
Food was also important for historical and social context. When Kambirinachi was with her aunty, I wanted to show what an Igbo woman living in this part of the country, at this period of time, would be cooking. It also allowed me to learn more about Nigerian food, and other types of food too.
So in that sense, did you do a lot of research for the novel? You said you wanted to make it a sensual novel, and one of the standout features is how vibrant and detailed it is. How did you translate that? Was that your research coming out?
Yes, I did a lot of research – a level of research that intimidates me now. I’m working on two other stories right now, and it feels a little more difficult because all of the research that went into the novel happened so organically. I was learning about things, I was excited about them, and I wanted to write about them. The research happened over the course of about seven years. I could probably do the same in six months but it would require a lot more discipline and focus. There was no real pressure when I was doing the research, it wasn’t until about three years ago, in 2018, when I got the letter of interest from the publisher, that I realized, “I need to finish this”. But up until then, I was just writing, thinking “maybe one day I’ll be finished” and “maybe someday someone will read it”. With the travelling, the food, the music, I drew from some of my own experiences growing up and just living, but I also had to make sure things were accurate, that things matched up, so the research definitely helped.
I do think it’s also possible to achieve something without that much research. I’m not sure how to go about it yet, but I think it’s possible. But for the kind of book I wanted to write, the research was necessary.
I understand that. The novel also explores themes of blackness and belonging, as that relates to different countries, and different spaces. Of course when the characters are in their home countries they do not necessarily identify as black, but we see them move into other environments where they have to adopt that identity. Could you speak on that?
Of course. You’re right, in Nigeria, race is not an issue in the same way that it is in diaspora, but there is still anti-Blackness. I grew up on Victoria Island in Lagos, so I went to school with a lot of expats that had mixed race parents. At that time, it was strange to see these people who looked different than me occupying space around me so naturally, and I thought that was normal because almost everyone else around me looked like me. My teachers were Black, and the people I saw on the street were Black. The rich elite were also Black, the poor people were Black, a lot of the expats were rich and were not Black, but also the people in charge were Black. But living in North America, passing through Europe, it became more of a realization: “oh, I’m Black”. Not Black like, a mixed race, light skinned person, but a dark-skinned black woman, and I realized that the way I moved through the world would be determined by that. I lived in New York, and I had this roommate from northern Spain. I’m sure she meant well, but she once told me – and I wish she hadn’t told me this– that her friends from Spain had come to New York and said that “the Black people here were so much lighter and so much more attractive”. I wanted to reply: “so you and your racist friends are noticing migration patterns of enslavement”, but I didn’t. Even while I was studying abroad in France, I would get random people yelling at me “ugh, immigrants!”, and when they noticed that my French had an accent, they would guess that I was a student and even then that was met with an attitude. The reality of immigration is a necessity for many people, and what’s wrong with that? People are crossing borders for better opportunities but that doesn’t compare to the disaster of colonization that occured in previous years.
It was also great seeing the characters in different spaces because it allowed us to appreciate who they were. Seeing Taiye as a Nigerian woman living in France allowed me to understand what it means to be a Nigerian woman on a different level, from a different perspective.
Yes, exactly. And I also wanted to acknowledge the class aspect. There are a lot of Nigerian women who are wealthy in terms of money but also otherwise, in terms of opportunity. Taiye having a British passport meant her being able to go to the UK for University and not having to wait in that Visa line. Even if she didn’t have money, she knew she had a trust account from her father, she knew she had a European passport which meant she could easily travel and work. For example, her decision to go to France without worrying about the process and the implications is a testament to that. It’s not a luxury that’s accessible to everyone. That’s the reality of class: knowing that even if you don’t have the money, you can still figure it out, that it’s not going to be dire.
I wanted to show this because one of my favourite books is by Chika Unigwe, called On Black Sister Street, and it’s about African women, some Nigerian, who have been trafficked to Belgium. And when I say ‘trafficked’ I mean that with some nuance, because they consented to travelling there to work, but ended up being forced into sex work. That’s another story, another reality, but this is one that I thought also needed to be shared.
That’s the reality of class: knowing that even if you don’t have the money you can still figure it out, that it’s not going to be dire.
I wonder, do you draw on the power of nostalgia when you write? Especially because you are writing about a home that is far away?
Well, I do think nostalgia is a very incredible tool for writing or for art making. Otherwise, Lagos is a great example for this. It's like any massive metropolitan city in a ‘developed’ world, but arguably there’s a huge contrast between everything; wealthy and poor, good infrastructure and trash, there is no in between. So for me, nostalgia helps when I write about Lagos, but particularly when I write about Lagos from a child’s perspective. It allows a carefree quality. My experiences as a kid were great. Even when there was no power, even when it was really hot. My grandfather would tell us folktales about the Tortoise and the Moon, or whatever. But as an adult, there’s that reality that living in Lagos can be really frustrating. But it’s also interesting to write about a city where things are just hard! Just hard. The traffic– the fact that things just don’t work sometimes. Living in this part of the world, my issues have now become first-world issues. All this to say, I still love to write about Lagos, from both the perspective of a nostalgic child and on the reality of how draining – and beautiful! – it can be.
Another thing I really enjoyed about the novel was your depiction of different types of relationships. Familial relationships, friendships, romantic relationships. I’m sure you must have worked hard at that, so how did you go about it? Did you draw on your own experiences?
I think it was a combination of drawing from what I knew, but also writing the kinds of relationships that I know are possible. I don’t know if it has to do with queerness, or being diasporic, but the idea of chosen family is so important to me. Friendships can be so important and so valuable. People say family is complicated, because some people don’t have good relationships with their family, but there are also friendships like that, and friendships that are very close to your heart. In terms of Taiye and Timi’s friendship, it was important to show that.
I think in particular among queer people, friendship can be difficult to navigate. I know a few people, some of whom I love dearly, who use romantic and sexual relationships as their main way of cultivating relationships. That’s something that I wanted to show in Taiye, where she didn’t know how to be in a relationship with people that weren’t her sister. She wanted friendship and closeness, but because of her own issues with boundaries and hedonism, often she ended up in sexual relationships, which she wanted, but she also wanted belonging. I think in our society it’s such an instinct that romantic relationships are the key to everything. In movies and the media there’s this idea that you find the love of your life and everything is fixed, but that’s not true.
So, I wanted to just depict how different relationships can interact and how they can look. Kehinde and Farouq were really suited for each other, got married, had a beautiful relationship, and she still had a lot of issues she had to deal with, and he did too! Taiye found the person that she loves, but she has a lot of personal work to do in terms of self love, self compassion, and trust. With Taiye and her mother, Taiye is able to accept her mother for who she is, but Kehinde can’t accept it. And that’s real. There are relationships where I can accept people, or learn to accept people for themselves, but there are others where I struggle and there is tension.
And just to lead on from that, how do you think a woman’s relationship with her mother influences her own sense of womanhood and femininity?
Oh, wow. You’ve literally touched on something I think I’ll always be exploring in my writing, maybe until I become a mother, I don’t know. I just finished a short story, the most recent thing I’ve written in a while, and it’s entirely about that. About mothers and daughters, and how a mother’s relationships with herself, a mother’s mental health, a mother’s choices in life, how all that really informs the daughter. It affects all children of course, but speaking specifically about women, the daughter sees herself, her self worth, her place in the world in her mother. There are a lot of things that are taught but not spoken, and those are the things that really interest me. In the short story I just submitted – it’s not published yet – but the mother is a person who is quite unhappy and has had a hard life, and makes choices that focus on survival. She’s also quite determined to not show when she’s in pain. That then affects her daughter in adulthood, where she has a hard time asking for help when she’s in pain, or just feeling things.
She struggles especially in her partnership with a white person whose family is funny, and there are things that she needs to say, that she needs them to know about her, but she struggles. Of course there are eventual breakthroughs, but yes, the mother-daughter dynamic is something I think about and have always been interested in and will probably continue to work with.
You also touch on some heavy themes in the novel; mental health, suicide, grief, abuse. Were you worried about striking a balance so as not to overwhelm your readers, but also not to trivialize or compact those topics in one novel? Were there any worries, or moments, when you felt “am I doing too much?”, or “am I not doing enough”?
Yes, so this is my first novel, and it’s not terribly plot driven. A lot of things happen but it’s not really about the things that happen, or the narrative arc; it’s really more about the reader spending time with these characters at different points in their lives. I’m 31 now, so I don’t think there is anything in that book that I haven’t experienced myself or witnessed to some extent. Perhaps not in the way the characters have, because it is purely fiction, but I think that in writing a coming of age story about a woman, there are so many experiences that span those 31 years. That is enough time for a lot of the events and themes of the novel to take place. The concern I had was particularly around the childhood sexual assault. I didn’t want a situation where readers would be triggered, but you don’t know, because everyone has different triggers, and sometimes they can be really mundane things. I wanted to do my best to not re-traumatize myself in writing it, it was still painful, inherently painful. I’ve read other books that were very descriptive in similar scenarios and I feel that is insensitive when writing about specific traumas. I don’t think it shouldn’t be written about, but I do think that in certain cases a simple suggestion would have been enough, rather than an explicit image. I wanted to do my version of that type of scenario, where it would still feel visceral without being overboard. With Timmy’s journey as well, I wanted to have a lot of care, because such stories are not uncommon, especially in religious spaces.
These things happen. They shouldn’t happen, but I don’t want us to hide anything – I wanted to make sure there was a good balance of stressing that these hardships exist for these characters, but that joy also exists alongside that. For Taiye in particular, she’s a hedonist, intentionally or not, and she seeks pleasure. I wanted that. I wanted an unapologetic Black woman pursuing pleasure in ways that people may say “you’re bad”, you know? Particularly when you juxtapose that with Catholicism, which some people interpret as austerity; don’t succumb to the flesh. So it was interesting and fun for me to do that with her character.
Wow, ok. So, I think I’m mostly done, but I missed an earlier question. I know you’ve gone into some film practice. How did that begin? Were you a writer first, and then decided to explore a different field, or different medium?
Yes, so this goes back to privilege. Privilege in a way that – I don’t say that in terms of access to wealth and class, but access to beliefs and opportunity, to the idea that you can do anything you like! You don’t have to be the best at it, but you can just pick something up that you like and do that. As a Nigerian youth, I don’t think a lot of us get that messaging. There’s this ideology that you must be a doctor, lawyer, educator, and that you must be the best at it! I had a day job, but I bought myself a DSLR camera, and I started partaking in photography. I was teaching myself! I can’t tell you how to do it, but I know how to figure it out. When I left grad school, I was living in Halifax and I didn’t know where the Black communities were. I wanted to highlight them and was doing a portrait series to that end. A friend of mine had a residency at a local art gallery, and invited me to show what I’d been doing, but I didn’t want to have to print out a bunch of pictures, so I settled on doing video interviews instead. And that was it. The first iteration is on Youtube, my camera is shaky and the audio is terrible, but I still leave it up on Youtube, because it’s important to show my trajectory. That was in 2017. After that I learned to edit, I learned how to apply for grants and to make a different type of documentary, which is much better quality. So yes – that’s kind of how I got into filmmaking. I’m definitely less of a professional filmmaker and more of an artist who uses film. But I love filmmaking. I’m very interested in it, and I actually have a short film script to develop into an actual short film. I’m not looking to be fed through it, so I don’t have to be the best filmmaker in all the land. I can just make my weird art films and continue to develop from there, and that is perfect in my opinion.
So, do you feel more free in that sense, speaking comparatively between filmmaking and writing? Do you feel more freedom because it doesn’t feel like you have to be too professional and it’s still more of a process for you? Do you approach it differently than you would your writing?
I approach them more or less the same. For me they are just mediums. The point is the story, and writing is a medium, filmmaking is a medium. Writing is a lot more accessible; I can start writing right now. For filmmaking I need gear and skill, but with writing, I feel like the stories I write these days are very direct, as though I’m telling the reader. In order to get that same sensation with filmmaking, there's a lot of skill required, so many more people – and much more money – required. You have to pay people to edit, for sound engineering. It’s a whole production, and I don’t do that. I think writing is more accessible to me; filmmaking requires more, so it’s slower.
I can understand that. Well, that’s all the questions I have for you. It’s been such a pleasure to have this conversation and gain some insight into your work. Thank you for your time, and thank you for being so open and honest, it was delightful talking to you.