When army officer Chike Ameobi is ordered to kill innocent civilians, he knows that it is time to leave. As he travels towards Lagos, he becomes the leader of a new platoon, a band of runaways who share his desire for a better life. Welcome to Lagos (Faber, £12.99) is the second novel by Nigerian-born London-based author Chibundu Onuzo who, at 19, became the youngest female author to sign a publishing deal with Faber.
Why does Lagos provide such fertile soil for stories?
It’s the most fascinating place. There are millions of people living there with thousands arriving every day with new histories and new hairstyles and new languages. Lagos draws people because the city’s economy is larger than the economies of many countries in Africa. Where you have money, you have diversity. Where you have diversity, you have stories.
Tell us about your PhD. Did your research inform Welcome to Lagos?
I’m working on a PhD on the West African Students Union, a group based in London from the 1920s. It was a hub for both African and African diaspora students and intellectuals, and a sizeable number of its members went on to political prominence in West Africa. Welcome to Lagos on the other hand is a very contemporary novel and so very little of my research has actually been relevant to this novel. There must be some link between my research and Welcome to Lagos but I’ve stared at both my thesis and my novel for too long to see it.
You wrote about your concerns about the BAME Prize for literature last year – what needs to be done to truly diversify the UK publishing industry?
It’s not on the writing end that there’s an imbalance. There’s a vast array of excellent writing done by people of every shade and stripe but the so-called gatekeepers – editors and agents – are not as diverse. It’s a problem that some publishing houses are owning up to and are now intentionally looking for ways to address, as opposed to hoping that the system will somehow organically become more diverse.
You were Faber’s youngest ever female author to be given a publishing deal. What would giving more of a platform to young authors do for the publishing industry?
You’ll get a perspective that’s very difficult to capture once you are outside that age. A 17 year old writing about being 17 is almost always going to do it more realistically than a 40 year old. The teenage world moves so fast and we would understand it better if we had younger writers published.
Is writing about Nigeria a way of staying connected to it?
Maybe. My parents and my brother live in Nigeria and I’m always on the phone to them. Also I visit often and try to keep abreast of politics, culture and so on. Online media is very helpful for that these days. These are the deliberate ways in which I try to stay connected to Nigeria. As for the writing, it helps I suppose.
The Spider King’s Daughter was a love story you described as unintentionally political. Did the attention the politics of the story gained inspire the political storyline in Welcome to Lagos?
I don’t think so. I’ve always been interested in politics, especially Nigerian politics. Whenever a Nigerian politician passes through London, I always try to make sure I go and hear them speak. Nigerians spend a lot of time railing against politicians. It’s our national sport.
Is colonialism to blame for the greed and corruption in Nigeria that’a highlighted in the book?
With questions like this, the answer is always yes, no and maybe. You can’t draw a straight line between past phenomena and present dysfunction. There will always be a myriad of explanations for why things are the way they are. Is colonialism a possible contributing factor? Yes. Is it the only one? Definitely not.