‘… Often I find myself switching into Naija me and English me’
‘…I wanted to write about flawed women, because perfect women are very boring’
By Ozoro Opute
FRIENDSHIP can be glorious as much as it can be toxic. And as a mixed race person, how do you see yourself in the black and white mirror before you? Are there grey lines somewhere to blunt the edges of the inescapable polarity? And how do these shape your lived experiences? These are some of the questions Nikki May poses in her debut novel, WHALA, published in Nigeria by Narrative Landscape Press, Lagos. It also has U.K. and U.S. editions. For a debut novelist, this is huge, and May is taking her craft round the world to showcase it. She was at Q (Quramo) Community Centre in Lagos for her book tour. She had an interesting conversation with host of ‘I Said What I Said’ podcast, Jola Ayeye.
May’s WAHALA is built on the solid childhood friendship of three mixed race Nigerian-British women. However, when a fourth woman joined in, it became the proverbial ‘three, well, four is a crowd’ and serious wahala begins for the first three women. But before the fourth character showed up, Boo, Simi and Ronke couldn’t have wished for a better friendship that has its roots in childhood.
“There’s something binding about the friendship that you made back in school when you’re young,” May reflected, “you feel you’re being yourself when you meet years later. I think we’re more forgiving, sometimes, we’re not. I think female friendships are very complex. I just love that female friendship and I think it also has possibilities for toxicity, the wahala and the drama which make it much more interesting. I also wanted to write about flawed women, because perfect women are very boring. It’s the flaws that attract the drama.”
May said she’d yearned to see a black women like herself as a mixed race person properly reflected in novels but had only seen unidimensional women. WAHALA is her attempt to correct that imbalance, that fictional lacuna.
“In a lot of books about black women, we tend to be pushed into devils or angels. I wanted to show that we’re complex. You don’t have to be a perfect mother. I have friends who find motherhood difficult; it doesn’t mean they don’t love their kids, but they don’t just care how they’re getting on. Boo was struggling with her own identify; Simi doesn’t want kids and doesn’t want to tell her husband; it’s not the kind of slack open to Nigerian women, to be married and not want to have kids. And Ronke wanted a perfect husband. So they get to this crossroad when it was the right time for someone like Isobel to come along and manipulate them.
“When I was writing, I felt I was writing for myself; I didn’t think about any other person, which is a good thing. And I have actually found Nigerians much more positive in their reviews of WAHALA. Nigerians who have lived in Nigeria recognise the things in my book, because it resonates with them. Nigerians who have never been to Nigeria are much more judgmental about my book. Life isn’t black or white; life is grey. I was trying to ex-ray the grey lines in friendship. There are a lot of relatable experiences in it.”
Although men may not have featured much in WAHALA, May said she wasn’t focused on the men, and they certainly aren’t scum, as the moderator suggested. May said Kayode is actually a good man whose readers’ opinion of him may be coloured by what Boo and Simi projected into him as an unreliable guy.
“You can read it that way, that men are scum in the book, if you’re reading Boo’s and Simi’s views about Kayode; they had their initial thoughts about what Ronke’s boyfriend is going to be. If you read Ronke’s views, Kayode isn’t that bad. Occasionally, he turned up late; occasionally, he went to a game of football rather than attend to Ronke’s needs, and I think that’s where the nuance comes in. The prejudices of other people were what was reflecting (in Kayode’s personality). Do I think men are scum? No; I’m happily married, and my husband isn’t scum, my dad isn’t scum. I know some amazing men. I have very good male friends. But my book isn’t about men. It’s about women; the men are just side issues to showcase my four women. Didier, Kayode, Martin, they are just background music.”
As a mixed race woman, May said she feels those inevitable bouts of ambivalence that she has come to accept as part of her dual culture which invariably also informed the direction of her debut fiction.
“There’s something about the way people feel about their culture, their home and I think it’s interesting to play with that as a concept,” May said. “And I do know that my sense of belonging is elusive. Sometimes, I feel completely Nigerian; sometimes, I feel completely British. Sometimes, I don’t feel either; sometimes, I feel both, and I just thought it was an interesting theme to explore. And I think your background, your upbringing does much about how you see the world.
“So there’s Boo who had never met her father, who has a white stepfather, a white mother, white siblings, grew up in a white village, surrounded by white people. All her opinions about Nigeria is that they are bad, and to be honest, if you turn on the radio in London all week, it’s how you see Nigeria. In the morning, it’s boko haram, next one is credit card fraud, next one poverty and then 419; the only time something good happens is when a Nigerian scores in football. But it’s not really Nigerian, but British-Nigerian.
“So your opinion of Nigeria could be negative. And then there’s Ronke who was ripped out of Nigerian when she was 10, and she desperately wants to go back to that wonderful image she had of Nigeria. So all of these experiences are true. In fiction, you have to polarise in order to make a point. I wanted to play with identity; I didn’t have solutions.”
Although May lives in England, she’s as Nigerian as the next woman. Her narrative flare in WAHALA bears ample testimony to the duality of her culture. But for her white skin, you’d never suspect she’d ever stepped out of Nigeria, and so she throws in a great dose of the spices that make Nigerian life super dramatic and boisterous. For instance, although BUKA is a restaurant in London, but it feels like a border line that separates Lagos from London, where when you step in, and you’re in downtown Lagos, but when you step out, you’re in cosmopolitan London! It’s the narrative trick May pulls off effortlessly in WAHALA.
“First thing is, I wanted some drama in my drama. Being a Nigerian, I wanted a bit of a thriller. It makes it much more interesting,” she said with a big laugh, and her small audience, made up of old schoolmates and a few others, laugh too.