Author spotlight: Francesa Ekwuyasi

Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer and multidisciplinary artist from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging.

Francesca’s debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Breadwas longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize and is a contender for CBC’s 2021 Canada Reads competition.

Her writing has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Brittle Paper, Transition Magazine, the Malahat Review, Visual Art News, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, GUTS magazine, the Puritan, forthcoming from Canadian Art, and elsewhere. Her story Ọrun is Heaven was longlisted for the 2019 Journey Prize.

Butter Honey Pig Bread came out on September 3, 2020 and immediately made a splash. The first time I heard the intriguing title of your book was when the Giller longlist came out. What do you think about the reception for your book?

I’m totally overwhelmed and grateful for the reception of my book in general. It’s definitely a dream come true. I love to write and imagine stories and this feedback is very encouraging. I’m excited to create more. 

The latest accolade is inclusion on CBC’s Canada Reads. Are you a listener of Canada Reads? (Canada Reads runs March 8 to 11 on CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem and CBC Books.) What is the benefit of a competition like this (even if perhaps your book doesn’t make it to the end)?

I think the benefit of this sort of competition is the incredible publicity. CBC’s Canada Reads is definitely getting my book into the hands of folks who may not have heard about it otherwise. It’s an incredible opportunity for which I’m immensely grateful. 

Can you tell me about your background? What brought you to live in Halifax and Nova Scotia?

I’m of Igbo and Yoruba ethnicity, from Lagos, Nigeria. I’m an immigrant to Canada, and moved to Halifax for graduate school about seven years ago.

What are three things you like about Halifax?

Three things I like about Halifax are the natural environment; the access to water—the beaches, the ocean, lakes—is totally unprecedented for me. There’s also so many gorgeous trails, forested landscapes, and remnants of old growth forests. I also really love the communities I’ve developed here; I’m in community with so many compassionate, kind, and generous folks here. 

Your character, Taiye, also lives for a time in Halifax. Why did you decide to situate her here? (There are things I learned about Halifax by reading your book—such as that people go to see the crows that roost by Mount Saint Vincent. What!!)

I decided to situate the character, Taiye, in Halifax because I enjoy writing about environments I’m familiar with. My goal is always to immerse readers in a sensual experience, and location is one way to do that. 

When I was reading your book, I always felt the need to snack. I think that’s because Taiye loves cooking and in a way uses food as a way of bridging the schism with her twin sister Kehinde. It almost feels that a recipe book could come out as a companion for Butter Honey Pig Bread. That’s not really a question, but perhaps could you elaborate on the role of food in your novel.

Similar to location as a tool for creating an immersive experience for readers, I think that food can also do that. I wanted readers to feel the hunger and longing that the characters felt, and food as well as music can be somewhat universal ways to elicit emotion. 

Can you talk about the writing of your book? Where did you write it? How long did it take? Did you have to work at the same time as writing and how did you manage that?

I wrote the book in many different places! I started writing it in the summer of 2013 when I was in Lagos, Nigeria. I wrote it in my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s flat, my student apartment when I moved to Halifax, the Saint Mary’s library, the Halifax Public libraries downtown and in the north end. I wrote in many bars and cafes, at my previous day job when I was supposed to be working. I wrote at airports on my trips home to Lagos, and visiting Montreal. I wrote in hotel rooms, in my old bachelor apartment, in my current shared apartment. I wrote while I walked to work by recording voice notes. Ha!

Sometimes I had to work as I wrote—I can’t remember where I read this, but someone said if you treat your craft like a torrid affair you’ll always have time for it, so writing between work shifts and work breaks, and sometimes during work felt like an affair. 

It’s definitely not easy, but definitely worthwhile for me. 

I’ve also had opportunities to go on writing residencies—the dedicated time to write was very necessary. 

With your debut novel having made such a splash, do you have any advice for writers who are toiling away at their novels? What worked well for you in terms of getting published?

My advice for fellow writers is to write with your whole heart, which requires vulnerability and honesty. Also, read lots, read what you like as well as what you can learn from. What worked for me was to take a leap of faith and submit my manuscripts to publishers I was excited about before I thought my manuscript was totally ready, because from their publishing history I knew that my work would fit in with what they liked. 

Now some fun questions…

Do you snack while writing? What’s your snack of choice?

I snack while writing, for sure! Give me all the chocolate pastries, the sweet and salty roasted nut mixes, double chocolate cookies!!

What’s a favorite meal of yours?

I love spicy savoury meals! Rice and chicken stew, spicy ramen, anything with smoked fish!!

Do you have any rituals when you sit down to write?

I say a prayer and listen to music I enjoy.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

No guilt, only pleasure! I love to indulge in most ways.

Do you have a favorite spot to write and where would that be?

I’m pretty flexible when it comes to writing locations; I like to co-work with friends, so wherever we can do that is a place that works for writing. 

What are some things that kept you going during the pandemic?

Community, friendship, family, love, and the knowledge that things can and will change have kept me going during this pandemic. It’s a devastating thing that we’re experience right now, and we’re all experiencing the devastation to varying degrees, so leaning into gratitude for circumstances, and empathy and compassion as a verb for myself and others has been a practice I’m having to hone. 

Questions by Marilyn Smulders

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