Francesca Ekwuyasi: Interview

Reading Time: 21 minutes

by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Francesca Ekwuyasi’s debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, is an evocative, lyrical tale of three Nigerian women—a mother and her two daughters whose relationship is ripped apart by a terrible event that would take years to overcome. We follow Kambrinichi—the troubled matriarch who believes she is an obanje— a spirit child in Igbo tradition who curses one’s family by repeatedly dying and being born again—and her twin daughters Taiye and Kehinde, who live parallel lives in different cities after fleeing their home in Lagos to get away from the wounds of their past. This novel is sensual and delightful, launching Francesca Ekwuyasi as a writer to watch. She writes with such tenderness and restraint, seamlessly depicting intergenerational trauma, betrayal, loss, queer desire, food, culture, and faith through the lens of these dynamic, unforgettable characters. Publisher Weekly gave Butter Honey Pig Bread a starred review, rendering Ekwuyasi’s prose sizzling. Zeba Blay, a senior culture writer for Huffington Post, lauds the debut as deeply moving and inspiring.

Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer and multidisciplinary artist from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging. Butter Honey Pig Bread was longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize, was a finalist for CBC’s 2021 Canada Reads competition, the 2021 Lambda Literary Award, the 2021 Governor General’s Award, the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and the 2021 ReLit Award.  Butter Honey Pig Bread has recently been longlisted for the 2022 Dublin Literary Award. Francesca’s 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, Canadian Art, and elsewhere. 

I could not wait to discuss this breathtaking book with the mastermind behind it. I wanted to know about her process and inspiration since I couldn’t stop thinking about her characters. Given that we were worlds apart—Francesca at her home in Lagos and me in my apartment in Brooklyn- we agreed to a Zoom call, my time in the middle of the day. My role as interviewer dissolved as soon as we got on Zoom. Francesca was already waiting. She was dressed in a hoodie and flashed a kilowatt smile that lit up her whole face once she saw me. Her hair was covered in what seemed like a headscarf. A gold hoop glistened in her septum and another below her bottom lip, just above her chin. I was immediately disarmed by her charisma. Normally, I would glance at my questions to make sure they were in the right order, but captivated by her aura, I made a split-second decision just to talk. “I’m not going to follow this,” I said, putting aside my notes. She flashed another radiant smile that was somehow reassuring and sheepish, “This is such an honor, doing this with you. If only you knew,” she said.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: No. Thank you so much for doing this with me. I feel like of all the books that I read this year, this one resonated with me. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Thank you.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: One can tell when the author has fun writing a book or if they’re just writing it just to write it. And this feels like your honest work. Like this is you spitting out. So walk me through that process. What was it like writing this book for you, and what was your inspiration?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I’m grateful it translates because it was truly a pleasure to write it. My inspiration was that I love to read, and I think this book kind of pays an homage to every book that I’ve loved-

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Mm-hmm.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I started writing it in 2013 when I was back in Nigeria, and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be home. I just went back to my childhood library and read books I’d loved as a teenager, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes!

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I read again because I’d read it when I was a teenager, and there’s so much I didn’t understand. And then, when I was 23, I was like, “See? Reading it with new eyes.” Actually, I’m going to read it again this year to see what else shows up for me. Then I was reading Famished Road by Ben Okri, and this is a book I had tried to read years before and just couldn’t get my head in it, but somehow in, you know, at that time in my life, I was able to get into it.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yeah. That’s how it was for me with Tar Baby. It took me years to get into.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: (laughs) I loved reading Wole Soyinka. One poem called “Abiku,” about Yoruba spirits, similar to the Ogbanje mythology. And so I was reading that and felt very inspired to create my own, to sort of like create my work.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Love it!

Francesca Ekwuyasi: It was such a fulfilling experience, and it was also deeply personal, even though it was complete fiction. I wrote a short story about a young Christian queer person who is essentially saying goodbye to her lover because she was like, “I can’t.”

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That sounds amazing and certainly relatable. I would love to read that one too! 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Oh, man, I don’t know if it’s ready yet. But it was so fulfilling to write. It was really short, but I felt excited to give it a go, to like just write a story. I didn’t know how it would end. I didn’t know what it was about. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I know. There are just some stories that we have to write in order to purge.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah. I remember telling a friend, Delphine Fawundu, who’s like a brilliant photographer, and I had just met her that year in Nigeria. And I told her before I started writing, I was like, “I have this idea,” and I told her the whole thing. That was the journey of the beginning.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: So, which character started talking to you first?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Kambirinachi.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Really?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yes. The very first line is-“If you ask Kambirinachi, this is how she’ll tell it.”

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Perfect first sentence! Kabirinichi is the rock, the matriarch. I love how you describe her haunted-ness and how you straddle the lines of mental health versus spirituality. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah, that’s how it came to me, so I was quite clear on her struggle. She believes she’s an Ogbanje, but she’s chosen to stay alive. I was quite clear on that very early on. And I knew she would have twins, but I didn’t know much about them.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I love it. And when the twins came to you, which of the two came first? Or did they start talking at the same time? 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Kehinde came first. I knew that I wanted her to go through this awful thing. And so, the awful thing was kind of the beginning of [the twin’s] separation. Taiye’s voice was developed later. Much later. It was kind of in reaction to Kambirinachi and Kehinde. I imagined, “What- what kind of person… If there’s a tree of people and these two people are like this, how could the other person possibly be?” And what came to me was somebody without clear boundaries who wants to be loved.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Taiye is my favorite character for many different reasons. It’s interesting because you said Kambirinachi came first. But Kehinde’s the one who has the first-person narrative. The other two are speaking in a close third. Then, what was your decision to have Kehinde speak in the first person and then the other two in close-third narratives?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I wanted Kehinde to be the one to speak. First of all, I wrote this awful thing that happened to her. I wanted to give her some control. Kehinde is very guarded. Like you only know about Kehinde, exactly what she wants you to know. And it just seemed like, um, like a realistic reaction for somebody who had been violated so early on.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Right.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I wanted that for Taiye, but it didn’t work. It just made sense for her to be boundaryless and to be whatever you wanted to see at any given point.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: All your characters are powerful, but through Taiye’s character, you explore so much. You explore sex and food and spirituality and grief. I indulged in her chapters, especially in the descriptions of food.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I’m glad!

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. You appealed to our senses as readers. I felt like I was on a savory journey. And, of course, though the story gets darker when that awful thing is described a little later on, the journey with Taiye felt like a pleasurable one. We know she was hurting because of her sister’s sudden cold shoulder. But then you don’t know the extent of the pain and the history between them until we see the image of what went down. But before we even step into that territory of trauma and betrayal, I just wanted to get your full sense of what it was like writing food and sex? 

Francesca Ekwuyasi:  (laughs) I had no rules. I didn’t know the rules to book writing. I just knew what I liked, and I love food. I love to write about food. The books I buy are either cookbooks or memoirs from chefs. It’s just something I enjoy. And so, writing it was like a pleasure for me. Similar to sex. I was writing lots about sex before I’d ever had sex (laughs). I was also writing about queer relationships before I’d been brave enough to like come out. So it was exploratory. And I think maybe, that might be why Taiye is most vivid because she was doing things that I also like to do (laughs).

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Mm-hmm. Yes. The most fun characters are the ones we can live vicariously through!

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Right! I just love to do those things.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Your work is so unapologetic. That’s what I love about it.  You mentioned just now in your response that you don’t know the rules of writing. But there are no rules! I don’t know if that’s blasphemous for me to say, given that I teach in MFA programs, but rules are meant to be broken. Maybe that’s why I connected to your work so much, because even if you are aware of the rules, you’re like, “Okay, to hell with that.”

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yes (laughs).

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Toni Morrison did that. She never thought about the rules as she wrote. I imagine her work being ripped apart in traditional MFA settings where we are taught to identify two to three main protagonists and give them only speaking voices. There will be a whole chapter of one person’s point of view, and then a background character’s POV sneaks in.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yes!

Nicole Dennis-Benn: And you’re like, “Who’s talking now? What? Wait a minute. But I’m always still totally with it! I just love that about Morrison. Her breaking those rules. And so, that’s what I love about your work. I love that you take risks. So let’s shift gears a little to talk about trauma. That was another thing that you dared to write about—generational trauma. I noticed that both mother and her two daughters suffered the loss of their fathers early in life, negatively impacting the family. Was that intentional?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yes and no. I wanted to write about women and femmes specifically. Looking back at my short stories, I’ve noticed that I tend to write women. It’s filtered through my experience. I don’t know what fathers are like that much. Like my father passed away when I was small. So when I try to imagine a father, I have to research and read about what fathers do. I know grandmothers, I know aunties, I know like the femmes and women in my life. But I don’t really know about men. And so it shows up unintentionally in my work.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That’s powerful. I want to sit with that. You brought up an excellent point. I didn’t really grow up close to a male figure until my step-father came into my life. I’m most familiar with the women who raised me—the women in my home and community. Come to think of it, I’ve seen the same pattern in my work, especially with Here Comes the Sun.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah. For me, men were always in the background doing something.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Right, right. But one thing you did do with the fathers in your book, though I loved, is that they are so gentle. You know, they were so gentle with their daughters. I felt the loss when they were gone. You did an awesome job writing the relationship between fathers and daughters and then showing us what happens when that gets taken away. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Thank you.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: And speaking of writing men, let’s talk about Timmy. Taiye’s relationship with Timi was so real and beautiful. I felt a deep connection to Timi and felt bad for him when he got outted by a fellow church member and attempted suicide. Tell me about his importance in this story. Why was it necessary to include a narrative like Timi’s?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah. Timmy’s very loosely based on a good friend, so I just used my friend’s real name by accident. But very loosely, like none of those things happened, just the real love between them. Other than Timmy and Farouq, there’s no real depth to the male characters, so I wanted them to be good, contrary to the narratives we hear about men. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. You did that so well with Farouq. I also enjoyed Wolfie’s character in your book. But back to Timmy. His storyline resonated with many people, especially me, being gay and growing up in the church.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: It can be difficult for some to reconcile who they are with religious and cultural expectations. I found it interesting that you didn’t give Taiye that narrative with her attraction to women. But you gave us that with Timmy. This is a two-part question because, on the one hand, I love that you gave Taiye the freedom to be who she is—nobody in her family questioned her sexuality. She also happens to be very Catholic. But then, on the other hand, there’s Timmy, who was ostracized by his church and his own family when he was outed. How important is it for us to read a Timmy on the page?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Thank you for that. I knew that I wanted to write a queer character, but I didn’t want the story to be about the character’s queerness because, you know, like, all the queer people in my life, it’s kind of the least interesting thing about us (laughs).

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Exactly.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I wanted it to be about Taiye’s journey, separate from her sexuality or gender. But have that be included in a real way, the same way as her career aspirations. I wanted to write a character who was free from that and not fall into the tragic queer tropes. However, I also didn’t want to ignore the reality for many queer folks of color. And so, Timmy was an opportunity for that. It was really painful, and I hated it. His situation was an extreme situation of what happens, but it’s not unusual. I think it’s especially hard for men because of this expectation of machismo and “A man is a man.” And so for someone like Timmy, who is quite femme and tall and big and Black and gay, it’s a given.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Right.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: And that was important for me to show the parallels between Taiye and Timmy. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I love their relationship. It’s so beautiful. And I believe it’s the only platonic relationship that Taiye has!

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I cried the whole time writing that final scene before they are reunited where, you know, Taiye finds out what happens. I remember writing it, crying, and saying, “Oh, Timmy.”

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Listen, I, I wept.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: (laughs) But there was resolution.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: There are a lot of conversations among queer writers and BIPOC writers in general about steering clear of writing trauma. Not necessarily a happily ever after, but writing the complexities of the characters themselves without focusing on certain circumstances that media like to focus on when depicting our stories. You know, there are other things, like you said, that’s going on besides our queerness. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Absolutely. (laughs)

Nicole Dennis-Benn: So, let’s talk about pleasure. I love the way you write sex and intimacy. How did you approach writing the sex lives of each sister? What’s important to you when you’re writing sex? You even tapped into non-monogamy and self-pleasure.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I got nervous. This is the most notable thing I’ve done so far. And so the burst of attention, I was like, “oh no, everyone knows, like, I’m into gay shit.”

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Talk about that some more. Did you ever fear that Taiye’s queerness would override her complexities? Has that ever been a concern to you as an artist?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yes. I feared that it would be sensationalized, like, “oh, gay sex, gay sex, gay sex.” I had an interview very early on, and the headline—or rather—the tag underneath read “about queer sexuality and sensuality,” and I was like, fair enough. But there are three main characters, and only one of them is gay. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Exactly. That happened to me, even though there’s so much going on in my work beside my characters’ queerness.  So I know how frustrating that could be. Especially when you take your time as a writer to write the complexities, people focus on what they want to. I don’t think we have any control over that, to be honest.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Right.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: To be honest, I love the sensuality depicted in Kehinde as well as Taiye. I love that Kehinde was given the opportunity to take control of her narrative. That was so beautiful and well done. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Thank you. I felt fortunate, honestly, to be able to bring them to life. Also, the reception of this book is like, beyond my wildest dreams, because it feels very indulgent. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: It is a classic, and that’s why I’m so happy that you wrote it before thinking about any rules or the reader’s gaze or judgments. That’s the stamp of a true artist. Your work is reminiscent of Audre Lorde, who gave us permission to consider the erotic as our way of being. Also, how she forces us to consider our intersectionalities as black, queer, and female.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah. I feel fortunate. My grandparents are very much into reading and knowledge. I read Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was much too young to read Beloved.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That’s one of my favorites!

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Mine too.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Who are the other writers that inspire you?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I read Buchi Emecheta as a child, and Seffi Atta as a teenager, even Chimamanda Adichie. When I read Purple Hibiscus and Everything Good Will Come by Seffi Atta, it was the first time I felt seen even in Nigerian literature because they’re about girls my age living in families and situations that I recognized in my country.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: In what ways did research help with composing this novel?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Oh, so much. There are some things I can draw from memory. I spent some time in Southern France as a 20-year-old so that I could draw some things from memory. But I didn’t know anything about Catalan cuisine, so I heavily researched Catalan cuisine.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That’s amazing. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I also researched culinary school, even reproductive stuff like birthing. I had to explore birthing. I was reading articles, like scientific articles about monozygotic twins. (laughs). I had to research my own country’s political history. I went to Nigerian political history. So if part of the story is set in the 80s, it was important for me to research what it would be like and what was the political scene. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I love it. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: It’s fun!

Nicole Dennis-Benn: It is definitely fun!

Francesca Ekwuyasi: (laughs) There’s a book called Open City by Teju Cole that I read in 2013 that was very much on my mind as I wrote. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Oh yes, Open City, yes. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Even though I hate the protagonist so much, I love how Teju Cole brilliantly wrote about art history, philosophy, and jazz music. Right now I’m reading a book called Open Water, and it’s so beautiful.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I’ll put it next on my list. Recommended by you.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: It’s a very slim book. It’s beautiful and has a lot of references to contemporary Black art and music, and photography. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: But that’s something that you did so well, too, in Butter Honey Pig Bread. Not only was food a big part of this book, but music. Like when you referenced Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild, and neo-soul artists in the coalition. I remember that era. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: “The Soulquarians.”

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Oh, ok. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yeah. My brother’s a music producer, and he has taught me well. They made a collective. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Wow. All those are my favorite artists. So that’s good to know.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: (laughs)

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Your inspirations are so cool. I also enjoyed learning about your research process!  I have one final question. I read an interview you recently did for THEM, where you mentioned that you’re now just reading fun books.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Yes. (laughs)

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Tell me more about that. Define “fun books.”

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Well, that statement isn’t entirely true because life happens, right? But some books are extreme. You know, there’s this book A Little Life?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: A Little Life. Yes.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: God bless Hanya Yanagihara, but that book has too many pages of misery. I remember reading that book, and I had to stop because I started having bad dreams.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Right. I understand. Trauma porn, which we touched on earlier. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Exactly. I don’t want to shy away from hard things in my work. I mean, especially what happens to Kehinde in my book. I know it’s just too common. But we also have lots of joy. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Right. There’s balance, which is what you do with BHPB. You give us the grit of familial rifts, betrayal, loss, and grief, but then you reward us with decadence—savory descriptions of food and wanton sex, all described with lyrical prose as smooth and rich as anything with butter.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: (laughs) Thank you. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn: You blew me away with this story. I’m glad I’m interviewing you now because you will become a household name. I’m telling you from now.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Thank you so much.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Thank you for this gift. 

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Before we go, I just want to say I love Patsy! I haven’t read Here Comes the Sun yet, but I just want you to know that I am a huge fan. (laughs)

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That means so much, Francesca. It means a lot coming from you as well, so thank you. You have me blushing now.

Francesca Ekwuyasi: (Laughs) It’s mutual.

END


Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of Here Comes the Sun (Norton/Liveright, July 2016), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a 2017 Lambda Literary Award winner. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Soraya McDonald describes Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut as reminiscent of the work of Toni Morrison. Her bestselling sophomore novel, Patsy (Norton/Liveright, June 2019), is a 2020 Lambda Literary Award winner, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Financial Times Critics Choice, a Stonewall Book Awards Honor Book, and a Today Show Read With Jenna Book Club selection.