Roger Mooking & Francesca Ekwuyasi discuss Canada Reads contender Butter Honey Pig Bread
Roger Mooking is championing Butter Honey Pig Bread on Canada Reads 2021
Butter Honey Pig Bread is a novel about twin sisters Kehinde and Taiye, and their mother, Kambirinachi. Kambirinachi believes she was a spirit who was supposed to die as a small child. By staying alive, she is cursing her family — a fear that appears to come true when Kehinde experiences something that tears the family apart, and divides the twins for years. But when the three women connect years later, they must confront their past and find forgiveness.
Canada Reads will take place March 8-11, 2021.
Mooking and Ekwuyasi got together virtually to discuss the great Canadian book debate and Butter Honey Pig Bread.
You can watch their conversation above or read an excerpt below.
Roger Mooking (RM): I'm here with Francesca. I'm so honoured and I've got some questions for you. First of all, congratulations on being nominated for Canada Reads. What happened when you found out you were actually going to be part of Canada Reads?
Francesca Ekwuyasi (FE): I screamed and screamed and I was like, "OK, wow."
RM: Did you celebrate that night? Did you have a little mini-celebration, with some food and some wine?
FE: I did. My friends came over, they brought flowers and we talked. Me and my friends, we like to share our dreams and ambitions and really support each other. So they were like, "Good, I'm glad!" It felt nice to have the people rooting for me and to celebrate with me.
RM: They deserved to root for you and celebrate, you're amazing. So you wrote this book called Butter Honey Pig Bread. One of the things that drew me to it, as a chef, was the title. Then I read some synopses about it and I was really drawn to it. And as I read the first few words, I knew it was going to be incredible. What was the inspiration behind the title?
FE: Well, it was originally named something else. Can I share the title?
RM: Yeah, I want to know. I want to know what it was supposed to be.
FE: I had named it A Tender Unkindness. Then by the time I heard back from the publisher and had a chance to read through, butter, honey, pig and bread were the ingredients that stuck out the most to me. There's so much food in it. And I liked the way it sounded when I spoke it. It could easily have been sweet potatoes, mushroom, whatever. There are so many ingredients. I had initially named it Honey Butter Pig Bread. But then I was like, no, honey butter is a thing and people might associate that instead. But I like the way it sounds. It's all things I like to eat.
RM: It's amazing. Sometimes something just has a ring to it.
FE: I think that by the time I finished it, the book had outgrown the original title.
RM: I love it because it helped me gravitate to it. I think it brings a real humanity to it because everybody understands food, everybody has a need for food.
This book is one of the most powerful, incredible books you will ever read in your entire life.- Roger Mooking
The theme this year of Canada Reads is about transcending your environment and going somewhere else. In your book, you travel to Nigeria, Halifax, Montreal, London, England. And you do an incredible job of placing this book in a non-linear time structure, moving through all of these different physical places that we know on Earth. Can you tell me about that?
FE: I'm so grateful to have you as my champion because I feel like you get it. One of the main characters, Kambirinachi, does not even believe herself to be human. She doesn't exist in time in the same way that we as humans do. Something about survival, going through the pandemic, especially last year, lots of people were like, "Is time even real?" And I'm like, "I've been saying that forever! Time isn't real."
I wanted to give that to the story, where the timeline of things doesn't matter that much. It's that they happened, when they happen doesn't really matter. Because for the twins, this thing happened to separate them and then for the rest of their adult lives, up until they return to each other, it's like that thing happened in the same moment that they weren't speaking any more. It didn't matter that it happened so long ago.
RM: I want to hear about how time plays with the physical spaces. Why did you choose London, England, Halifax, Montreal, Nigeria?
FE: I wanted to write about places I've been. The only place I haven't been in the book is Tangier. I was trapped in the Moroccan airport for 15 hours once. Trapped is dramatic, I had a very long layover. I haven't been to Tangier, but I wanted to write about places I've been. You know when you eat something and you remember a place? You can hear something and smell something and remember a place? I wanted to play with how time disappears sometimes.
We can time travel, even if it's just in our imaginations or in our memories, with scents and food triggers. So Lagos is a very specific flavour. It's a spicy palm oil, it's a meal. You're full. You need to rest after you've eaten. I feel like Halifax is a snack. In the best possible way. I wanted to illustrate that, and time was a helpful way to do that.
Even when the character Taiye moved to Halifax from London, it's not clear how much time passed between the event that caused her to leave London and her first few months in Halifax. It's not clear because it doesn't matter. It's her emotional landscape, the weight of her sadness and loneliness, outweighs the actual quantity of time.
RM: I can feel the connections of those places. They feel really earnest and legitimate. Did you envision all those places and dove into them, or were you able to manifest that on paper after having lived it? You've done a really miraculous job in transporting us to those places, but also into time.
You have a very poignant and pointed method in the book of not translating Nigerian words and phrases for the convenience of the North American reader. I think that's really important. In no way does it inhibit you from understanding the context of what's happening in that section.
It implies what the meaning is, quite clearly, by leaving the word present. But you also could have very easily translated those words and used them as English words. But you didn't. What was the thought process behind that decision making?
FE: I didn't want to alienate and I also didn't want to pander. I love to read. I read a lot of fiction where things are over-explained. As a reader, I wish I could tell the authors who I have read their work where it feels over-explained, especially non-English, non-North American or non-European words and expressions. I wish I could be like, "I promise you, your work is worth the effort of me figuring this out, without you spoon-feeding me."
So I didn't want to pander. I didn't want to alienate. My editor helped with that. The final product, I'm glad that it reads that way, but the first few drafts probably didn't. The first few drafts were probably a bit more close to non-Nigerian, and even within Nigerian, like non-Igbo speaking or non-Yoruba speaking. I've also read authors where they don't do that, they have whole paragraphs in Spanish. Junot Diaz does that. I appreciated it because it's a risk.
RM: It's a risk and you're a first-time published author. So to come out like that, it takes a lot of gumption. I do commend you for that.
Francesca, something that is very clear in this book is the importance of family. Particularly the bonds between mother and child and sisters. There's this collective of womanhood and sisterhood that ties together. Where is that coming from?
FE: I was raised by women, my grandmothers, aunties, I went to an all-girls school. I'm very familiar with femme friendships and relationships. I don't know what it's like to not be femme or to be a man or a non-binary person. All I know is that sisterhood and female friendships can be so intense, even female relationships in general. I wanted to explore that. I don't have any biological sisters of my own. I have brothers, but my cousins are like my sisters. It's never been so much about biology or blood. It's just like "You're my sister now." I wanted to explore it.
It's fertile ground for intense emotions. Societally, women have more freedom to be expressive. It's not a good thing. I think everyone should be allowed to express everything. But femme people have been allowed more freedom to be expressive and emotional and be in relationships that, even when they're not romantic or sexual, can be intense.
I wanted to write a complicated and messy array of how Black women exist because that's how they exist in my life.- Francesca Ekwuyasi
There are many, many Nigerian authors, many Black authors, who are writing complicated characters. But I felt that the women characters are often good and righteous and pious and always on the right side of things.
I wanted to complicate that because that's not true. I'm not always on the right side of things. A lot of women and people I know aren't always on the right side of things. We're complicated. Black womanhood, I feel, can be so pigeonholed. I wanted to write characters who are selfish and also hedonistic and angry, but also loving and tender and bad mothers and good mothers and mean aunties but loving aunties.
I wanted to write a complicated and messy array of how Black women exist because that's how they exist in my life.
RM: Historically, the Black woman has been this monolithic concept. We're starting to see that shifting, with the type of television shows that are getting executed and the type of books that are being published. I love to see that. Your book is an incredible addition to that.
FE: Thank you.
RM: This book is one of the most powerful, incredible books you will ever read in your entire life. It has affected me deeply. And I take it very personally that I will be championing Butter Honey Pig Bread by this incredible woman, Francesca Ekwuyasi.
FE: Thank you so much, Roger. I'm not even worried!
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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