Books

Francesca Ekwuyasi explored food and forgiveness in her first book — and now it's on the Canada Reads longlist

Ekwuyasi is a Halifax writer, artist and filmmaker born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, loneliness and belonging. 
Butter Honey Pig Bread is a novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi  (Monica Phung, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Francesca Ekwuyasi is a Halifax writer, artist and filmmaker born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, loneliness and belonging. 

Her writing has appeared in the Malahat Review, Guts and Brittle Paper and she was longlisted for the 2019 Journey PrizeButter Honey Pig Bread is her first book.

Butter Honey Pig Bread tells the interwoven stories of twin sisters, Kehinde and Taiye, and their mother, Kambirinachi. Kambirinachi is convinced she was born an ogbanje, a spirit that plagues families with misfortune by dying in childhood to cause its mother misery. When the estranged women meet years later, they confront their past and find forgiveness through food from their childhood. 

Butter Honey Pig Bread was on 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. It's now on the Canada Reads 2021 longlist. The final five books and their champions will be revealed on Jan. 14.

Ekwuyasi spoke with CBC Books about writing Butter Honey Pig Bread

Food for thought

"The idea first arrived to write this novel in 2013. I was home in Nigeria for a few months and I was going through my childhood library and reading a lot of books I loved from that time. 

"I was also reading Teju Cole's Open City, which is a slim book, but it's dense. I liked the stream-of-consciousness style. I wanted to create something similar. Until then, I'd only written one short story. It was more of an experiment than anything else.

For people who want to write about food in fiction you have to love it — and you have to write it from your experience.

"I grew up watching BBC Food and TV cooks like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain. I love food and the whole process of food preparation.

"For me, a good writing day in creating this novel was just waking up and writing. The page count didn't matter.

"It was about the ritual of writing. I was writing during lunch breaks and after work. It was about being in the mindset of engaging the imagination and being excited to tell a story."

Writing for yourself

"I moved to Halifax when I was 20. What happens in your life from your early 20s to early 30s is growing up, in many ways. I moved here for grad school. I had a lot of loneliness, but I also had a sense of community that I co-created and cultivated with others. 

"That community was Black folk and queer folk, but it didn't come easy. Being a Black African immigrant compared to being Black from Nova Scotia are two very different experiences.

"I have to toe that line when I'm writing from my experience. For a lot of people like me — racialized people who have intersecting identities that may fall in the margins — we have to draw that line.

I'm Nigerian and I write about characters with that experience.

"A part of me isn't worried about who 'gets it' — that looks like not italicizing non-English words and not explaining colloquial terms. I'm Nigerian and I write about characters with that experience.

"However, I want to be accessible but without pandering to whiteness or the Eurocentric gaze. A lot of literature I read as a kid, I often had no idea what they were talking about; it was often alienating. It's important for me to find that balance. My assumed audience are my friends. As long as they know what I'm talking about, I can leave things open for others to figure out or use Google."

We kick off an ongoing focus on what food can reveal about life, culture and society with Francesca Ekwuyasi, the Nigerian-Canadian novelist behind the Giller Prize longlisted novel Butter Honey Pig Bread. She speaks with Chattopadhyay about the role food plays in complex family dynamics and how cooking can be a way of expressing care, regret, desire for forgiveness, and more. For more, visit: www.cbc.ca/1.5737303 10:53

Writing people as people

"The most interesting thing about the characters in my book who are queer is not their queerness. That is just one aspect of their identity, similar to my identity. The distinction for me is that I write people as people.

"The most interesting thing about my life and my community is not that we are queer or not queer. This is a story with queer characters. The world is already hard enough to make fictional queer and racialized people suffer for no reason or for other's entertainment. So I wanted to do that justice.

The world is already hard enough to make fictional queer and racialized people suffer for no reason or for other's entertainment. So I wanted to do that justice.

"I struggled at points in writing this novel. There are some hard things that happen to quite a few of the characters. In my own value system, I don't think it's necessary to go into graphic detail of the suffering of a child for example.

"I wanted to make it clear what was happening but didn't want to re-traumatize the reader, which I hope came across because everyone has a different threshold. 

"I hope to find a happy medium so people aren't scarred when reading it — because it also fits in with the reality that these things happen to people."

The messiness of being human

"A big part of my work is in reconciling my queerness with my faith. But the older I get, the more I talk to people and the more I research, I see they are not separate. We have a lot of dichotomies in our head about good and bad or dead and alive. But these aren't just dichotomies; they exist.

A big part of my work is in reconciling my queerness with my faith.

"Human relations are muddy. I love my mother AND we don't talk often. I am extremely lonely in Halifax AND I have a loving community. 

"Life is so muddled, I wanted to show that with Kambi and her relationship with her daughters. Kambi believes she is an ogbanje and that colours her whole life. The novel is about what that means for the perception of herself and her relationships.

"I wanted to show that, whether or not she is an ogbanje, the truth is she loves her daughters and she's unable to show up fully for them in ways that the daughters would want from a mother."

Francesca Ekwuyasi's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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