Nigerian authors continues to enthrall and surprise the world of literature. The latest to do so is Oyinkan Braithwaite with her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer. JP O’Malley spoke to the author.
The crime novel stands most standard tropes on their heads, reversing the usual male predator, female victim roles.
In the wake of the #metoo movement last year, significant noise arose in the publishing world highlighting the fact that so many thriller and crime books typically present clichéd stories depicting hyper-sexualised women as helpless victims – thus reinforcing gender discrimination, hierarchies between the sexes, and archaic patriarchal power dynamics.
This public discussion led to the emergence of the Staunch Book Prize: an award given to a novel in the thriller genre where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.
As soon as my chat with Oyinkan Braithwaite begins, I mention that I think her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, has a strong chance of scooping the prize, this year, for the recently established literary accolade. After all, it certainly has all the necessary credentials.
“I think if I did win the award you mention, it would be a huge coincidence,” Braithwaite explains from her Lagos home.
The stylish, snappy debut novel has essentially inverted the typical thriller plot, and reversed its stereotypical gender roles; presenting instead a story involving a number of helpless male suitors who find themselves six feet under whenever they attempt to woo the narrative’s mysterious-sassy-serial-killer, Ayoola.
The 30-year-old debut Nigerian novelist sets up the book’s dramatic tension with immediate urgency. By page two, for instance, we already know that Ayoola has claimed her first victim, Femi: a casual lover who she stabs first in the heart, finishing him off with two further jabs, before disposing of the body and any trace of evidence. This last part of the operation is carried out with the help of Ayoola’s sister, Korede, the story’s sole narrator.
“I really didn’t know what genre I was writing when I began this book,” the writer explains: “But I first began to think of this idea of women killing men when I read up on the Black Widow Spider: the dynamic in nature where after she mates with the male, the female [spider] begins to feel hungry, and then eats him. And so I started playing around with that idea.”
Ayoola’s role in the narrative thus quickly becomes one of a seductive ice-queen/femme fatale who possesses a long line of willing would-be murder victims at her disposal.
There is Tade, the respectable doctor, who has enthusiastic plans for marriage; then Gboyega, the jet-setting businessman who makes the Lagos news headlines after his mysterious death from food poisoning on a brief sojourn he takes with Ayoola in Dubai.
Braithwaite relays the details of these violent episodes with cutting black humour in a narrative that leans more towards comedic farce than standard murder mystery.
“It was weird for me when people started to describe the book as a dark comedy,” Braithwaite admits.
“I guess what happened was that I was writing a very dark theme, in a dead pan manner, and it just ended up being funny.
“It’s almost like a shock element, and that is what comedy is mostly about: you set up one thing, and then something else entirely happens,” she says.
“Some readers have also told me that they felt the book was very Nigerian in the way the humour is presented, in a very jokey and laid back manner,” Braithwaite adds. “Nigerians do have a way of looking at a situation that is really tragic, and then somehow making it very funny.”
Moral fork in the road
Ayoola’s suitors can be popped off for having bad onion breath, or for writing cheesy love poetry. Korede, meanwhile, finds herself racked with guilt and anxiety. This inner psychological turmoil eventually leads to a moral dilemma: does Korede choose the righteous path of truth and conscience, or, align herself instead to unconditional family loyalty which inevitably leads to a multitude of lies?
All the novel’s subsequent drama unfolds from this moral fork in the road, which also provides a philosophical space for Korede to reflect on her own troubled relationship with her sister in a tale that is essentially about sibling jealousy.
“The truth is that within everyone’s nuclear family there is a culture where people tend to keep things within that family circle,” says Braithwaite: “And I don’t think that is just a Nigerian thing. So it just made a lot of sense to steer this particular story in that direction.”
Braithwaite confesses that attempting to delineate the complexity of sibling rivalry in her novel really didn’t require too much effort from her personal imagination. All she needed to do was look towards her own familial setting for inspiration.
“I am the eldest child, there is just two years between me and my own sister, and a lot of times we have been compared to one another,” she explains: “And so you love your sister, but you do also think: is she a threat to you? And how do you deal with a situation when people point out these differences? As a result you start asking questions like: does your sibling become an enemy?”
Braithwaite uses a clever plot device in her novel to deal with this issue. She provides Korede with a daily distraction where she can channel all her neurotic family trauma: room 313 in the hospital where she works as a nurse in downtown Lagos.
It’s here that Muhtar Yautai lies in a coma. Korede uses the man who she believes is never going to regain consciousness as both confidant and therapist. A workable idea, it seems, until one day the patient wakes up, and so the knowledge of Ayoola’s kinky murderous ways evolves beyond the borders of close-knit sibling trust.
“I do generally believe when people go through some trauma together, no matter what it is, they have something that is just between them,” says Braithwaite: “That’s what makes it so hard for Korede to separate from what her sister is doing: because they have this almost unbreakable bond.”
Any Nigerian author wishing to make their mark on the global stage is always going to have to deal with comparisons. After all, it’s a country with a rich tradition of literary wordsmiths that includes the late Man Booker international winner, Chinua Achebe; Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka; and most recently, the globally successful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That tradition has, for the most part, tackled serious subject matter relating to Nigeria’s post-colonial turbulent history and the after-effects of civil war.
Might Braithwaite’s more lighthearted approach to fiction reflect a generational shift in an everchanging Nigeria?
“For me it doesn’t feel like there has been a shift,” says Braithwaite rather cautiously: “I am the same writer I have always been. I’ve certainly read these other Nigerian writers, but I don’t know how much their writing has directly influenced my own work. I have probably been more influenced in that regard by Nigerian culture and Nigerian humour too.”
Concluding our chat, I mention how Braithwaite’s minimalist style and the sense of immediacy in her prose appears almost perfect for the Twitter and Instagram age.
“I really appreciate books where the language is beautiful,” Braithwaite concludes: “Most of my favourite writers aren’t minimalist writers. But for me, it just helps me get straight to the point.” NA