Oyinkan Braithwaite: Nigerian author tells all about her debut novel, ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’, the Chimamanda Adichie effect and film adaptation

Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, "My Sister, the Serial Killer" is a literary hit (The Reading List)
  • Braithwaite has become quite the literary sensation since releasing her debut novel, “My Sister, the Serial Killer” in 2018.
  • In less than a year, the book has been praised by The New York Times, The Washington Post, respected authors and was longlisted for the highly coveted Booker Prize.
  • She discusses everything from the Chimamanda Adichie effect, film adaptation, international recognition to her writing process in a recent event in Lagos state.

On September 22, 2019, a group of ardent readers gathered in an intimate setting for a book reading and conversation with Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite.

The event, “In Conversation With Oyinkan Braithwaite”, was held in Cafe One by Sterling in Lekki, Lagos. It provided the perfect environment for candid conversations about the author’s debut novel, “My Sister, the Serial Killer”, her writing process, secrets about her published work, upcoming projects and more.

Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa was there for the interesting event. Here’s all that went down during the evening with the author:

Started with a book reading

Originally slated for 4 pm, the event started by 4:49 pm with a reading by Braithwaite herself from page 4. This exciting reading set the perfect mood for the rest of the evening.

On the inspiration for her novel

Next, the author shared her inspiration for her debut novel which The New York Times described as ‘pulpy, peppery and sinister… a scorpion tailed little thriller.’

According to her, the idea for the book first came from the black widow spider. This idea that the female would eat the males if she was hungry was so interesting and compelling that she wrote a poem about it back in 2007. 

The poem named Black Widow Spider eventually led to another poem, a short screenplay and a fantasy novel all with the same theme — females killing males recklessly. This fascination stuck with her until she started writing this book in 2017.

Braithwaite also said she started writing at 8 years old adding that her life’s dream was to be an author. This desire propelled her to start writing this book (first published novel) by 29 because she wanted to achieve her dream before she turned 30.

So, she set out to finish this project (which was originally a novella) in one month which she did and self-published on platforms like Okada books and iBooks. With encouragement from her friends, she started sending it for reviews. The positive feedback pushed her to send the book to an agent who asked her to make it a novel.

On the characters 

This spectacular debut novel is primarily based on the story of two sisters, Ayoola and Korede. As readers continue, they get to see some of the secrets that bind them together including the fact that Ayoola (the younger sister) has a thing for killing her boyfriends.

Despite that the fact that Ayoola is the one committing the crimes, the story is told from Korede’s perspective. She is the older sister who cleans up after Ayoola’s crimes. This explains why the book opens with “Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”

Asked why she chose to use this point of view, Braithwaite said it was because she thought it allowed for readers to see the relationship between the two, Korede’s self-esteem issues along with other important insights into the book.

She further explained in an interview with The Reading List saying, “Korede is by no means a catalyst in this story. Like you said, she is an observer. Also, it is Korede’s story but she spends most of her time obsessing over what Ayoola is or is not doing, which was another way for me to explore her fascination with her sibling, not dissimilar to the way the characters at large are fixated on Ayoola.”

On using Lagos State, Nigeria as the backdrop 

Braithwaite admitted that she set it in Lagos state because she knew they could get away with the murders. This, she said, is because of certain factors like corruption, lack of proper forensic measures and the citizens’ way of dealing with danger by simply avoiding it which she described as a coping mechanism that is definitely not normal. 

She added that she also drew from her numerous experiences with the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) to add tension to the book. 

On the various themes

Sisterly bond, loyalty, beauty and how society chooses to engage with it are some of the themes explored in the book. This explains why the use of social media in the book and why everyone is shallow and easily taken by beauty and physical appearance. 

She further explained that evil does not always look like what we think it looks like and that is why beautiful people get a pass while ordinary, good people are simply not as lucky.

Rage/violence is another theme which she descibes as a reflection of the popular Lagos rage which she blamed on the fact that “we are in a system that doesn’t work.”

On her writing process

Braithwaite told the audience that she usually writes a chapter a day because she works better with a deadline. In her words, “urgency works for me.” Asked about writing blocks, she said she never really has to deal with this popular challenge because she always has an idea.

“But if I get really stuck," she continued, “I will leave it and come back or write my real-life experiences into it.” She added that these experiences would have to be written to suit the writer’s quirks and character.

On reception and success

Her book has received a lot of recognition since its release last year. It has sold 13,052 units according to Nielsen BookScan and has come out in 5 languages with about 20 pending. 

It has been considered for several notable literary awards including the 22019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2019 Amazon Publishing Readers’ Awards, the highly coveted Booker Prize and the 2019 LA Times Award for Best Crime Thriller which she won.

Braithwaite’s debut novel has also received high praise from several publications, fellow authors like Paula Hawkins who described it as ‘feverishly hot’ and even caught the attention of Tina Knowles (Beyoncé’s mom).

Commenting on all the recognition she has received so far, the author said she was grateful but stated that she chooses to simply focus on the fact that it is the realization of her life long dream.

She also noted that she is celebrated more outside the country where people thank her for simply coming. This response elicited a laugh from the audience. 

Asked about the most exciting part of the journey, she referred to the first time she held the book in her hands which she described as the most emotional point for her. 

“I really enjoy it when people tell me they bought it and gave it to their sister,” she added with a chuckle.

On the Chimamanda Adichie effect

Adichie is one of the most renowned writers from the country in recent time which might explain why new Nigerian authors are often compared to her. 

She initially discussed this comparison in an interview with The Guardian saying, “I can’t give you what I don’t have. We have a wide divide between classes and we have a wide divide between cultures because we’re from different tribes, we have different religions. I wouldn’t want to write a novel and people feel that I’m speaking to a Nigerian experience — I’m speaking to my experience, to the things I’m interested in, and that’s all I can do.”

Braithwaite touched on this isuue during Sunday’s event by simply stating that she has noticed that people are often on a quest by people to find a Chimamanda connection even though their stories are different. 

On genres

Even though her novel is often labelled as crime, Braithwaite said, she “doesn’t really think she belongs to a genré” as “her writing isn’t there yet and will evolve with time.” However, she noted that she does not mind the label. 

On the possibility of a film adaptation 

She confirmed the rumours that her book has been optioned for film (a producer or a studio has the exclusive rights for a fixed amount of time) by the makers of the hit movie ‘Baby Driver’. She said this happened sometime in 2018, adding that it does not necessarily mean it will be adapted. 

Asked about her book being adapted by a Nollywood filmmaker, Braithwaite said she would choose Nigerian actress Beverly Naya to play the role of Yinka.

On pressure for her second novel

She admitted that there has been a demand and pressure for a second novel, maybe even a sequel. However, she said, “I do not want to replicate it. I don’t want people to say they have figured her out.”

She added that she wants her second book to challenge her. She also revealed that she has two short stories coming out next month.

On advice for upcoming writers

Her advice for writers is really simple — write first, worry later. In her words, “This book has taught me that you can’t anticipate how the world receives. So there is no point worrying because you can’t control that. You have a story you want to tell, tell it to the best of your ability.”

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