JANUARY 11, 2019
OYINKAN BRAITHWAITE has received recognition as a spoken-word artist and been a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She also sketched the cover art for the Nigerian edition of her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer. When we met in Lagos, where she works as a freelance writer and graphic designer, Oyinkan rhapsodized about her favorite authors, working through a list as diverse in form and genre as her own creative interests. She started writing poetry in primary school, and the first composition she remembers working on is a recreation of Skee-Lo’s “I Wish.” Her highly anticipated debut novel is a shrewd and humorous examination of the complicated bond between two sisters, one of whom has a predilection for murdering her boyfriends. After asking her a series of questions over email, I spoke with Oyinkan in Lagos.
AYÒBÁMI ADÉBÁYÒ: The family dynamics in My Sister, the Serial Killer probably contribute to Ayoola’s murderousness and definitely help her to get away with murder. How and when did this family come to you?
OYINKAN BRAITHWAITE: The sisters came to me first. Everything else grew out of them and their relationship. Once I understood who they were to one another, it was left for me to imagine why they were that way, how much of who they were was genetic and how much was as a result of what they had been through.
As for when they came to me, I wrote a poem in 2007 about two friends; and the relationship of the characters in the poem was somewhat similar to that of Korede and Ayoola. But unlike with a friendship, you don’t get to choose who your siblings are; you are stuck with them from the get-go, and something about this is fascinating, especially because your siblings have a huge impact on who you will become.
The trauma Korede and Ayoola have experienced because of their difficult relationship with their father pulses through the novel, yet aspects of it are not revealed at all. Did you consider divulging everything about the denouement of that relationship? I felt that what remains unspoken is such a crucial aspect of this novel, was this your intention?
Yes, it was my intention. Writing for me is an act of discovery, I am learning about the characters even as I am writing them. In reality, we rarely know why people do the things they do. I think it is enough, sometimes, to simply point to something and allow the readers to reach their own conclusions.
Korede is complicit in the murders without being a perpetrator. Why did you choose to write My Sister, the Serial Killer from her perspective?
I quickly realized that in order to do justice to my vision of Ayoola, the story could not be from her point of view. I recalled that Wuthering Heights was a story that was told from the perspective of characters who were not necessarily integral to the tale itself, and this method appealed to me.
Korede is not a catalyst in this story. She finds herself responding to things that are done to her and around her; even the manner in which she tells the story — it is almost without feeling. She is merely an observer; so though it is written in the first person, there is something of the third-person limited about it.
There was also the matter of tone. It would have been a far more tragic story had Korede made genuine attempts to change the path she was on. But because she is passive, and because she has this degree of separation, I was able to have things happen to her, and instead of crying out in despair, her response is, “So, yeah, this happened. I better clean.” And this allowed me to keep the story light.
I’m curious about the intersection between your art and your fiction. Do you draw scenes or characters while you’re writing? Is there ever a causal relationship either way?
Right now, there isn’t a lot of overlap between the two. But sketching gives me such peace, and it serves as a break from writing. In the past, I had never attempted to sketch a character from one of my stories; however, when the Nigerian and Dutch publishers asked me to give it a shot, I leapt at the opportunity.
In a number of ways, starting with how Korede drives to Third Mainland Bridge to dispose Femi’s body, this feels like such a Lagos story. When I was reading it, I could vividly picture Ayoola as a certain type of Lagos babe. How important was this particular city to you as a setting for this novel?
In so many ways, it is a weird story to set in Lagos and I was not sure it would work. But I think it ended up working because it is set in Lagos. Part of the reason certain aspects of the story unfold the way they do is due to the environment that these two women are in.
I think it would be a lot harder to get away with the sorts of things Ayoola gets away with in, for example, the United States.
Also, in Nigeria, we prioritize family, and not just the nuclear family, cousins and second cousins and uncles and aunties whom you have no idea how or if they are even related to you. And we believe strongly in the responsibility of a first-born. Korede’s plight would flourish here.
You were a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, so I assume you wrote short stories before working on this novel. How did the process of writing a novel differ from a short story for you? And what is next? Will there be a sequel or a prequel?
A novel requires stamina and grit. You need a certain kind of faith in yourself and in what you are doing to bang out 40,000-plus words. But I learned style from poetry and short stories. It is through those mediums that I discovered where my strengths lay as a writer.
I do hope to complete another novel soon. But it won’t be a prequel or a sequel, I have no immediate plans to go back into the story of Korede and Ayoola; though, I know exactly how I would do it, if I did!
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is the author of Stay with Me.