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Francesca Ekwuyasi

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Francesca Ekwuyasi’s sensual debut novel melds Nigerian folklore with a personal journey to make connections

When Francesca Ekwuyasi arrived in Halifax seven years ago to pursue her masters in international development studies at Saint Mary’s University, “it took awhile to get an invitation for tea.” Though it’s a city that prides itself on Maritime hospitality, Halifax can be a tough place to make meaningful connections, especially during those bitterly cold winter months when no one wants to venture outside, let alone make new friends. Despite the beautiful ocean views, Ekwuyasi was lonely and ready to pack it in before she finally found her people.

That tension of being attracted to a place or thing while urgently seeking escape from it runs through Ekwuyasi’s stunning debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, a cosmopolitan, multigenerational saga published by Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, which blends Nigerian folklore with a queer love story. Twin sisters Kehinde and Taiye are estranged following a childhood trauma that reveals itself late in the story, yet the two are still connected in spiritual and physical ways. Both have left behind their home in Lagos, Nigeria, eventually residing a short flight from each other in Canada: Taiye abandoning a hedonistic life in the U.K. to attend culinary school in Halifax while Kehinde, now engaged to be married, pursues a career as an artist in Montreal.

Taiye’s discovery of Halifax, and appreciation for its complicated history and landscape, is similar to Ekwuyasi’s own journey. “I was trying to find the beauty,” she says. Her process for writing her characters’ lives is also very similar to how she discovers a place. There is a lot of walking around, thinking, and observing.

Ekwuyasi began writing in 2013 while back in Nigeria to do a mandatory one-year stint in the country’s National Youth Service Corps after finishing her degree at the State University of New York. While waiting for her Canadian visa to arrive, Ekwuyasi spent a lot of time in the library of her youth – which was much smaller than she recalled. There she picked up a copy of Teju Cole’s 2011 novel, Open City, which follows Julius, a Nigerian psychiatry student, as he wanders through the streets of New York. She was also reading a lot of folklore, including stories of the Ọgbanje – reborn spirit children who cause grief to their families, comparable to European stories of changelings. In Butter Honey Pig Bread, Taiye and Kehinde are reunited in Lagos after more than a decade with their mother, Kambirinachi, who has believed her entire life that she is an Ọgbanje. She is also convinced she has passed on that legacy of misfortune to her children, who in one scene experience a celestial moment with each other, despite their estrangement. Twins are also popular figures in Nigerian folklore.

“A lot of Nigerian books I read as a kid were about twins and spirituality and deities. There was lots of wrath,” Ekwuyasi says. “But during my research for the book, the more I got into it, the more I realized I didn’t know how much I needed to know.”

While living in Halifax – despite her initial misgivings, it’s the city that Ekwuyasi has lived the longest as an adult – she began submitting stories to journals; her story “Ọrun Is Heaven” for GUTS landed on the 2019 Journey Prize longlist. She kept busy with other pursuits, too. She exhibited intricate paper-cut sculptures at a local artist-run centre and produced several documentaries, including a series capturing the experiences of other Black Haligonians.

Ekwuyasi quietly continued writing Butter Honey Pig Bread, despite the fact that she didn’t have any plans for publication. “I was just following my interests,” she says. “A lot of ideas were falling into place though I didn’t know how they would work out.” That includes food: the book is filled with lingering scenes of meal preparation. “I love to cook and to read about food and watch shows about food,” Ekwuyasi says. “I really wanted the book to feel sensual, separate from sex.”

On a friend’s recommendation, Ekwuyasi sent an unsolicited partial draft to Arsenal Pulp Press. She was familiar with the publisher, which has a reputation for spotting rising talents, through her job at Venus Envy, a sex shop and bookstore. “I really liked what they produce and how they support their writers,” she says.

Around the time she learned that Arsenal Pulp wanted her manuscript, Ekwuyasi lost her Canadian work permit for bureaucratic reasons (she’s now a permanent resident). She was worried for her future and whether she could finish the book for her new publisher. But all worked out: the city, the connections, and the writing.

“This is my dream come true,” Ekwuyasi says.

Photography by Mo Phung