Have multiple passions? Meet the creative who has success doing it all - interview with Chibundu Onuzo Ep. 2Aug 03, 2022
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For all my multi passionate creatives out there, this one’s for you! In today's episode, our guest helps us get to the core of what it takes to be successful with multiple passions.
Chibundu Onuzo became a published author aged 19 and went on to publish several other books. She’s also a singer-songwriter, screenplay producer and writer with a PhD in history.
Chibundu grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the UK in 2005, where she then signed her first book deal at nineteen. Her first novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize.
Chibundu’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos, was published by Faber in 2017 and in June 2018, Chibundu was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as part of its "40 Under 40" initiative. In the same year, she was awarded a PhD in History from King's College London for her research on the West African Students' Union.
In 2020, "Dolapo is Fine," a short film which Onuzo co-wrote, co-produced and composed the film score for, won the 2020 American Black Film Festival's HBO Short Film Competition and was long-listed for a BAFTA in 2021. Chibundu is also a singer songwriter and won the Drake Yolanda Music Award in 2021.
Onuzo's most recent novel, Sankofa, has already been selected by Reese
Witherspoon as her book club pick for October 2021.
In February 2022, she will release her first EP titled “Coming Home” published in June 2021 by Virago.
Snap, this girl packs a punch!
“Sorry I Can’t Pronounce Your Name”
Growing up in Lagos, Chibundu had a typical African childhood where she was blessed to be with her cousins, aunties, and uncles on a daily basis. She moved to the UK at the age of 14. She attended boarding school where she experienced culture shock.
The first classmate she met couldn’t pronounce her name and asked Chibundu if she had a nickname. She knew at that time, she was arriving on foreign soil.
Chibundu signed her first book deal at the young age of 19, and she notes that she doesn’t think she would have been published so young had she not attended boarding school.
How Her Writing Journey Began
“I always had access to lots of books. When you read a lot, at some point you think, “Why don’t I give this writing thing a go.” She shares with us, “I started my first novel at 10. My family took my writing seriously and treated it as a serious, legitimate endeavour.” They encouraged her to just go for it.
At one point, her mum entered her in a writing competition and Chibundu won 2nd place in the fiction category. This was a big deal and gave her a big boost in her writing confidence.
Growing Up Reading Colonial Books
It was common for people of her background to always look to the west for inspiration. So, she watched a lot of American cartoons and read a bunch of colonial books. She also notes that she didn’t read African writers properly until she moved to England. She read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe for the first time in boarding school in England.
She was surrounded by so much western imagery, the majority of her characters in her writing were white. When she moved to England, she started looking back to Nigeria for inspiration.
“When you're in a place, you don't really see it because you're just so involved in it. Moving to England gave me that distance. I also became more proud of being Nigerian.”
One of her friends was doing a project on African culture, and she chose Nigeria. She was going to do the project on Kenya, but when Chibundu arrived she switched it to Nigeria so she could ask Chibundu questions. The problem was, she had a fixed idea of what she was going to find. She kept asking Chibundu if they had elephants, giraffes, and just went through Noah’s ark animals. Chibundu jokes that she just didn’t understand.
She notes that her friend was quite frustrated because she had a safari theme and Nigeria was not fitting with her safari theme. At 14 or 15-years old, Chibundu realised she could not articulate a response to that question. Lagos is a cultural centre. There’s so much culture in the arts, but at the time she didn’t have the tools to respond.
The Standard of Beauty
“It was a very useful time for me, that teenage stuff takes a lot of headspace,” Chibundu explains.
Before leaving Nigeria, Chibundu was entering her feminine bloom whereas in England she felt like she was totally not the standard of beauty.
She remembers a dance with the boys in boarding school down the street, where nobody had asked her to dance. She feels like it was a useful time for her, especially creatively. She was able to spend time on her creative efforts instead of worrying about “dating”. She had a lot of headspace to be creative, even though her ego was bruised.
That Was Racist!
Chibundu shares how certain things affected her at the time. She started reading people like Frantz Fanon, Senghor, Maya Angelou and began to look back on some of the incidents that happened and realised some of the comments were racist. It wasn’t until after her experiences that she realised this. She even had conversations with her friends at the time in boarding school about how they used the N-word around her so often, and she was met with defensiveness.
“You have to release people so you can release yourself,” Chibundu added.
With time, Chibundu used her faith to reflect on forgiveness and not hold onto things that happened when she was a teen. She quit talking to people from boarding school because she was so angry, but she can talk about it now with banter. She acknowledges the experiences were far from right and the school should have had more policies to deal with racism, but she did not want rage and anger inside of her. Faith and meditating on the scriptures from the bible has helped her release and rise above it.
Her First Novel
Chibundu’s first novel was called The Spider King’s Daughter. She laughs as she tells us that she wrote this book in secret in the final years of her A levels instead of studying for exams. Her sister gifted her with a book called Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which is a book that every writer looking to be published in the traditional route should get.
She didn’t know anybody in publishing but she used her personal strength of PR and telling her own story and submitted a blind submission. After what seemed like forever, she heard from an agent after six weeks, who is now her agent.
Chibundu shares that all of the negative interactions she had were with her peers, but not with her teachers. She had a lot of gold stars and encouragement from her teachers. Her teachers supported her in pursuing her writing career.
What Inspires Her in Her Writing
“This podcast is the most exciting thing that has happened to me this week,” Chibundu laughs as she shares with us that her daily life is actually really boring. She relies on interviews and topics that interest her. She also reads a lot, and this also helps inspire her in her writing.
How to Make Sure Your Voice Isn’t Lost When Reading Other’s Work
“Of course we are all influenced by everybody. And what's original is when all these different things pass through my own conscience and subjectivity, something new and something different comes about, ” Chibundu explains how when this happens, what's left is original. “IF you could create something completely original then no one would understand it because it wouldn’t have any relation that’s gone on before,” she further explains.
Multi-passionate - Trademark Sahar
Chibundu lets us in on her singing passion and how at 16, she was scouted and almost got signed. Her dad didn’t think taking this deal was the right place for a 16 year old. At 19 she signed her book deal and started to be known as a writer.
“People at first are very skeptical if someone who is known in one field says they want to do something else,” Chibundu explains.
She found that people did not want to hear about her singing since she was known as a writer. “What people think about what you are doing is actually only a barrier in your mind.” There are real barriers but fake barriers are the people who think you can only be one thing. She encourages us to not do things just because somebody says you can't. Being multi-passionate isn’t a barrier, it’s a gift.
Being a Christian in This Industry
“Rejection is part of the process,” Chibundo states.
Chibundu shares with us that in this industry, you have to have a sense of self worth that is rooted in something that is eternal and not your career. “I am not my achievements, I am not my accomplishments, I am not my failures…. I am a child of God.” She tells herself that everything will work together for her good, even in rejection.
“Nothing is my one chance. Promotion and opportunity comes from God,” Chibundu boldly states. She discusses how she will hear creators say that certain opportunities are their one chance and she reminds us that opportunities come from God.
The Villain in Her Story
Chibundu shares with us a time that she felt a massive blow to her sense of self when she had to change publishers for a new novel. She was so up and down and the blow was so deep, she sought help by talking to a therapist. She learned during this season that she had rooted her identity in her writing and that writing is separate from who she is.
Her Proudest Moment So Far
Chibundu shares with us her proudest moment was her ‘1991’ show at the Southbank. There was dancing with music being played during certain chapters in her life. This was a time where all her multi-passionate talents in her life came together because they DO go together.
More From Chibundu
Chibundu ends our conversation with reminding us all that the main thing you need to have in your creative journey is to start. There was so much gold in this conversation with Chibundu! Please make sure to check out the full conversation here to listen to more inspiration from this remarkable woman. If you are interested in learning more about incredible writers, check out Sahar’s inspiring conversation with Alli Worthington.
How to connect with Chibundu:
Connect with Chibundu on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/chibundu.onuzo/
The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo
Links to check out:
Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook by Peter James