What's in a Page: Chibundu Onuzo wants us all to read more Alexandre Dumas
Chibundu Onuzo's latest novel, Sankofa, is all about change. Her protagonist, Anna, has separated from her husband and is struggling with the distance that has entered her relationship with her adult daughter. One day, while looking through a pile of her late mother's belongings, she finds a journal belonging to her estranged father — a man she never knew but is alive, well, and running (dictating?) a small country in West Africa. Anna heads off to the fictional Bamana to meet her father and rediscover herself. Here, the author of the book — which also happens to be Reese Witherspoon's October pick for her book club — talks to EW about her formative reading years and what it was like to write Sankofa.
What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
I started writing my first novel when I was 10. It was about a white American family that lived in California. As a child growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I watched a lot of American TV. It made me believe that characters in "cool" and "interesting" stories had to be white. I'm glad I grew out of that phase.
What is the last book that made you cry?
I don't really cry when I read books. Maybe Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz. One of the characters is sentenced to death by suicide by a Roman emperor, and I found the death scene very moving.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
In Every Mirror She's Black, by Lola Akinmade Âkerström.
Where do you write?
In my living room. I sit in an armchair and I use a lap desk I bought online. I'd like one day to have an entire room in my house dedicated to writing. I think more literal-minded people just call this a home office, but I prefer temple for the arts.
Which book made you a forever reader?
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas. It's the first thing I remember compulsively reading. There are so many twists and turns in that book. I also didn't know Dumas was Black when I read him the first time round. I think more people should know that the author of The Three Musketeers and The Man in an Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo was Black. Maybe it'll make a difference to how they cast the next screen adaptation of a Dumas novel.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Grapes. I'm always eating them.
If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I look forward not backwards when I think about my writing. You can't change a novel that's already published, in the same manner that you can't change the past. What's done is done.
What is your favorite part of Sankofa?
There's a passage where Anna goes to visit a former slave-trading fort in West Africa. She doesn't quite know how to process the experience. The site is both a tourist destination and a landmark for historical Black trauma. For some of her fellow tourists/pilgrims, the visit is deeply spiritual, and for others, it's just a chance to take selfies. I think the passage is both serious and funny, which I find a difficult balance to pull off.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
When Anna met her father for the first time. The novel had been building up to this meeting for over a hundred pages. She'd been wanting to meet him for 48 years. It had to be epic but it also had to be anticlimactic because how could any human experience live up to such hype?
Write a movie poster tag line for the book:
Based on the novel that sold 10 million copies.