Luke Rolfes: Buki Papillon’s novel, An Ordinary Wonder, is the 2022 winner of the Maya Angelou Book Award, and we at Laurel Review couldn’t be more pleased to talk with her today. Set in the 90’s, Papillon’s debut novel tells the story of Otolorin, an intersex Nigerian youth, who struggles with her identity as she tries to find a way to escape her toxic and abusive family. She is forced to live as a boy, even though she identifies as a girl. Papillon’s lovely tale, rich in character and Nigerian culture, shows the power of friendship, and how love can help a person transcend trauma. Above all, An Ordinary Wonder champions the idea of loving the self and being true to the person you are born to be.
Buki, I’d love to know about the genesis of this book. What drew you to this particular character and narrative, and this particular setting of early 90’s?
Buki Papillon: Thanks Luke! During my MFA at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass, I took a class for which I wrote an essay about African deities, more specifically Nigerian deities. This was the prominent basis for one of the main characters that appear in the book, Yeyemi - a mystical goddess that appears to Otolorin, the main character, in times of distress. She’s sort of an amalgamation of the water goddesses from the Nigerian pantheon of deities. I grew up in Nigeria. ….Writing that essay was what began the seed of the book, An Ordinary Wonder. Shortly after that, I just had this idea. I didn’t have more than a month left of my MFA and the character Otolorin almost literally, appeared to me and started telling me her story. So, it was really a series of events towards the end of my MFA that came together in a way to get me on the path of writing this book.
LR: And a brief follow up (if needed). Did you do much research for this novel project?
BP: Yes, I had to do a lot of research. I have boxes of research. I read very, very widely, and I have since I was very little. Some of it was just things that I talked to people about, or things that I observed growing up. Things that have to do with Yoruba culture and gender identity. All of these came together to form the basis of this book. I read a lot, and talked to many, many people
LR: I was intrigued by your choice of writing An Ordinary Wonder in first person. I’ve often found that first person is one of the best ways to get at the rawness of experience; however, I imagine it presented some difficulties because of Lori’s young age, and the fact that she was brainwashed by her family to consider herself a monster. Can you talk a bit about writing this novel in the first person? Were any earlier drafts in a different perspective?
BP: That’s an excellent question. The funny thing is, there was never anything but first person for Lori’s point of view. Again, going back to what I said earlier, she practically tapped me on the shoulder, stood behind me, and told me her story, “I am Otolorin, I want to be a girl but am being raised as a boy.” So, all of these facts, the core of the novel, came to me straight away. Right from the very beginning. And this voice was so immediate and so real, and so immediately in the first person, that it never… it just could not be any other way. I call Otolorin, the main character, Oto and Lori interchangeably because ultimately, in the book, she decides she can actually own both; all the aspects of everything that she wants to be, she can be. So, her name is Otolorin, and its Oto, and [it’s] Lori, [and] I will use those names interchangeably. Wura, who is Lori’s twin, at one point actually had her point of view for quite a while in the book, and then I realized after many, many rewrites that this wasn’t her story, and that it wasn’t how this story affected her. At one point I actually even had their mother’s point of view as well, [but] in third person. Eventually all of those had to fall by the wayside. I think I just needed to hear those other voices in order to know how to better tell Lori’s own story.
LR: One of the things I admired about this book was how seamlessly you weaved cultural context/history into the narrative. I loved the sense of place and time period you were able to establish, and how simply you conveyed the information to readers. Can you tell us about your process of writing place? And did you have an American audience in mind when writing this book?
BP: I like that, “my process of writing place”… for me it is a sanctuary to imagine myself right there. I put myself in this space and use all of my senses, touch, taste, sight, [and] smell. A lot of the cultural context and history in the book is what I grew up with. It’s set in Nigeria in a city called Ibadan, and so a lot of that cultural context is what I grew up with and what has always lived in my subconscious and continues to live in my subconscious. An example are the proverbs that Otolorin uses to sort of help raise herself, since there is effectively no adult raising her and those proverbs are one of the ways that she tries to get wisdom. Proverbs are a way of life that I also grew up with. Adults will also use proverbs to talk to children. To warn them, to teach them. And so, for example, there is a proverb that says, the leaves that are used to wrap soap will eventually become soap themselves, because traditionally when soap was made, in order to sell it, it was wrapped in leaves. After a while one could literally wash clothes with the actual leaves. They would feel just like soap. So, it’s a way of saying that whatever you grew up with is what comes out of you and what you become. So, for me I grew up with all of these cultural references, and it was sort of inevitable that whatever I write would reflect this. Actually, when I was writing this book, I don’t think I had so much of an audience in mind, as I had a reader. I had this person whose life was to be touched [by this book]. This book was going to make a difference for someone. I am a voracious reader, and books have completely changed my life on occasion, and there have been times when I’ve turned to books for advice or inspiration, and so I think that was what I wanted to achieve . This thing that had been done for me, I wanted to do for someone else.
LR: Otolorin endures scenes of brutal trauma throughout this narrative. She is humiliated, sexually assaulted, nearly murdered. These scenes are powerful reminders of the violence directed at people because of their gender and/or differences in identity. Yet, in the end, this book embraces optimism and hope. Can you explain how you balanced hope/hopelessness and trauma/healing in your narrative?
BP: I recently watched a documentary in which Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked how he maintained hope in the face of all the atrocities that had happened in South Africa, and he replied that it was because he was, himself, a prisoner of hope. That really struck me because I never thought of hope in those particular terms before, and it was really illuminating for me because that’s exactly what Lori is in a way, a prisoner of hope. If you decide that you have no choice but to hope, then it does not matter what happens. Then you always reach toward the light. And so, to me, this was what really balanced the tough parts- this…reaching towards hope. Somewhere there is light, and also looking for helpers. There are always helpers. There is always somebody. So that’s the thing to do in difficult situations, to reach towards the light and to always constantly believe that there are helpers, and they will find you or you will find them. So, I think that’s how I tried to balance that in Otolorin’s story.
LR: Let’s talk a bit about the vivid characters in this book. Otolorin’s relationship with her twin sister Wura is one of the more complicated relationships in the book. Sibling relationships, to me, are always complex and fascinating. Can you talk a bit about the choice to give Lori a twin sister in this novel, and how they, in turn, shaped each other’s identities?
BP: Yes, that’s one of my favorite relationships as well. I mean, I have so many siblings and it’s definitely complex. Your first way of figuring out how the world works is by the relationships in your family. That’s anybody’s original way of understanding how the world works. So, it might sound strange to nonwriters but Lori being a twin was something she herself told me right from the beginning. I got to know this character and within a few minutes I knew she was a twin. She told me that, right off the bat. Again, it also came from my subconscious. As I’d said earlier, those things come about from having grown up in the Yoruba culture. Yorubas have the highest frequency of twinning in the whole world. Everybody knows a twin, is related to a twin, went to school with a twin, has twins in their family; I have multiple twins in my family, I had an aunt who had two sets. So that also lives in my consciousness, and I think there’s a part of me that’s always wanted to be a twin, so this was also my opportunity to experience, in a way, what it was like. I imagined what it would be like to be or have someone who you were so close to. Also, I think Wura had been everything that Lori herself wanted to be or wanted to have. Wura got to be a girl, Wura got to have their mothers love, and for a little while their father’s affection. I think that helped to put Lori’s predicaments into perspective in the story.
LR: Lori and Wura’s mother is a perplexing and nuanced character. She is a villain capable of evil actions, yet there is a sadness to her. What are your thoughts on this character and how you want readers to perceive her?
BP: Otolorin’s mother, Moji, is very much a product of her society and environment, and I think that is where the sadness comes from. Understanding her character was definitely one of the things that exercised me as a writer. That took me to the edge of what skills I had as a writer to write this character that is, in some ways, evil and yet at the same time there’s this side to her that shows that she did not become that way randomly. Things happened to her to turn her into that, and the main thing that happened to her is the pressure on women in Yoruba culture, [and] in many [other] cultures of course, to have children. Specially to have male children [the pressure] is immense. In Yoruba culture, for women do not have children, sometimes the attitude towards them is like, “why is she even breathing air? She’s breathing air in the world reserved for people who actually produced children!” So it is that much of a massive pressure. Moji is someone whose dreams went sort of horribly wrong, and instead of opening her own eyes to the manner of man she married she decided to turn on her own child instead as a way to take it out on somebody. The mother’s dreams, all her plans, all her hopes had been shattered, so that she herself was now almost a castaway because of this child.
LR: Mr. Dickson (a teacher at Lori’s boarding school) is an important presence in her life (as is she to him). He, along with Derin and a few others, are vital in Lori’s discovery of her true self. To me, the characters of Mr. D. and Derin suggest the power of love and companionship---how the people we choose to love can be closer to us than the people who share our same blood. What do these characters mean to you, and what was your inspiration for them?
BP: Yes, they’re my favorite characters. I was asked once who I Identified with most, and I said I identified most with Mr. Dixon. It’s that because he had this whole arc to his own story of having been being a powerless man… powerless teen at a time he himself was trying to figure out his own sexuality, and then had an incident that left him in a place of powerlessness. So, there is this desire in him to somehow fix it by looking out for all the young people that might be in a position similar to himself, and so my inspiration for Mr. Dixon was literally every teacher that has been kind and understanding to the bullied child. Specifically looking out for those particular children to make sure that they know that there is someone. That there are helpers, like I said earlier. There is someone who can help, and that there is hope - which is so very important. So, I think the power of love and companionship is one of the most healing powers we as human beings have, especially for people who are rejected from or misunderstood by their family of origin. Because, I mean, found family does literally save lives, and I think that’s one of the things I hoped An Ordinary Wonder could convey to anyone who is in any way going through rejection or difficulties. To know that it is possible to find families everywhere and that it is possible to find helpers, and it is important to maintain hope.
LR: Congratulations again, Buki, on your well-deserved success and recognition. An Ordinary Wonder is a tremendous book. What is next for you and your writing? Do you have another project in the works?
BP: Yes, I do! And I cannot say much except that readers of An Ordinary Wonder will enjoy it. It’s about a family very much entangled in secrets and lies and their consequences. I [also] always ask that people go and support intersex communities, and also read books written by intersex people.
LR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/An-Ordinary-Wonder/Buki-Papillon/9781643137810
BP: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me, it was nice talking with you!