Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer, artist, and filmmaker born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging. Her writing has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Brittle Paper, the Malahat Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, GUTS magazine and more. Her debut novel Butter Honey Pig Bread was a Canada Reads 2021 runner-up, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award, the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and a Lambda Literary Award.
Butter Honey Pig Bread is Francesca Ekwuyasi’s debut novel which weaves together the three intertwined stories of twin sisters Kehinde and Taiye, and their mother Kambirinachi. Across continents and through childhoods and adulthoods, via cooking and art and love and loss, the three women face the wounds of the past in order to embrace their future.
Interviewed by Caley Byrne
Caley Byrne (CB): It is a pleasure to interview you, Francesca. I was so excited to have the opportunity to read your book and chat to you. So let’s get started. Upon completing the novel, I reflected a lot on the way you separated and named the book’s four sections. I’m curious: at what point did the novel’s title reveal itself to you?
Francesca Ekwuyasi (FE): Well, I started writing it under a different name! But by the time I was through it, it was very much a different story, so the title Butter Honey Pig Bread came from the prominence those four ingredients took, to my perception. Perhaps at a different time, it might have been different ingredients that were most apparent to me, but those were the ones that came out. So during the editing process, it made sense to block out each section of the book according to those words because it just flowed that those were the prominent ingredients in each section.
CB: I was intrigued by the voices of the twins – so similar in some ways, yet so very different in many others. For example, the twins had many shared memories, but experienced them very differently. What was it like writing that?
FE: I think that was one of the more, I suppose, natural things (even though I hesitate to use that word), because of my own experience of my childhood. Me and my siblings and my cousins have very different experiences of the same things, so it’s a play on that. I also wanted to touch on how trauma can affect memory; I think memory is very unreliable and that’s another prominent thing in the story I wanted to play with, having unreliable narrators, because trauma really affects how we remember or perceive things. For the twins, only one of them, Kehinde, experienced a trauma firsthand but Taiye experienced the secondhand trauma and I wanted to illustrate how both of them were affected. But that trauma that Kehinde experienced was just one thing; they both lost their father suddenly and lived with a mother who they felt was unavailable so really, they experienced some shared and some distinct trauma. And even though the loss of their father was a shared trauma, it affected them differently, just as Kehinde’s trauma affected her differently than it affected her twin. I wanted to illustrate how memory is affected but also how the stories that we tell ourselves, our own individual narratives, propel us.
CB: The book was rife with so many gorgeous, sensuous descriptions of foods! Are you a cook yourself? If so, what do you like to make for people you love?
FE: Yes, I love to cook so much! What I like to make changes with the seasons. In cooler weather, I like to make hot, spicy food like jollof rice, shrimp stew and hot noodles. And in the summertime, I like to make something I started calling ‘love cake’. It’s a very simple tart with lots of fresh fruit and honey; ideally, passionfruit is involved! So it changes; it depends on the weather, depends on the season, but I tend to make the same things over and over until I’ve perfected them.
CB: There are a few characters in the book who aren’t accepted for who they are because of their faith community. If it’s comfortable for you, can you speak a bit more to what the intersection of faith and queer identity means to you?
FE: Investigating that is something that has informed my creative practice for a few years now. I’m really interested in hearing how different people from different faith backgrounds who are queer reconcile and navigate that. I don’t have an answer to the question, I’m still trying to figure it out, but in 2019 I had an artist’s residency at the Khyber and this was the main theme. I made a docu-series where I interviewed people while they cooked, and I asked them about their faith backgrounds and their queerness and how they make peace or if they even feel the need to make peace. In Nigeria, queerness is criminalized, and also it is a hyper-religious country, and even beyond Nigeria, I’ve heard a lot of homophobia justified by religious people. But there are also lots of people of faith in all religions who are queer; that just exists whether it’s accepted or not! I am really interested in people’s stories about that. So, for example, in the book Taiye is someone of faith who likes to go to church and who finds solace in attending mass and in singing, and she’s a queer person, and she’s a very complicated, hedonistic person. But it’s not complicated for her. And I know lots of people like that, and I also know lots of people who struggle because they aren’t convinced that God accepts them and they feel like they are doing something wrong by accepting their queer identity. So… I guess I’m still exploring this question!
CB: You write so evocatively about Halifax and about Lagos – the bridges, the roads, the markets, the flowers and plants! I could imagine being there in those places (and I haven’t been to either!). What did writing about those places evoke in you? Does writing about a place bring up certain feelings (eg. of love, loneliness, nostalgia, etc.) for you?
FE: Absolutely. I’ve experienced different places at different points in my life, so for example I have memories of living in Albany, New York that are very lonely, and memories of living in Halifax that are really exciting. And I wanted to illustrate that in the lives of the book’s characters, who were moving. I also really love to read books that have a very strong sense of place, so the types of books that I enjoy reading informed how I wrote this book. I wanted readers to feel super immersed in each place that the characters were immersed in.
CB: What is your writing process? Has it changed over time?
FE: Well, the thing is, it has to change, because I haven’t had much of a process! I’ve just sort of haphazardly written, and this book took seven years. It was a passion project. Now because I want to continue, I feel that I have to have a more diligent, more disciplined process. But for now, my process involves reading a lot and taking a lot of notes. And not just reading, but also experiencing all sorts of art, like going to galleries and watching documentaries and experiencing many forms of art, because it all informs each other.