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In Conversation With Author Onyi Nwabineli On Love, Grief And Addressing Inequality In The Publishing Space

Following on from our October Book Club, we took the chance to sit down and talk to our panellist, author Onyi Nwabineli, about writing about grief and her mission to address underrepresentation in publishing.

In Onyi Nwabineli’s debut novel – Someday, Maybe – we meet Eve, who recently lost her husband Quentin to suicide. For the next 341 pages, she blindly stumbles through the stages of grief, guided by her close friends and family. Eve’s gut-wrenching first person narration is often punctuated by memories (of her childhood, of her marriage) as she attempts to make sense of the unthinkable.

Key to the novel are Eve and Quentin’s vastly different backgrounds. She is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, while he is the shame-faced son of English aristocrats who “basically own Sussex”. This contrast provides fertile ground for an exploration of how race, class and culture manifest themselves in romantic relationships. Much of the book, Nwabineli says, was inspired by her own experiences. The author was born in Benin, Nigeria, raised in Glasgow, the Isle of Man and Newcastle, and currently lives in London.

Her book has already received high praise from the likes of Derek Owusu and Bolu Babalola, and for good reason too. Someday, Maybe is a poignant meditation on love, loss and how one might respond if everything they knew was suddenly undermined.

Someday, Maybe is your debut novel, but you also work in tech. Can you provide a potted history of your journey into writing?

Ask my parents and they’ll tell you that I’ve been telling stories since I could talk. Our house in my childhood was my stage and I would tell stories to anyone who would listen– even my toys. Writing is an extension of that and I’ve been doing so since I was able to hold a pencil. I studied English and creative writing at university and even though I chose a career in tech, I have never stopped writing. There are three novels in my hard drive that will never see the light of day and I have had blogs and founded writing challenges. Someday, Maybe is the culmination of excellent timing, publishers who initially found me through an open call, and an amazing agent who believed in me and my story.

Someday, Maybe is the culmination of excellent timing, publishers who initially found me through an open call, and an amazing agent who believed in me and my story.

Where did the idea for Someday, Maybe come from?

The reason this book exists is because I was asked by a dear friend of mine to write about grief – specifically the grief she felt when she lost her husband unexpectedly. I baulked at the idea and refused initially but she would not let it rest. You can’t really shy away from such a request when it comes from someone you love. It was never meant to be a novel, but after presenting my friend with a few pages, she gently bullied me into turning it into something more.

The reason this book exists is because I was asked by a dear friend of mine to write about grief – specifically the grief she felt when she lost her husband unexpectedly.

For those who haven’t read the book, tell us about the central character, Eve.

Eve is a young widow. A British-Nigerian woman who is struggling with grief following the unexpected suicide of her husband, Quentin. She’s a witty, multifaceted, imperfect and very human character who embodies a complete rejection of the pressure we all face to “get over it” and “be okay” in a society where capitalism doesn’t even let us mourn properly.

How did you craft her character?

With difficulty. No, but seriously, the temptation is to follow an arc where everything is tied up neatly and I wanted to make sure that Eve reflected real life, which is much messier than that. I made a lot of mistakes with her in the early days of writing but I think I struck the right balance in the end. As I mentioned, she is so human, which means that she gets things wrong like we all do, and that’s okay.

I made a lot of mistakes with her in the early days of writing but I think I struck the right balance in the end.

I’ve read that the book was “strongly influenced” by your own immigrant experience – can you elaborate?

I find comfort and confidence in writing what I know. So there are always going to be elements of my culture, heritage and life experiences in the work I produce. My culture and heritage can’t really be separated from me as a person. My parents, even when they moved to the UK, sought out and built Nigerian and African communities so that we remained rooted in our culture whilst navigating a brand new one.

You’ll find that Nigerian and particularly Igbo culture underpins this story, and since I do explore themes such as race and class, and how they intersect, lived experience is an excellent research tool for me.

"There are always going to be elements of my culture, heritage and life experiences in the work I produce. My culture and heritage can’t really be separated from me as a person."

For Eve and her family, how do you think culture shapes their experience of loss?

There are established Igbo funeral and mourning rites which are touched upon in the story. I wanted to give those customs the respect they deserve whilst acknowledging that Quentin and Eve meet in the middle of two very different cultures. I would say that Eve mourns in a way that is very much her own, and that’s part of why I love her.

The novel starts in the days after Quentin’s suicide. Did you always plan on opening at that point, or did you experiment with other introductions?

This was always how I wanted the novel to start. I didn’t want there to be speculation about if and when Quentin might die – I wanted the reader to know it had happened and to meet Eve immediately after the fact. I wanted them to know her and follow her journey right from the beginning.

Aspen, Quentin’s mother, is the main antagonist. At one point she turns up to Eve’s house with some particularly vicious words, a theme which continues throughout the book. Can you explain their relationship dynamic for those who haven’t read the book?

The well-trodden mother-in-law feud runs a little deeper for Eve and Aspen. There is no love lost between these two at all. Here we explore the prickliness that sometimes springs up when you are dealing with interracial relationships further exacerbated by stark class lines. Aspen is openly hostile to Eve and Eve simply opts out of engaging with her, something that a woman of Aspen’s standing is not used to and cannot deal with. It’s a complex relationship because Quentin stands between these two women and the way he handles things leaves something to be desired. But I don’t want to give too many spoilers.

Here we explore the prickliness that sometimes springs up when you are dealing with interracial relationships further exacerbated by stark class lines.

Suicide and grief are heavy subjects – were there any parts of the novel you found particularly difficult to write?

The parts where Eve questions herself, her love for her husband and her suitability as a partner were difficult. Suicide is still taboo and we still have such a long way to go in finding how to support people through suicidal ideation and through mental health issues in general. Guilt is a big part of the problem as it is experienced by those struggling and those left behind. It was tough to write out some of the feelings and questions others (including myself) have felt and asked, because there are no satisfactory answers.

Eve loves Quentin unreservedly and struggles to see any real imperfection in him or their relationship, particularly in the early stages of her grief. One issue she did identify, however, was his inability to comprehend her experiences as a Black woman. Why did you choose to include this point?

I included this because it’s fair and important to acknowledge that love isn’t enough to overshadow this sometimes. You can love someone with your whole heart and still concede that there are some things you simply won’t be able to fully grasp because it is not and will never be your experience. That can be very hard in a relationship, because issues such as race inform almost every aspect of our existence in society.

You can love someone with your whole heart and still concede that there are some things you simply won’t be able to fully grasp because it is not your experience.

A recurring metaphor in the novel is food as an expression of love. Eve’s Ma makes her “okra soup, ayamase, yam, rice, plantain, moin moin, stockfish”, her Nnenne sends dried bitter leaf from Nigeria, Henrietta brings stews and soups to Eve’s hotel room and Luisa prepares delicious tres leches cake for her. Can you talk about the role food plays in the novel, and the relationship between food, love and grief?

Food as an act of love transcends cultures. It’s how we celebrate, it’s how we care for people and it can be such a touching expression of love at our lowest points that it was second nature for me to write this into the novel. I just see it through my cultural lens. Grief can be debilitating; it can literally make you regress, and sustenance can fall by the wayside. So we gather and we fill fridges and cupboards and we make soups and stews and rice to keep our strength up – sadness requires so much strength. It is also such an easy way to show that you feel for someone, a way of saying, “I may not fully understand what you are going through, but I care for you. Here is an example of my care.”

"Food as an act of love transcends cultures. It’s how we celebrate, it’s how we care for people and it can be such a touching expression of love at our lowest points."

You are also the founder of Black Pens, the UK’s first writing retreat for Black womxn. Can you tell us a little about the retreat and why you think spaces like this are so vital?

I tweeted something innocuous about wishing such a space existed and the response was so phenomenal that, once again, I was softly “coaxed” into creating it myself. Our inaugural retreat took place this July and it was so refreshing and uplifting. The importance of strengthening our intra-communal bonds cannot be overstated. Our diasporic experiences are explored best when we are surrounded by each other. Plus, at its core, Black Pens exists to, in some small way, address the inequity in the publishing space. Our stories are so vibrant and our talent is far-reaching, but we’re still grossly underrepresented across the board. I want to chip away at this gap.

Have you benefited from such spaces yourself?

I have been fortunate to learn from industry experts and to be able to explore personal journeys such as faith, career and even things like sexual assault survival in communities of amazing Black womxn. I can wholeheartedly say I would not be where I am without them and I can only hope that I can continue giving back.

I can wholeheartedly say I would not be where I am without them and I can only hope that I can continue giving back.

What do you want readers to take away from Someday, Maybe?

That there is no shelf-life for grief. That everyone’s healing process is different and valid. That love is a powerful force in all its forms: platonic, familial and romantic. That community is everything. That siblings are annoying in the best possible way.

Should we expect more novels in the future? If so, what themes would you like to explore?

I certainly hope so. I will be exploring themes such as love, parental relationships, social media and, when I get a little braver, something on the fantasy side.

Beautifully honest and overflowing with wit, Someday Maybe is one of our Book Club favourites this winter, and it is available now.