The latest novel from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite, Baby is mine (Alpha Decay), it starts out like a kind of dream. The protagonist, Bambi, wakes up with a WhatsApp conversation on his face: his partner holds in front of his eyes the proof that he has been unfaithful. Braithwaite doesn’t give us time to settle down. Bambi has to leave home immediately and do so in a very particular situation: in the middle of confinement due to COVID-19. From here, the writer will not take her foot off the gas for a single moment and, just a few pages later, Bambi finds herself living with two women and a baby named Remi, who will become the axis of the story. And then an unusual and even counterintuitive question appears: who is the baby’s mother?
After winning the British Book Award in the Crime and Thriller category and achieving overwhelming success with My serial killer sister (Alpha Decay), this second novel now arrives in Spain. Although both books fit the structure of the thriller and tell a story about the complexity of family relationships –all of them dysfunctional– Baby is mine it has been doubly marked by the pandemic context: first, because its plot takes place in a quarantined city, Lagos; and second, because she herself was locked up when she finished writing it.
However, it seems difficult to classify it as a novel about the virus: for Braithwaite the home confinement is only the narrative engine of an artifact that updates the biblical account of King Solomon and invites us to reflect on the relationship between motherhood and resignation, on the centrality of care and the legitimacy of affections outside the institutional framework of the nuclear family.
In an interview In 2019 they asked him which was the best book of the year and he said his own. I find it interesting because the opposite usually happens with young successful writers: not only do they suffer from impostor syndrome, but they end up distancing themselves from their own books. Did you experience that pressure when you were a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize or after the first novel?
They asked me what was my favorite book of the year and yes, my own book was my favorite that year; after all, it meant my dream had come true. As for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, that’s how I finally got my agent, but apart from that, I was still a stranger at that time and didn’t feel the weight of expectations. This changed drastically after the publication of My Sister the Serial Killer. Since then, I have felt that pressure a lot. I have felt like an impostor. I have felt blessed. I’ve been overwhelmed. I’ve been ecstatic. And finally: I have been terrified.
How are these feelings related to exposure on social media? For example, do you read the reviews of your novels on Goodreads?
Before I used to read a lot of comments on Goodreads and on social media, but now I prefer to avoid it, especially reviews. I believe that even positive reviews have a way of skewing your perception of yourself and your work.
Another generational issue that has been put on the table lately is the precariousness that almost always accompanies the writing process, the importance of From where is written. How does the economic issue influence when publishing?
When you do artistic work, in general, you should always keep in mind that you are taking a risk. I have worked in recent years as an editor, as a production manager, as a freelance writer and graphic designer and in the meantime, I wrote stories and poems whenever I had a free moment. Fortunately, now I can write full time.
His two books published in Spain have been cataloged as thrillers, but in both the most interesting is the moral and gender debate. Have you felt judged for treating sensitive topics even with some grace?
No, they haven’t tried me. At least they haven’t done it in my face. Also, I think that many people find it easier to digest debates of any kind if the author does not position herself clearly. Humor is a great way to express your point of view without making it sound like you’re being a moralist. Although I must also admit that it was not my intention that My Sister the Serial Killer was considered fun. I thought it was quirky, but I wouldn’t have said it’s a funny novel.
Taking into account that Baby is mine It happens in a pandemic context, I understand that it can only have been written very quickly, how was the process?
He had a deadline to deliver the novel but was struggling with the plot before the pandemic hit. For the book to work in a contemporary setting, my characters had to be denied access to a medical facility in some way. Then the closure occurred. Nigeria crashed in March and I got my answer.
Something that contributes to this sense of speed in writing are the very short scenes, with dialogue concentrated in a few sentences. Do you have the graphic representation of the scene in mind while you are writing?
Sometimes I try to imagine the scene, yes. But most of the time, I write without much planning, go back, read it, and try to figure out if I like the way the scene and dialogue flow. I guess I tend to treat each chapter as a story on its own, but I’m not entirely sure I’m being honest about all of this because my process changes, and I want my writing to evolve. It is probably too early to specify how I write.
The pandemic context also confers a certain universality to the novel, as if the city in which the action takes place was not particularly important. Is there a deliberate attempt to transcend local peculiarities?
There is no deliberate intention and in fact I usually work twice as hard to try to bring life to the environment and the context in which my characters find themselves. However, it is true that I have been made the same note many times before, I suppose it is because my descriptions tend to be brief and depend heavily on tone and dialogue.
Both in My sister, serial killer like in Baby is mine Family relationships and dynamics are at the center of the plot: the conflict starts from problematizing that relationship. What does the family offer as a topic for literary exploration?
For me everything starts from home. The family is the first community with which we interact, it is also the environment in which we are formed for the first time. What if the family is dysfunctional in some sense? That’s when it can provide great material to work with.
In this new nouvelle turns around the usual tale of who the father is to launch a seemingly obvious question: who is the mother of a baby. It is interesting because a series of elements appear that not only have to do with biology, who has given birth to the baby, but who cares for him and who wants to take care of him.
For a time, he had wanted to write a modern version of the biblical account of King Solomon and the two mothers. I suppose what fascinated me about this particular tale were the choices the two women made: one is clearly devastated by grief and the other in fear. When they must choose whether to split the baby in half, one of the women chose death and thus it is also decided that she is not the mother, that she is not maternal.
Why a male narrator for this story?
Since it was based on the story of King Solomon, I simply continued from that thread and thus chose a male narrator. I could have changed the genre, but the truth is that I use female narrators 90% of the time in my work and I decided that this story presented a good opportunity to commit to the development of a man as a protagonist.
The novel can have many readings about motherhood, did you have any political intention in this line, for example, questioning the business of surrogacy?
I didn’t have a political message in mind, I rarely do when it comes to writing stories. The debate you raise is complex, you have to consider the potential abuse that occurs in these situations, but I think my novel focuses on love and care. What the book basically says is that it is one thing to give birth, another to love a child and another thing to have the ability to care for a baby.