When Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder was released in September, it was met with wide acclaim — and for good reason. It’s a captivating queer coming of age story about Otolorin, an intersex Nigerian child who is born as a boy and identifies as a girl but must hide her identify for most of her life. While Papillon’s debut, which was first released overseas last year, is certainly a heavy read (it includes storylines around child abuse, sexual assault, homophobia and more), it’s an equally important one; there aren’t many stories like Otolorin’s in bookstores right now.
Born in Nigeria and raised in the UK, Papillon — who studied law at Hull University in the UK and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at LEsley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts — said she felt compelled to tell Otolorin’s story.
“This book took me many years,” Papillon shares with R29Unbothered over the phone. “It wasn't an easy journey because it’s such a different book than many books in many ways. It had to find the right person, the right publisher, the right agent, so all of this took a lot of steps and a lot of time and a lot of tenacity. I think it was always going to be my debut novel. Otolorin wasn't going to let me be until I put her story out there.”
Papillon says another reason why her novel was challenging to write is because it’s a reflection of much of what she witnessed around her growing up. According to Reuters, same-sex relations are legal in just 22 of Africa's 54 countries. They’re also punishable by death or extensive prison sentemces in some nations, according to a global review done by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
As an advocate for intersex and trans voices, Papillon hopes that her book inspires people to fight for inclusion. “People should please go read books written by intersex authors. People should go visit [sites like] the ILGA foundation,” she urges. “These are all places where people can learn more and understand more how they can be part of this particular conversation and be able to help and uplift intersex voices and trans voices.”
Below, Papillon talks about her stunning debut, LGBTQ rights in Nigeria, and how Otolorin’s story can hopefully be a vehicle for change.
We're all building this world as we go along, and to say ‘this is how it has always been’ in response to calls for change is one of the greatest injuries that we do to ourselves as a species.
R29Unbothered: How are you feeling now that your book is out in the States?
Buki Papillon: “I've just been amazed by the warm reception that it has received. I've been receiving private messages nonstop from readers who have told me that it's affected them in some way or changed their lives or their perspective. It's just a delight. I'm full of gratitude that this book is out there doing everything I had hoped for and more. I can't even describe. It's been a miracle, really.”
When did you know that this was going to be the story you told in your debut novel?
“This book took me many years. I got the idea for it around the end of my MFA. I finished my MFA at Lesley University in Cambridge here in Massachusetts in 2007. I did a little study about Nigerian deities, and I got this idea and it was just at the back of my head. I wrote this as fast as I could, as this story just poured out of me. But of course, when I finished my MFA, I had to go do things that brought in money, so I had to go back to find a job and work. I put aside writing for a while and I followed a career path, but this story wouldn't leave me alone. It just kept insisting, so I'd write a little more. Eventually it came to a point where I knew that I really needed to just sit down and get this book done and get it out there.”
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
I was that child with my nose in a book nonstop. I read voraciously from when I was really little. I remember myself as a three-year-old reading books that were for seven-year-olds. The first time I think I ever truly wrote something that other people read was when my literature teacher in secondary school discovered that I had such a love for words. She encouraged me to write a poem based on The Passport of Mallam Ila by an African writer, Cyprian Ekwensi. I got to read it to everyone in the school, and it was such a seminal moment for me; I think it planted the seed inside. Then I would go on to not write anything at all again for years until I was an adult, until I went to the university, until I came to the US.
This is a very vulnerable book that makes such a powerful statement. It touches upon the conversation about differences and the ways that we have to hide certain parts of ourselves because society may not readily accept them. Were there parts of yourself that you had to keep hidden growing up? What were you taught about sexuality and gender?
That is a really good question and a very big one. I grew up in a very conservative society. Growing up in Nigeria, when it came to gender and sexuality, it was not so much about being taught anything as it was 'Basically, this is the way things are. This is the way things have always been and will always be forever and ever. Amen everlasting. There's a binary. There are men and women. Full stop. So there was nothing around me that was allowed to suggest otherwise. And yet, looking back, for me it was a question of denial, as it has been in many societies. It still is in so many places worldwide. People I encountered growing up in Nigeria, at the various schools, universities, institutions of higher learning that I attended, people around me [are in denial] in many ways. But of course, I cannot elaborate more because it remains unsafe for LGBTQI+ people over there. But you could see it, but it was hidden in plain sight. And it's still hidden in plain sight that there is not a binary. So I had to keep my way of thinking growing up because it did not conform under the fact that I questioned why anyone should be persecuted because of who they love. I had to keep those ponderings to myself.
Run towards change that is inclusive. Run away from anything that excludes.
I was reading that same sex relationships are legal in only 22 of Africa's 54 countries and are punishable by death, and that's just horrible.
Yeah, and often the justice that is meted out in Nigeria. It's not like they actually wait for the law to do anything. People will actually themselves take so-called justice into their own hands, and the government would look the other way. It is so unfortunate that it’s like that. I'm hoping that the younger generation [is] changing things, and I hope that change will continue in that direction.
Are there any passages in this book that were based on either your personal experiences or the experiences of people around you?
Oh, wow. Yes. Too many to name. So much of this book is an outpouring I think in many ways also of my own. There's so many that I cannot actually even talk about, but I can definitely say that the [scenes of] children being accused of being witches and being literally tortured, those came from something that I actually actively witnessed on the scene. So that is just one example out of any number that I could talk about. But I'm not at liberty to say.
What did you learn about yourself during the writing process for this book?
Wow, I like that question! I learned that I can be incredibly persistent. And I think that is a quality that anyone who wants to write and who wants to be published and who wants to succeed really [needs to] have. Showing persistence, showing up at the desk, doing the right thing, showing up out there with your work, going out there and putting yourself out there with your work, weathering the rejections which are going to be inevitable and just getting up and dusting off. Also, one thing I learned from Octavia Butler that she advised is to write stories that are full of facts. This is important.
I love that. And what's the biggest takeaway that you want your readers to get from this book?
Above all, we are all human on one little tiny marble of a planet that is floating in infinite space, and we all just want to be loved. Listen to who someone says they are. There is absolutely no basis for excluding people, for putting people in a box. We're all building this world as we go along, and to say ‘this is how it has always been’ in response to calls for change is one of the greatest injuries that we do to ourselves as a species. Things change all the time and it is possible to run towards change that is inclusive. And in fact, that is the only decent human thing to do. Run towards change that is inclusive. Run away from anything that excludes.