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Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

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The Giller Prize jury states, “It is a delightful gift to find a book you feel fortunate to have read, akin to discovering a treasure. That is the case with The Son of the House. The novel explores issues of patriarchy and classism, themes of friendship and loss through the lenses of two very different yet unexpectedly connected women in Nigeria. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia writes a modern novel with fairytale elements and prose that punches you in the gut, leaving you wonderfully stunned by the time the book is finished.”

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a lawyer, academic, and writer. She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University and works in the areas of health, gender, and violence against women and children. Cheluchi divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

Don't miss your chance to win one of three copies of THE SON OF THE HOUSE on our giveaways page*

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What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

After I had been overcome, blown over, and it had begun to sink a bit, I tried to go back to work, to an assignment I had been working on. But I found I couldn’t focus, so I gave myself permission to take the rest of the day off, not a very usual occurrence!

The Son of the House tells the story of two Nigerian women, Nwabulu and Julie. They come from vastly different worlds but their lives intersect when they are both kidnapped. Why did you want to tell this story?

I wanted to tell this story because I wanted to articulate what it felt like to be female in a particular culture at a particular point in time. This is the story, not often told of women and girls, living what might have been seen as ordinary lives, but lives full of meaning, purpose, and resilience in a not always favourable setting. Not so much has changed, though it is changing.  

Outside the writing sphere, you’re also a lawyer and an academic. Can you talk more about how these other professional roles inform your writing?  

In some ways, my writing is distinct from these lives, but in others they intersect. Much of my lawyering and teaching are in health law and gender law, where there are often situations that emphasize the need for a rights-based approach, and a holistic understanding of dilemmas that face us including at the point of death. I find that my instincts in my writing as in teaching or lawyering often tend towards justice. My advocacy for support domestic violence survivors or the reform of mental health laws for example might differ from my writing, but my writing and imagination help me see the people for whom I advocate.

At this particular moment in Canada’s history, what does our literature offer us?

With all that have been revealed for instance about the Indigenous children who died, and with the focus on racism in Canada as in other parts of the world, our literature allows us an opportunity to reflect on what true inclusion means and how we can become a more whole people by reckoning with our past and doing better. The different literatures of the people who call Canada home can educate but also help us deepen our engagement with these issues at a deeper, more human level and imagine a more just future.  

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

The Book of Negroes. As an African-Canadian, it has special resonance for me, an insistence that we not forget.

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Excerpt from The Son of the House

Chapter One

1972

I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna.

My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten. That morning, before it was fully day, I went by myself on a big bus, the kind that went to Lagos. I went to live with Papa Emma and his wife. I would do little chores around the house and I would be sent to school. That was what Mama Nkemdilim told me. I was excited to go, a little apprehensive too, but I knew that anywhere would be better than living with Mama Nkemdilim after my father had died. And Lagos was the biggest city in Nigeria — everyone knew that. Mama Nkemdilim said men who had gone from our village either married Yoruba women and never came back, or they came back smelling of money and comfort.

It was no surprise that Mama Nkemdilim would send me away at the first opportunity that knocked on our door.

“Amosu,” she would call me, a witch. “Why do you still hold out your hands for food?” she would ask, squeezing her face in puzzlement when I stood outside the kitchen, waiting for food. “Is all that blood you suck from me and my children not enough? Or does it all go to your big head?” she would wail, referring to my head, which looked huge on my thin body. Other children called me Atinga, giving proper due to my bony slenderness. Mama Nkemdilim did not think that the little food we had in the house should be wasted on putting extra flesh on my bones. Extra flesh would be a drag on the speed needed to run the many errands she sent me on.

Mama Nkemdilim blamed me for all her misfortunes. And misfortunes had visited often since she came to live with us, coming down like rain in July. When she could not conceive after two years of marriage to my father, she pointed fingers at me. A dibia, she said, had told her that I was responsible for her empty womb. Bad luck, she liked to say, followed me around like the mosquito sought the ear at night; like flies followed feces. After my father died, she would point out that he had survived the war where he had served as a soldier, had withstood poverty, had held on to life after I came along and killed my mother as I forced myself out into the world. My father had weathered all this. But how, she asked, did one survive a wicked child who had killed her mother?

“You will not kill me too,” she would cry, conviction ringing like a soprano alongside the alto of disgust. “Mbanu, you will not. I am not as foolish as your mother, not as soft as your father. I will kill you before you kill me,” Mama Nkemdilim would insist, as if I, a mere child, were a monster with seven heads like those spirits in fairy tales.

“I did not kill my mother and father,” I would say, my head turned away, waiting for her hard knuckles to rap against my almost hairless big head. A loud, painful koi.

Yet all her blows had not yet driven away the remnants of my defiance. If I could kill, the spirit in me said, Mama Nkemdilim would not be living while my father and mother lay in their almost forgotten graves, now covered by grass in front of my father’s house. When she approached with the cane she hastily broke off from the onugbu plant beside the kitchen, I did not stop for her hand to go up and down my body. I ran out to the road, screaming for my dead father, even though I knew my punishment would wait until I came back to my senses and returned home. When she starved me, I woke up in the night to creep to the kitchen and help myself to some of the soup and dry fish she gave only to her children, to prevent kwashiorkor, she would proclaim.

When I turned ten, Papa Emma, a distant relative of Mama Nkemdilim’s, came home to the village at Christmas. He said he needed someone to help his wife around the house. Mama Nkemdilim thought that I would be a good choice: it would get rid of me. But she also worried that it might be too much of an opportunity for me.

“Do you not think that this is too good for her?” she asked her friend, Mama Odinkemma.

I listened intently from outside the kitchen.

“Hmm,” Mama Odinkemma said, “do you want her living here, sucking your blood, sucking Nkemdilim and her sister’s blood every night, while blowing cool air on all of you like a rat?”

“Eh, that is true talk. Eziokwu. But what if she becomes a big person in Lagos?”

Mama Odinkemma laughed. It was a genuine laugh. And it went on for long. She could not imagine Nwabulu, the Atinga, becoming a big person anywhere. Not even in Lagos, I heard her say. For once, I did not disagree with Mama Odinkemma, Mama Nkemdilim’s thick-set friend with the pointed mouth that made you wonder how food made it through to her belly. And yet she could often be counted on to be chewing something like a goat chewing cud. I silently agreed with her that it was laughable that I could become a big person by cleaning, cooking, and doing chores in a house, even if it was in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria. Even a ten-year-old child, who had not gone to school for two years, knew that this was like the long tales the tortoise told the other animals he had offended by his greed so that they would not throw him down from the sky.

What sealed my fate was Mama Odinkemma saying, “Mama Nkemdilim, send this child away. That child has her mother’s blood. They are all witches in her mother’s family. You do not want her to initiate your children into the cult, or worse still, kill them?”

After that, Mama Nkemdilim satisfied the necessary obligation of informing my uncle Nnabuzo. I wanted to go to Lagos, climb mountains and swim seas, just to get far away from my stepmother. But I did not want to leave my uncle Nnabuzo.

My uncle did not like the idea of Mama Nkemdilim sending me all the way to Lagos. It should have been his responsibility to determine what happened to me, his brother’s child, but he appeared weak before Mama Nkemdilim’s verbal and emotional onslaughts. Sometimes her barbs were subtle, but more often they were blunt like the stone with which we ground pepper in the small mortar.

“Let me take Nwabulu,” he said to Mama Nkemdilim. “At least we will keep our eyes on her.” He rested worried eyes on my face, but his tone was gentle, as always.

“Did my husband, your brother, not say that what he would like most was for Nwabulu to go to school?” she asked. Mama Nkemdilim always knew the right thing to say.

“Yes, it is true,” Nnabuzo said.

“The people with whom she will live will send her to school. Emma told me himself. I cannot send her to school,” she moaned. “It is all I can do to feed myself and your brother’s children.”

Nnabuzo knew when he was defeated. My uncle could barely feed his own family with his palm-wine-tapping trade. His wife, Nnedi, had a baby every year. At last count, there were nine of them. Her thin frame was often to be seen with a protruding tummy as she was going about her duties. I had heard Mama Nkemdilim say that her baby-a-year habit was the result of my uncle Nnabuzo’s sickening inability to keep his own penis to himself. Mama Nkemdilim reminded him as often as possible of his neglected duties to his late brother’s family, always implying that, in the face of his failure to do so, she must continue to shoulder a man’s burdens on her frail woman’s shoulders.

On the day I left, a cold harmattan morning in January, Nnabuzo was the only one who came to say goodbye. I dressed in the dark, half listening to my half-sister, Nkemdilim, as she slept on the other side of the bed, sucking her tongue noisily as she was wont to do, the sound going thu thu thu rhythmically.

Excerpted from THE SON OF THE HOUSE. Copyright © 2021 by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia. Excerpted by permission of Dundurn Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

October 28, 2021
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