Buki Papillon March Artist of the Month as told to Andrea Read.
Your debut novel, An Ordinary Wonder, has received rave reviews. Tell us about your experience as a writer since its publication.
Thank you so much! I have been overwhelmed with gratitude for the response An Ordinary Wonder has received, most especially from having people who see themselves represented by, or who identify with the story or main character, tell me how it has moved them and also encouraged them. It has also been heart-warming to hear so many people say how reading An Ordinary Wonder has opened their eyes or broadened their thinking. It was my sincerest hope in addition, of course, to it being a hopefully transporting and engaging reading experience. From the out-of-body experience of seeing it take up nearly half a page in the New York Times Book review section, to it being a Ferro-Grumley Award finalist, to it being awarded Massachusetts Fiction Book Honors, and most recently becoming the Maya Angelou Award winner, I have been awed and delighted that An Ordinary Wonder has taken on a true life of its own. And because it features an intersex main character, I hope it continues to encourage readers to also seek out and read books by intersex authors, and follow and support intersex advocacy groups like the ILGA and InterAct.
How did you make your way from Nigeria to the Boston area and Somerville? What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in moving from Nigeria to the UK to the US?
I went to the UK to study law and there I met my husband, who is French, and then he got a postdoc in the US and we moved first to California and then to Somerville, Mass. With each move I’ve had to make new friends, figure out new ways to move through the world as a Black woman, and how to carve out niches for myself when it felt as if I was too odd to fit in the established spaces. It has certainly been an ongoing series of challenges adjusting to new ways of being and of doing things. Having been part of quite a few cultures by birth or marriage or residence so far in my life – Nigerian, British, French, American – there is this ongoing re-evaluation of who I am and constant adaptation to new situations and ways of thinking and being. Writing has been a way for me to ask myself questions and interrogate my own culture and upbringing, including my inherited biases and beliefs in order to discover who I am and what I believe.
Which authors have been important touchstones in your own writing life? What are some of your favorite childhood books?
My earliest and greatest influences have been Nigerian authors Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe. I read voraciously as a child growing up in Nigeria, and African classics were a staple of my education, as were popular books like the Pacesetter series. Over time my reading expanded to encompass European and American classics, including authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. My reading was never censored and there were boxes of books in a storeroom in my parent’s house which never got unpacked, and so I was exposed to all sorts of ideas early in life and able to make up my own mind about the world from what I filtered out of so many wide-ranging books. I understood what a vastness of possibility the mind of the entire world held, and how very limited is any one human being’s comprehension of it all at any given time. Some of my favorite childhood books were Ralia The Sugar Girl by Kola Onadipe, Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Aesop’s Fables.
Describe some of the oral traditions that have influenced your work and thinking. How would you explain the relationship for yourself between oral and written tradition?
I love proverbs, which I heard almost daily in some form or another as part of the oral tradition within which I grew up as a Yoruba child in Nigeria, whether as encouragement or admonishment. Proverbs feature very prominently in An Ordinary Wonder and serve as a sort of guide and help in figuring out what to do at certain junctures in life when advice is needed. They somehow always apply in fresh and significant ways to daily human life. For example “The day the drum begins to beat the drummer is the day he should seek another employment.” A person suffering from burnout for example, in these our difficult modern times, could take that as advice that quitting their job for something less hectic would be a smart move. I think that recognizing such wisdom, passed down through generations, can help us through this maze called life. And so these oral traditions daily guide my thinking and writing and life decisions, much like they do for the main character in my book.
When did you begin to write? Who were some of the earliest influences in your life? Tell us about the mentors who’ve most influenced your growth as a writer?
The earliest influences in my writing life were my secondary school literature teachers. When a teacher introduced me to a thesaurus at age 12, it opened up a whole new world of word magic. I remember my absolute awe at standing on the school stage, reading aloud a poem I’d composed, because I realized I had created something that did not exist before! That early encouragement mattered a lot, even though I was a long way from thinking of myself as a writer at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to put down my words, and it was amazing to be able to do so without judgment and with support. Fast forward many, many years and whole life journeys to arriving in the USA and taking an online writing class with Jacinda Townsend, who was my very first writing instructor, and who brilliantly encouraged me right off the bat. That gave me the courage, again years later, to apply for an MFA at Lesley University where I had as my main mentors Tony Eprile and Michael Lowenthal and Laurie Foos. Every one of them was exceptionally knowledgeable and generous in teaching me the true craft of writing.
You have a law degree from Hull University in the UK, an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, and you are also a massage therapist. How do these different parts of your life inform each other? What led you from law to fiction and the writing life?
This answer could be a whole book in itself! After moving to the US, I found myself at an impasse, due to my husband’s visa status being one that did not permit me to work at the time. My only options were to stay home twiddling my thumbs or to return to school. In order to practice law in the US, I’d have had to return to law school – a very expensive proposition – with no guarantee that we’d actually be able to remain in the US. It was as if the universe or what have you was looking me in the eyeball and saying, okay, you’ve always had this drive to write inside you, so what is your excuse now? So I took the plunge and applied for an MFA and got accepted at Lesley University. After my MFA, I had to pretty much start from scratch in order to make a living, and so I turned to What Color Is Your Parachute and came up with advice that I would make a great therapist of any kind. The quickest and least expensive was massage therapy so off I went to Cortiva Institute which was then in Watertown. I loved every moment there and the instructors and my fellow students were some of the absolute best people in the world that I have ever met, many of whom remain friends. And so yes, I’ve practiced massage therapy in Somerville since 2007 while also writing my book. In the end, it has all sort of balanced out.
What most deeply informs your work as a writer? What artforms are you most drawn to, outside of writing? Who are you reading right now?
I am propelled by themes of family and belonging, of intergenerational trauma and the secrets and lies that often bind people to one another, of social justice, and the various ways that tradition and culture shape our consciousness and ways of being. I am very much drawn to visual art. I wish I’d had the means to acquire work by Njideka Akunyili Crosby while she was still affordable and I recently saw one of her pieces at the ICA Exhibition titled “To Begin Again,” which took me straight back to my own childhood. I adore the art of Kehinde Wiley and love the work of local Somerville artist Ann Hirsch. I do a little photography as a private hobby and, when I have time, weave jewelry on my bead-loom using miniscule beads – which is a very calming and centering artform. I recently finished Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Wilson, and I am looking forward to reading In Such Tremendous Heat by Kehinde Fadipe, out later this year. I always have some non-fiction or middle grade or writing craft book on the go as well, and currently it is Stephen King On Writing.
What are some of your favorite places in Somerville? Have you discovered any hidden gems?
Somerville is full of hidden gems! The bike path to walk or bike on with the leaves changing color in all weathers. Union Square Donuts - I try not to indulge too often. Hub Comics in Davis Square have graphic novels and some of the loveliest staff. Somerville Theater! The Prospect Hill Monument with its panoramic views of Boston. Bow Market is an absolute one-stop gem for literally everything fun; books, food, workshops, etc. And the Somerville Library is such a welcoming and gorgeous space now it has been renovated!
What do you like to do for fun, or to relax?
I like to walk. If there’s somewhere I need to get to and the weather is not awful and it is an hour or less then I will make time to walk there whenever possible. I read all the time. And I like to dance as a form of exercise. I meditate to relax as well. I wish that meditation would be taught in schools - like literally there should be meditation and then nap time and it should be on the curriculum like physical exercise. I think it is important to teach people from childhood, to take care of their physical and as well as mental health.
What are some of your favorite foods?
I love Thai food. Prik Nam Pla in Davis Square is quite authentic and so ridiculously tasty! Sugar and Spice on Mass Ave is a reliable favorite with the most friendly service! I adore sushi as well and for a casual meal, I like popping into the restaurants at the Porter Square Exchange Building. I do wish there were more Nigerian restaurants around but the closest is Suya Joint in Roxbury, who serve delicious and authentic food with generous portions. I enjoy cooking and basically love all food when it is well prepared. French food is my absolute favorite and my husband, Julien, makes going out to eat a bit redundant as he is such an exceptional cook – his poulet-a-la-crème is the stuff of dreams! Cooking is definitely one of the ways we relax at home.
Tell us about any upcoming readings and events we should know about?
I was recently overwhelmed and grateful to win the Maya Angelou Award for my debut novel An Ordinary Wonder, and it comes with a tour that will include Kansas City Library, and several Missouri State universities. I will also be in conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of Brotherless Night – engrossing and highly recommended! – at the Unbound Literary Festival in Columbia MO, in April.
For more details you can follow me @bukipapillon on Twitter or Instagram, and my website is https://www.bukipapillon.com