I absolutely loved this story about three Nigerian women who “must address the wounds of the past if they are to reconcile and move forward.”
The story is narrated by each of the women, alternately.
Kambirinachi believes she is an Ogbanje–“a spirit that plagues a family with grief by dying repeatedly in childhood and being reborn.” By the time her poor mother gives birth to a child who stays alive she is irreparably damaged by all the others who didn’t make it. Kambirinachi herself is fearful her whole life of having to pay for her decision to stay alive.
… for Kambirinachi, living was a tumultuous cascade between the unbearable misery of being in this alive body indefinitely and an utter intoxication with the substance, the very matter, of life.
Kambirinachi formed strong bonds with the men in her life. She chose her father’s smile to “be her anchor when the songs calling her back home were most persistent.”
Later, Kambirinachi marries Banji: “They danced and danced and ate, and when they knelt at the feet of their elders to receive prayers of long life, prosperity, and fertility, she didn’t close her eyes as one ought. Instead, she kept them fixed on Banji’s knuckly hands clasped over her own.”
Kambirinachi is thrilled when she has children of her own – twin daughters.
Close and inseparable when they are small, a rift forms between Taiye and Kehinde shortly after the death of their father; a result of the “bad thing”, the term they use for it in their heads.
Ever since before our father died, since before our mother retreated far from us, I knew without a doubt that I would never be alone. My Taiye was my quiet partner, closer than my shadow, than my own skin. But on that day, I called her, and she hid.
Hurt by Kehinde’s distance, Taiye travels to London to continue her studies and to fill up the void with whatever she can find–booze, drugs, food, and sex.
And that was her principle vice, wasn’t it? Desiring to be entirely consumed by any and every moment that quenched the hungry howling loneliness that sat curled down down inside herself. If she could climb down the throat of an orgasm and rest, eternal, in its belly, and if she could sink into and be sealed beneath every delicious bite of every delightful thing–oh, how she would, she would, she would. But life pushes forth, persistently, the afterglow of even the most transcendent climax will fade; every tasty thing is digested and turns to shit. Mundanity is persistent.
Feeling betrayed, Kehinde–the only first person narrative in the book–makes her way to Montreal, creating as much distance as she can.
And all that staying away, I can’t say it was worth it. I can’t really name precisely what I was staying away from. It feels like a loss.
There is this cold envy slithering in and out of my ears; although I know it is misplaced, I cannot will it away.
The story begins with the twins coming home to Lagos and to Kambirinachi; excited and nervous, still hurt but wanting to find a way through to each other again.
Monoamniotic twins develop when an embryo does not divide until after the formation of the amniotic sac. The splitting is excruciating, but neither will remember it acutely. All that will remain is a disorienting echo of the would that the twins would spend a lifetime attempting to locate.
Food and cooking play a big part in Butter Honey Pig Bread (if you can’t already tell by the title!). One of the reasons Kambirinachi decides to stay on earth is for the “burnt-sugar coconut taste of baba dudu.” Taiye and Kehinde share nostalgic memories of making (and eating) mosa together. Cooking and eating are something Taiye does to (unsuccessfully) fill up her hole. However, she develops a love of cooking and cooks for her sister when they are home. Jollof rice, catfish pepper soup, palm oil stew, moi moi, fried plantains, eko and pepper soup.
This is how you make mosa with your sister on the day she returns home. You are happy to occupy yourself with this task, as it keeps you from asking if she read the letters you wrote over the years but never intended to send. You will need the following ingredients: several overripe plantains, six heaping tablespoons of flour, four teaspoons of fast-acting yeast, a quarter cup of warm water, Atarodo peppers to your heat preference, a tablespoon of salt, and vegetable oil for frying.
Her mother was making rain food–that’s what she called it–food that soothed and comforted when it poured outside. Food to keep you from regretting that you couldn’t leave the house. Eko and pepper soup.
The three women in Butter Honey Pig Bread spend their time in four main places: Lagos, London, Montreal, and Halifax. (Taiye also spends a few months at a cooking school in Montpellier.) Francesca Ekwuyasi manages to make each of these places come to life. It was especially interesting to see the differences between them–the fenced yards in Lagos, the night life in London, the restaurants in Montreal, and the harbourfront in Halifax.
Lagos: “In Lagos, there is no bubble thick enough to protect you from the truth of your privilege or your disadvantage; you see it everywhere, every day. Culture is a way of life.”
London: “…there was a Sunday morning in South London, drowned in the wet sanguinity of spring, when Taiye woke up next to a girl she’d met late the previous night. The girl shared her MDMA with Taiye before they danced together at a tiny queer club with walls covered in mirrors and multicoloured neon lights, in the basement of a fried chicken place.”
Montreal: “The day had been warm and heavy with humidity, but the late-August night was too cold for my lace sundress. Even with a thick pashmina wrapped around my bare shoulders, I shivered as we walked west of the restaurant, toward my bus stop. It was a little past two a.m., and I was hoping to catch the last bus to Shaughnessy Village. Quiet and still for a Friday, as if the night, with its blinking street lights, had blanketed the entire neighbourhood in calm.“
Halifax: “Halifax is a small city, beautiful and old. If you visit during the sweltering height of summer, you can prance along the crowded boardwalk and sway your hips to the music of many buskers performing in the salty breeze of the harbour. You can stop along the waterfront for a variety of full-fat ice creams; salty, saucy, cheesy poutine; sugar-coated beaver tails; fish and chips; and an assortment of taffies, cakes, and sweets.“
(Not long ago, I wrote about Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley, a book about a boy who was born and raised in Halifax. It’s interesting to compare Aubrey’s perspective of his hometown with Taiye’s view as a visitor: “If, like Taiye, you turn up in September and are lulled into sentiments of warmth and wellness by all the torrid gorgeousness of red oak trees aflame in autumn, don’t lose hope when the brittle cold descends swiftly and without notice. If you feel discouraged by the severity of that wet winter cold seeping right down to your core, hold tight until spring; it all comes alive again. In the meantime, there will be hot tea, wool socks, warm bread, and soups to tide you over.“)
Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer, artist, and filmmaker from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging. Check out her film series “Black in Halifax“!
Longlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize and a finalist for the 2021 Canada Reads
Buried in Print: “The focus on women’s experiences–in the context of a narrative revolviung around how we are nourished and how we are wasted–feels sharply and enduringly relevant. Francesca Ekwuyasi’s attention-to-detail is evocative and her prioritizing of compassion and empathy secures my interest; I’m eager to read what she writes next.“
Pickle Me This: “It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution...”
Hamilton Review of Books: “Butter Honey Pig Bread, her brilliant debut novel, is a symphony of literary style and storytelling. Her work can make an avid reader remember that their first love was language.”
Quill & Quire: “Taiye’s discovery of Halifax, and appreciation for its complicated history and landscape, is similar to Ekwuyasi’s own journey. “I was trying to find the beauty,” she says. Her process for writing her characters’ lives is also very similar to how she discovers a place. There is a lot of walking around, thinking, and observing.“
Listen to Francesca Ekwuyasi talk about her book with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter!