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Buki Papillion's debut is No 'Ordinary Wonder'

On the podcast: Debut author Buki Papillon talks about her acclaimed novel of an intersex teen coming of age in Nigeria.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

MFA in Creative Writing Interim Director Janet Pocorobba speaks with alumna Buki Papillon about her acclaimed debut "An Ordinary Wonder," a coming of age novel about Oto, an intersex teen growing up in Nigeria. Buki talks about the drive that keeps her writing, rewriting almost her whole book after she got a book deal, and lots more.

Read more about "An Ordinary Wonder" with this New York Times book review.

Listen to our interview with Janet Pocorroba from Season 1.

Find all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and follow us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play Spotify or your podcast player of choice.

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors in the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. I'm Georgia Sparling, and today I'm handing over the mic. We've got an excellent interview with Buki Papillon, who's debut "An Ordinary Wonder," has gotten amazing reviews. Janet Pocorobba is conducting today's interview. Janet is the Associate Director of our MFA in Creative Writing Program, and the current interim director. She also teaches in the program and is an alum. Janet, of course is a writer herself, and longtime listeners will remember hearing her voice from way back in season one of the show when she came on to talk about her memoir, "The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me." The link to that episode, of course, is in the show notes. But that's enough of my voice for now. Here are Janet and Buki.

    Janet Pocorobba

    Hi, everyone, and hi, Buki.

    Buki   

    Hi. Good to be here, Janet, and to see you again.

    Janet

    It's wonderful to be here talking to you again, and talking to you about your extraordinary debut novel, which is called "An Ordinary Wonder." I have so many questions for you. But I guess just to start off, I'm wondering if you could kind of tell people, what is the book about?

    Buki

    "An Ordinary Wonder" is about Otolorin, who is born intersex in Nigeria, in 1980s, Nigeria, and who wants to live life as a girl, but who is being raised as a boy, by her mother, who basically wants to have a boy child, despite everything that is pointing to the contrary about Oto's way of being. And Oto has a twin called Wura. And so Oto gets to see Wura be everything that she really would want to be. And so it's about the journey of Oto becoming who she really wants to be. And along the way, there's a lot of Nigerian folktales, proverb, culture, art,

    Janet

    Indeed, there is.

    Buki

    It's really about becoming yourself.

    Janet   

    There's so much that we're going to unpack here. You know, it, it's, you know, it's a coming of age story. It's a queer coming of age story, which is, you know, not unheard of, but this is quite extraordinary for being called "An Ordinary Wonder." It's quite extraordinary in terms of its setting, and its mythology, etc, etc. So I wonder if you could tell us where you got the inspiration for the story?

    Buki   

    So this idea came to me towards the end of my MFA at Lesley University, which is where you currently teach. This idea came to me during my MFA at the very end of my MFA, because what I actually wrote during my method was a collection of short stories. So this was at the tail end, and I had done an interdisciplinary class. And in that interdisciplinary class, I could basically study and write about any subject I wanted, and I picked Nigeria and deities, Gods and Goddesses and so on. And I studied that. And so I think that planted a seed somewhere inside me, but I wasn't sure. I didn't really know, the how very important that particular interdisciplinary study and the paper that I wrote would be, until one day, I was just sitting there, like, writers do, minding my own business staring at a blank piece of paper. And then it was like, this person tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I want to tell you my story. I am Otolorin This is who I am. I am a twin." And just gave me all this information was like downloading. And I wrote it as fast as I could. I believe I wrote like probably five pages handwritten, with pen and paper, just like that. And then I mean, and then I thought, "Okay, I have this, there's something going on here." And then the I had one last class, I believe it was with Michael Lowenthal, who was one of the mentors of the Lesley program, one of the main reasons I really came to the Lesley program because he's amazing. And it was in his class that I think we could just show or talk about the latest thing that we're writing. And so I just brought those few pages. I sort of expanded them a little, and I hadn't, and he sort of read them, where he read a little bit in front of the class. And he just went to the board and started drawing diagrams, and he was like, "And this could be this and this," and he was so enthusiastic. And that really fired me off as well. And so I went back and I built on this story and listened to this voice a lot more. And anyway, it took quite a long story short, because this took a while. So from conception to actual reality, the integration was really somewhere between me writing, doing that study, that interdisciplinary study that Lesley University MFA students can choose to do. And also, just this voice talking to me, and the amalgamation of those two things just birthed this story.

    Janet   

    That is extraordinary to hear. I'm so thrilled to hear how the interdisciplinary component, which we always hope feeds into a student's writing, actually did. I'm very intrigued with the download and the voice. Did that voice stay with you? Or did it kind of, the reception come in and out? Or was it always pretty strong connection? [laughs]

    Buki   

    [laughs] I would say, such a cool and cute way to put it, I like it. Yeah. The connection was sometimes really strong and sometimes I had to go looking for it. You know, how it is with writers is that sometimes you sit down and your muse is just there waiting for you like, "Where have you been? You know, let's get going." And sometimes, you feel like you're chasing air, trying to catch air in a net, trying to get the words. Often, what really stood out for me in this writing experience, because I mean, I'm writing other things, I've written other things, is that Otolorin was consistent about who she was. So that acted like a guiding light for me, because this book went through many iterations, many things happened before it became the book that people are holding in their hands. I had to figure out exactly whose story it was, because at the beginning, I thought I needed to tell Wura's story, the twin sister's story, I thought I had to tell the mother's story. So I had all these voices, and then he was in third person, and then I brought it back in first person. So a lot of changes happened, but Otolorin was consistent about who she was, what she wanted, and how she wanted to get it. So yeah, that was how it went.

    Janet   

    It's like an apocryphal story, almost of like that idea of the download. And how long did it take to get from the first download to, say, to the the book being accepted? Or did it change a lot once you found an agent and a publisher?

    Buki   

    So how long it took? I mean, I graduated in 2007, from the Lesley MFA, so that's quite a few years away. But what happened was, life happened in between, right. I finished my MFA and then I had to basically earn money. And I had a law degree, but I just realized that was not where I was meant to go. And so I went back to school, learned massage therapy, studied, that took a year, then went to work as a massage therapist, it took time to be established during that. So during those years, they were kind of fallow years where I wasn't really doing enough writing or an awful lot of writing. So that sort of the voice, Otolorin's voice was there, and the novel was there, but it was sort of in the background while I had to do other things. And so I didn't really come back to it fully for many years. I'd go to writer's retreats every now and then and be able to do a chunk of work. But the actual putting it together, took a while. And then after I got an agent, I submitted it to several agents, meanwhile.  I think I did two rounds of agents submissions, during which I got very encouraging feedback: "It's not quite there yet. We love this, but it's not quite there yet." And each time it was hard, and I had to, you know, pick myself up from the ground, wipe myself down, tell myself you know, "You're gonna survive this, you're gonna do this. This book is important. It's worth it, keep going." And then I'd go at it again. And then I eventually got my agent. And I mean, that day was incredible. And not only did I get my agent, but I had three agents wanting it at the same time. And while they were wanting it, others were still requesting the full manuscript. So that was an incredible experience and an experience that I hope many writers get to have, because it's such a validation of all the hard work, and the not giving up. And so then I got my agent, and we worked on it. And then I had to go back to the drawing board, because then I realized it wasn't, you know, between me and her, a lot has to happen. And so this is why this is a journey. It's a marathon, sometimes, it's not a sprint. There are those people who write a book in, you know, one month and get an agent and wonderful, but sometimes it's a marathon and don't look at those sprinters. [laughs]

    Janet   

    I know. [laughs]

    Buki   

    At some point, I understood, with great alarm at that point, that I was going to have to throw out 70% of that manuscript. Literally.

    Janet   

    Wow, that sounds hard.

    Buki   

    Yes. [laughs] So I basically threw out a good chunk of it than what I had left. I put it on the floor, cut it into pieces of paper, started again. And this time, and the vast thing, I just knew. And as soon as my agent got it, she was like, "Yep." It literally sold immediately.

    Janet   

    Wow, wow. That's a great affirmation for writers, really listening to that inner voice and what feels right to you. What do you know to be true, not writing for someone, someone else, although we want to be cognizant of audience but you know, they say, just try to be yourself when you're writing. And it's funny that you knew, and then she knew, and then the world knew [laughs]. That's a good, I know, for me, it's a good affirmation of listening to that voice. So to get back into the story of the book, I have two questions, really, sort of two parts. One thing I'm really curious to know is how you really got into Oto's. character. And maybe just what's coming through the download. But also the twin, and what role do you think that played? And why have a twin? I mean, it is in the mythology, I mean, this is part of, right? So how did you make those choices about the final point of view character, which is just Otolorin, right?

    Buki   

    What happened was, at the very beginning, I had so many characters talking to me as well. They came and they went. And so, and at one point actually, I will get back to the actual main question, but there was a character that I had, who nearly took over the novel. This character, I had readers, because I had beta readers. And they would be like "Oh, I really like him. Why don't you make him more prominent?" I was like "You know, the story is more about this character." I had to write that character out. At one point that character had maybe 20% of the book, and then 10%, and then 5%, and then one paragraph, and then one sentence, and then nothing. It was like, as long as the I'm writing this book, people wanted this person. So I'm like, "Okay, maybe one day, I'll write you your own book. But for now, you've got to leave this particular book." So [laughs] I don't know if he was too pleased, but yeah. [laughs] So all the characters have their own appearances and their own voices, and Wura definitely had a strong voice because she was Otolorin's twin. Yorubas have the most twins in the world. Like, I can't remember what percentage, but pretty much the most incidence of twins in the world. And twins in Nigeria have their own deity, their Orisha deity. So when you have a twin, when you have twin babies, you have to observe certain traditional rites, you have to feed them beans, you have to, all sorts of things. So I think twins loom really large in the Yoruba imagination. There are so many books by Yoruba writers, European Nigerian writers, that involve twins, specifically because there are so many. Everybody knows a twin, is related to a twin, has gone to school with a twin. So for me as well, in my family, we have multiple twins. I think for me, I think part of Wura was really, that sensibility, that thing in my background. Because even though Oto spoke to me as a character, a lot of who and what Oto is also comes from my own background. So, I think having a twin was also important in terms of just to be able to show us that thing where siblings can grow up together in a home ,but the home that they grew up in could be very different if you ask each one of them to talk about how they grew up and their lives. So the fact that people grew up together as siblings in a home does not mean that they have the same experience of growing up or of their family or their parents or their culture. So I think that was important to have Wura there as a contrast, and also as a loving presence as well, what she could be to Otolorin.

    Janet   

    You know, that's very interesting you say that, because one of my feelings while reading the book was that, I was so grateful to be brought into a Otolorin's world, and everything that she had to go through, which is quite a lot. There's a lot of violence and pain and suffering that happens along the way for her. And yet, it never feels entirely hopeless. And I don't know, so you manage to make these very realistic scenes that were very violent and would be just depressing. But why do you think that it doesn't feel hopeless? Is it Oto's spirit? Is it the love of the twin perhaps that carries us?

    Buki   

    Huh, hat is such a great question. I think it is very much Oto's spirit, because that is part of what the book was about was the resilience of Oto, her determination. And she has this light inside of her, she has the spark, she has this joy, that nothing can quell, that no matter what is happening, she always has some way to access this. Whether it is through [inaudible], or whether through Proverbs, she always has a way to access that place inside her, that light that nothing can extinguish. But I wanted that to show her humor, her ability to look at a situation and find a good way, something good to draw out of it and her love. She is such a loving character. I mean, when she loves, she loves wholeheartedly, and she's so forgiving. And she is so able to see behind the walls sometimes that people put up that make them cruel, and to see what is the person behind and to try, in that way, heal herself. So I think it is the hope, and her resilience and the humor, and then all the other things because even though all of those really difficult and tough things are happening to her, but we are not seeing it from the lens of "Oh, this is so this is so terrible." It is terrible, yes, but we're seeing it through the lens of "This is terrible, but I can overcome. This is terrible, but there is a way for this to get better. This is terrible, but it will get better if I just keep going. If I took all the resources that I have available to me, however little they are, it will get better."

    Janet   

    One of Oto's touchstones or inspirations is Yeyemi. Yeyemi? I don't know if I'm pronouncing it right.

    Buki   

    Yes, Yeyemi.

    Janet   

    Tell me about Yeyemi. It was, again part of this mythology. And did you have to, you said you had the course in which you kind of studied and explored some of your own cultures, Gods and Goddesses and mythologies. Did that come out of that, some of these things? Or did you just grow up with that, and you knew it?

    Buki   

    Both of those things, I grew up with all of these traditions around me all the time. I mean, and they're still there. I mean, people have moved a lot more to either Christianity or Islam in Nigeria. So there's a lot less of people practicing actual traditional religions. But the fact that people are not practicing them does not mean that they're not still there. It's like people are no longer practicing, I don't know, Greek religions, but you've still got the Parthenon and so on, and all these gods and goddesses, all these things are still there. So, it's partly that I grew up with that. For example, there's a scene where in the book, without giving away too much, where there's a day when women are not allowed to step out on the streets. They can't go in or out of their houses, because there's this masquerade that will come out and women are supposed to be turned into stone or something if they look at this masquerade. And I grew up knowing that and we were terrified. I mean, I would be, on that day, women would not step out on the streets, because basically, you knew what was going to happen to you. So those things are still there, I grew up with those things. So Yeyemi also came out of the gods and goddesses that I studied, because she is like Yemonja, who is the mother of all the goddess is and she actually lives in the oceans and the waters and the rivers. And so she comes, and she comforts Otolorin in the worst times, and it was a joy to write her and to write that, because I felt that this was very much needed, as a place of relief, as a place of healing.

    Janet   

    Yeah. Well said, I mean, in terms of having both in the book. And as you were talking, I thought about the resilience of these traditions, too, perhaps in the face of, more colonial and other cultures coming in and kind of them disappearing. I hadn't seen that sort of parallel between her story and then the story of these cultural traditions. I mean, it's kind of similar. Tell us, there are some people that help Oto along the way and she has some very special loves, I think. She loves a lot, like you said, a very loving person. And her roommate becomes a very important friend. You want to tell us about him?

    Buki   

    Yes. This was one of the characters I loved writing about most, Derin. So, Derin becomes a really good friend to Oto and then they go on on a whole other journey together. I've actually had people fall in love with Derin [laughs]. I've had readers go "Yeah, I'm waiting, I'm looking for a Derin." [laughs]

    Janet   

    [laughs] He is. And there's just wonderful together, so accepting and loving, their friendship.

    Buki   

    Yes. I mean, friendships like that are so rare and so precious. And it was a delight to write that particular friendship. I won't say much more about it, it's one of the more delightful and joyful aspects of the book, their friendship.

    Janet   

    You really capture so well, just so many of these details of what it's like to be intersex, to the dressing in the same room or in the shower with with the guys. I just got so inside her skin and what her experience was like. Was that all coming through the download? Or did you do any other research on that as well? Or did you know somebody who went through that? Because you really hit it with compassion, I think, and reality. It was very compelling.

    Buki   

    Thank you. Yes, I did do a ton of research. And I talked to many people. And I did want to make sure because I understood that this was a story that I had to do justice to, and I had to do it right. I mean, for everything, I did a lot of research, for being intersex, because I'm not intersex myself, for being intersex, for being genderqueer, for being trans, which Otolorin is also trans, and for being just someone who is so marginalized within her own society. And also, some of it came from my own experiences and the experiences that I'm not at liberty to talk about, that I have heard, that people have told me or that I have, sort of been present when certain things were going on. So all of this helps to inform the story and to inform based on this feeling of genuineness and authenticity that people have told me they felt when they when they read "An Ordinary Wonder."

    Janet   

    Wow. And what a sacred thing is to hear all those stories and a privilege to hear people talk about their their experiences. How did you get your own resilience to sort of stay the course? You've talked about how it was kind of up and down, many drafts, we've all been there. [laughs] How did you just keep going? Where did you find it? The support?

    Buki   

    Wow. I think I understood at some level, which I don't know where that came from, but I understood at some level that, for me, it was about the writing, it was about getting to a place where it was going to be something that I would be happy to have out in the world. And for me, it was basically every time I got a "no" and thankfully, most times it was a qualified "no," I would look at what it was they said was not working. And I was willing to learn. And I was willing to take what I've been given, and go and apply again, and again, and again. Because for me, of course I wanted very much to be published, but I also wanted to be published in a way that I would look at what I've done and be able to know that it can stand. Nut the resilience to is also that I love writing. It hurts some days. Some days I'm clutching my stomach bent over my desk. Some days I put my head on the desk and I'm almost physically mourning. [laughs] But nothing has made me feel so alive as writing, and I want my books to make a change in the world. I want to write books that make a difference. I want to write books that change the way people see things, the way people think about things, the way people see the world because books have done that for me. I mean, I read voraciously, I read everything. I read comic books, I read romances, I read fantasy, sci fi, I read literary, the only thing I don't read is horror because I scare myself stupid, but everything else [laughs]. So I want to give people what books have given to me all of my life. So, I think it was that I had this prize dangling, shining at the end. And it didn't matter almost how long the journey would be. As long as I was improving, and I was going up, I was climbing, then I was willing to keep going, however hard it was. And some days, it was bitterly hard. But I was willing to grow. I think that's the thing is to not give up. You'll get slapped down, you'll get slapped down so hard sometimes, you won't even want to wake up. Nut you take a deep breath, you sleep, and then the next day, look at yourself in the mirror, tell yourself you can do this and go back to it again and again. You'll get there.

    Janet   

    Do you have any advice for writers who also want to write books that make a difference in the world? And/or do you have any sort of caveats for them or anything like that to say to those writers who are thinking of not larger stories, like you said, that are doing good and teaching people about things we need to know?

    Buki   

    I would say it's important to experiment with form. [inaudible] haven't been done the way you want to do it, does not mean that you can't do it how you want to do it. Be prepared to experiment with form but first learn the rules. Read your craft books, learn the rules. And then, sometimes, maybe your book is going to be one chapter is is verse and the next is poetry, and then the next is prose, and then you put in a song and then there's a picture. You know, work on it till you find your form, but make sure you learn the rules first. And in terms of writing stories that make a difference. I'm going to go to Octavia Butler. Her advice she says is "Tell stories filled with facts." And that's what I'm going to advise. Tell stories filled with facts. That is directly from Octavia Butler. And that's what I tried to do.

    Janet   

    What a quote and model for us. Buki, is there anything you would have done differently on this journey?

    Buki   

    Oh, what would I have done differently? I think, sort of what I said earlier, which is that I wish I had not been so wedded to a form. I wish I had been more malleable, more open to changing things earlier because I was so convinced for a long time that it had to be three voices and had to be the sister and the brother and the mother, and it had to be this one, and had to be set in this place. Because of the way it came to me initially, I thought I was not allowed to change a thing. And then I understood, no, you can throw out everything. You can throw everything and start with one sentence, or throw out everything and just start with something in the middle. Be willing to swerve. Be willing to be malleable and to change.

    Janet   

    So I just so love hearing this. Final question for you: what's the form of your next book? Do you know? [laughs]

    Buki   

    [laughs] I do know. I'm writing three things at the same time, but there's one that is the main focus and it is literary fiction. And it is some days, it's one, and some days, yes, I'm banging my head on the table. [laughs] But it is coming along and it is literary fiction and I'm really excited.

    Janet   

    Are we gonna ever see Oto again in any of your fiction?

    Buki   

    I mean, I'm open. I'm telling her, "Oto, anytime you want to contact me on the shoulder again and tell me what happened." [laughs]

    Janet   

    [laughs] Thank you so much, Buki. It was such an inspiring book, and you inspire me very much. So good luck with everything and enjoy your book tour. And please come back and read at Lesley very soon.

    Buki   

    I will. I would love to. Thank you so much for having me here. And thank you for asking such excellent questions. And yes, I am proud to be a Lesley University alum. And I love the program. And yeah, onwards and upwards.

    Janet   

    Yay. And thanks to Georgia Sparling, who's making these podcasts and sending them into the world on behalf of all of us writers, including herself. It's good work. Thank you.

    Georgia  

    For the record, I did not tell them to say any of that. Anyway, thank you so much for listening to Why We Write. To learn more about Buki Papillon, Janet Pocorobba, and their books, check out the links in our show notes. And as always, we'd love it if you would rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It really does help people to find the show. We'll be back in two weeks with a special episode on NaNoWriMo. If that sounds like a foreign language to you, tune in anyway. It will be a great episode for writers and hopefully will provide you with a little inspiration if you're trying to finish a book this month.