When she was 14, Chibundu Onuzo received an early lesson about how her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, is perceived by outsiders. At the boarding school she’d moved to in England, a classmate peppered her with questions for an assignment. Were there elephants there? No. Hippos? No. Lions?
“She went through this long list of safari animals, and I'm saying, no, no, no, no,” Onuzo says. “And then she asked, 'What do you have?' And I was like, ‘Wow, I come from a city with 15 million people.’ "
The many things that Lagos does have—and how the city is often misunderstood, especially in the West—are at the heart of Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. The story follows a trio of deserting soldiers and two women escaping precarious home lives as they trek from rural Nigeria into the rough-and-tumble metropolis. Along the way, Onuzo introduces corrupt politicians, exploitative corporations, would-be do-gooders, and a muckraking journalist in a milieu that demands every resident hustle to keep up. “Lagos chewed you to the gristle, ground you to the grist, passed you through a sieve, and then threw the chaff-like substance of your life to the winds,” she writes.
Onuzo, 27, was eager to use a broader canvas for the follow-up to her debut, 2012’s The Spider King’s Daughter, an intimate, fablelike novel centered on a romance between two characters. She had read Amitav Ghosh’s 2008 novel, Sea of Poppies, an ensemble novel set in India, and was inspired to try something similar. The key to the new novel’s plot, she says, came to her in a dream: a vision of two soldiers watching people running away, disobeying orders to shoot them, and deciding to run away themselves. That scene became what are now the opening pages of the novel. “I was thinking, what if they ran away to Lagos, and then what if they picked up someone else, and someone else? And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have my ensemble novel.’ ”
It was a super-sized ensemble, though: Onuzo says that at one point she was juggling 19 characters. “There was a baby, but it was not a very good baby,” she says, laughing. “You know how you can have a baby in an ensemble novel and it can bring a novel's cast together? This just didn't happen. I kept forgetting that there was a baby. So the baby had to go." During the revision process, she and her editor adopted a mantra—“prove your right to be in this book”—that helped her narrow the cast of characters.
Still, she says, it was important to preserve the feeling of Lagos as a multivalent city—a place with a lawless reputation but also where, she points out, roadside portrait artists proudly display their renderings of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka to show off their talents. Too often the West flatly characterizes it like a BBC reporter in the novel does, dismissing it as “one giant trash can” as he helicopters in.
“The characters are coming from rural Nigeria,” she says. “And if you come to Lagos in this manner, when you hit Lagos, Lagos is dazzling. Lagos is El Dorado. Lagos is the land of opportunity….But when you have people coming in from a western European country or from somewhere in North America, all they see is everything Lagos is not. Lagos is not the place that has 24-hour electricity all the time. Lagos is not the place that has roads that don't have nine miles of traffic. Lagos is not this, is not that. All you see are the things that Lagos is not, instead of all the opportunities. People are living and thriving there."
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of The New Midwest.