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Chibundu Onuzo: 1991 at London Literary Festival 2018 - a review by Jareh Das

As part of the current edition of London Literary Festival, Nigerian novelist, Chibundu Onuzo narrated her autobiography beginning with her year of birth 1991 and up to the present via a music, dance and spoken-word extravaganza lasting over two-hours at The Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room. Onuzo has steadily built a dedicated following as a writer and has two novels under her belt, The Spider King's Daughter (2012) and Welcome to Lagos (2016). She also writes regularly as a columnist for The Guardian on her everyday experiences intersecting with Nigeria’s place in the world as chronicled in her two novels. As someone unfamiliar with Onuzo’s musical talent, this evening was a real surprise as she moved effortlessly between astute author to a beaming singer, dancer and pianist, all with comfort and confidence whilst performing her life story much to the delight of an enthusiastic and lively audience. 

[Image credit: India Roper-Evans] Chibundu Onuzo: 1991 was part of Southbank Centre's 12th London Literature Festival, 18-28 Oct 2018.

The evening began with Onuzo taking to the stage telling of her beginnings born as the last of four siblings to a Middle-Class family of doctors in Lagos. A delightful childhood where her talkative and curious child persona flourished. She then proceeded, interchanging with other performers to speak of her teenage boarding school experiences first in Lagos, Nigeria, and then in Winchester, England which, as is commonplace for some Nigerians who make this journey abroad (US and UK top destinations) to further education often comes with a tremendous, and, often unspoken pressure to academically and socially excel in a new and foreign land.

Chibundu’s narrative fluctuated between British and Nigerian accents to convey this transfer from the familiar to unfamiliar, alongside laying down the truths about such a move including racism, marginalisation and depression, all of which occur whilst an individual strives to forge a place in the world against cultural-familial expectations. There were funny anecdotes, specific, and indeed ones that the Nigerian diaspora can easily identify with. But what was particularly striking was the honesty to which Onuzo spoke about mental illness and expectations that weigh ever so heavily on women and their career success. Even as an accomplished writer, ‘Fear of Missing Out on My Career Goals (FOMOCG)’ better known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is something she tackles head-on in this presentation’s second half honing in on her writing career, the pressures and expectations that have come with being successful at a young age, alongside merging music and dance in a profession that expects one to be stuffy and intellectual.

[Image credit: India Roper-Evans] Chibundu Onuzo: 1991 was part of Southbank Centre's 12th London Literature Festival, 18-28 Oct 2018.

27, some might argue, is no age to present an autobiography but with Chibundu Onuzo: 1991, this talented novelist is staking a claim for everyday individual narratives as part of history that is more inclusive and multi-perspectival. Everyone has a story to tell, and Onuzo is telling hers with loud bells, singing and dancing.

Chibundu Onuzo: 1991 is part of the twelfth edition of Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival which this year celebrated Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, marking its first-ever translation into English by a woman, Emily Wilson. This timeless classic is explored through live readings, talks and workshops with writers from Mary Beard, Madeline Miller, Esi Edugyan, Aida Edemariam, Riz Ahmed and Mohsin Hamid.