Stephen Buoro on his comic novel 'The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa'
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:
In Stephen Buoro's new darkly comic novel, a Nigerian teenager named Andy dreams about his father.
STEPHEN BUORO: (Reading) Maybe I'm like Papa. I really want to know who the hell he is - his dusty feet, his booming voice, his grip on my shoulder.
DOMONOSKE: The 15-year-old doesn't know his father. It's a secret his mother keeps from him. The secret he keeps from her, a secret that's very obvious to his two best friends? That Andy dreams of white women - blondes, to be precise.
BUORO: (Reading) A Marilyn Monroe, who has never had mosquitoes sink in her ears and suck her blood, leaving red swellings as they fly away. A Princess Diana, who has never woken up at midnight with hunger. A Taylor Swift, who has never experienced a blackout.
DOMONOSKE: That, of course, is Stephen Buoro, reading from his debut novel "The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa." Stephen, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
BUORO: Thank you so much for having me.
DOMONOSKE: Now, your book, the excerpt you just read - it's all in the voice of Andy. His nickname is Andy Africa. How did he get that nickname?
BUORO: So it's, like, a school assembly, and he makes some anti-African comments. And his teacher, like, punishes him by, like, giving him that nickname.
DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Yeah. He hates being called Andy Africa for - I mean, is it some of the same reasons why he's, in some cases, really angry about living in Africa?
BUORO: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yes.
DOMONOSKE: I want to also ask a question about the very beginning of this book. The first words of the book are, dear white people. Why did you start like that?
BUORO: Yeah. The novel is just more about Andrew trying to confess his obsession for whiteness - I mean, for blonde women and all that. And for me, confession is a very powerful, powerful process - right? - because, I mean, it contains acceptance, courage and all that. And it also demonstrates vulnerability. And I come from a very strong Catholic background. And confession is a very big sacrament, actually, in the Catholic Church. And it just seemed very important, actually, for Andy to address this whiteness, these white people who have colonized him, who have forced all his ideas on him.
DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Right. And he has this concept that he's come up with to help explain what to him is one of the mysteries in the book, which is why is his life - why is Africa the way that it is? HXVX. Can you explain that and tell us where you got that idea from?
BUORO: Andy often sees the huge problems that contemporary Africa experiences, Nigeria in particular. They're just so huge. It feels as if it's like a super force or something, like a kind of god or something or maybe a supervillain, actually, that is actually, like, trying to do awesome things and watching his own situation and all that. And the name for God in - of course, in the Old Testament, in the Bible, YHWH. So Andy decides to adopt that and to call, like, the issues, the different issues plaguing Africa as the constructs which he calls HXVX. Yeah. So it's all of these issues involving, like, issues like slavery, colonialism, plutocracy, the collapse of Indigenous governments and all that.
DOMONOSKE: Well, does it work? Does having this HXVX idea, this HXVX - does it make his life make more sense to him?
BUORO: I think it does. I think it does because in the novel now, Andy uses different, like, tools - right? - different devices, I mean, from, like, mathematics - because he loves maths - and then poetry and then science fiction - I mean, all these ideas about superheroes in the book and religion to unravel himself for the reader.
DOMONOSKE: Right. Andy loves his mother, and he is so profoundly ashamed of her and not just in, like, teenage boys are always embarrassed by their mother way, right? Like, he also feels that she is too Black, that she's not educated enough. He comments on the way that she smells sometimes. But then also, you know, he loves the way that she smells other times. It's complicated.
BUORO: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, he's been fed all this stuff from Hollywood. I mean, Hollywood is so influential on - like, in helping teenagers, like, define their sense of self, the standards of beauty and what's - like, what are the ideals, anyway? Yeah. So that's a feeling of shame. And, I mean, about her Blackness - and she's this very Black woman and - whom he's supposed to be proud of. And he actually admits that - right? - that he should appreciate her more in that sense, and - but he doesn't due to, like, all that has been fed to him as standards of beauty and all that. Yeah.
DOMONOSKE: You grew up in northern Nigeria in the same area that Andy did, right?
BUORO: Exactly. Yes.
DOMONOSKE: And now you live in England?
BUORO: Yeah. Correct.
DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Can I ask a personal question? How did you transition between those two different realities?
BUORO: Yeah, I mean, I've still not transitioned. And they're two very powerful, starkly different realities. I mean, I remember, for example, my very first week in the U.K. and how everything was incredibly strange. I mean, for example, I couldn't just look outside my window. I had to, like, pull my curtains tight. I mean, I closed my curtains for, like, the very first weekend just to be able to, like, process the incredible change and to begin to accept my new surroundings anyway. And thankfully, I think I've made some good progress so far. So yeah.
DOMONOSKE: The voice, the narration of your book is very funny, and it's fun. And Andy is such a teenage boy. And then the events that happen - there are different permutations of horrific violence. And they're almost in the background. Like, these terrible things happen, and then the narrative moves on, it seems, quite quickly. Can you talk about why you did that, how you handled the pervasive violence in this book?
BUORO: Yeah, this theme of violence is a very, very strong post-colonial theme, right? In terms of the novel, I - like, Andy and even myself when I was growing up in Nigeria - we get to a stage where we become, like, desensitized to this violence, right? And then we just seem to move on as a form of, like, psychological defense mechanism or whatever, as just a way of coming to terms with these things and dealing with them. So what I wanted to do was to put a reader in that position of what it means to be a 15-year-old boy growing up in Nigeria. Like, everything about the whole experience - I mean, from the violence to issues that teens deal with, not just in Nigeria but worldwide anyway, the sex, the anger, the angst and all that. So, I mean, I was trying to...
DOMONOSKE: The drama. The friend drama.
BUORO: Yeah. So I also wanted to depict all these things as much as I could do in a very engaging way and all that. Yeah.
DOMONOSKE: It was so engaging and so fun and also so heartbreaking. And...
BUORO: Thank you so much. Thank you.
DOMONOSKE: Stephen Buoro - his novel is "The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa." Thank you so much for being with us today.
BUORO: Well, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.