author of Where Women Are Kings
Other Press: In Where Women Are Kings you display a compassionate understanding of the intricacies of Nigerian customs, the adoption process, and the workings of mental illness. Was it the result of research, personal experience, artistic imagination, or a combination of all three? How were you able to explore such big and disparate themes without having them overwhelm the narrative or the characters?
Christie Watson: As a novelist I often take lived experiences and ask What if? to create narrative. Of Where Women Are Kings I wanted to take my lived experience of adoption and ask questions outside my own (positive) experience. I take research very seriously; I think it’s the job of a novelist to get the facts right. Even in fiction there needs to be truth, and a well-researched novel allows for believability and more importantly, avoidance of offense. But of course all stories are a combination of all three aspects you mention. It’s impossible to separate the different elements.
I am driven by character first, story second. I always preach to my creative writing students that character is the most important thing. People read stories to identify with a character, no matter how sophisticated the plot or external events. And themes of a novel are subconscious, and more about the writer. The themes will emerge even if you try to suppress them, so I don’t worry about themes too much. I write strong characters and let them tell the story! I simply listened to Elijah’s voice.
OP: Some of the most moving parts of your novel are the letters Deborah writes to Elijah. Why did you make her letters a part of the novel? Was there ever a point when you were writing where Deborah appeared only through the third person, as with the other characters?
CW: I wanted to experiment slightly with form, and I was interested in consciousness and how to tell the story with Elijah at the center without losing the narrative voices of Nikki and Deborah. The letters allowed me to explore insights into mental illness and take the reader on a journey into psychosis.
Deborah from third-person perspective would have been a very different character, and there was a risk that she would become unsympathetic. I wanted to climb into her head and see the story from inside her, understand what or who drives good people to evil acts.
OP: In many ways, what Elijah faces is a conflict of between the cultural and religious inheritance his mother has left him, one that is inextricably tied to her intense love for him and the life they shared, and the stability and care Nikki and Obi offer him when he becomes a part of their family. Do you think it’s difficult for those working in the public sector, like Chioma and Ricardo, to address the abuses children like Elijah face without censuring the cultures they are a part of?
CW: We can’t separate ourselves from culture, and I know from working in the NHS that mistakes have been made plenty of times in the past due to the harmful attitude that if something abusive is considered culturally normal then it is not child abuse. But in my experience it’s not people from within a culture who condone harmful practices but well-meaning public sector workers fearful of being called racist. Child abuse such as female genital mutilation, or faith-based abuse like Elijah suffers is child abuse in any context. Things are improving dramatically and the dangers of calling child abuse something culturally acceptable are being addressed throughout the public sector, in the police, social services, and NHS.
OP: Both Nikki and Deborah face their own challenges in their respective experiences of motherhood. If they were ever to meet, what do you think they would make of each other?
CW: I think they would be equally devastated by the loss they recognize in each other.