Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s darkly comic debut novel My Sister, the Serial Killer has been called “a scorpion tailed little thriller” (New York Times) and “sharp as a knife” (Publisher’s Weekly). It was nominated for the 2019 Booker Prize, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller, and was a finalist for the 2019 Women’s Prize. Here, she and host Mary Laura Philpott discuss the surprising origins of Braithwaite’s characters and how she found her way toward a compelling story that defies convention. Below is her full conversation with host Mary Laura Philpott for this episode of NPT’s A Word on Words.
Mary Laura Philpott: Okay, let’s start with a quick book report. Would you tell us what My Sister, the Serial Killer is about? Set up the characters for us.
Oyinkan Braithwaite: It’s about two sisters — the older sister, Korede, and the younger sister, Ayoola. Korede is in her late twenties. She’s a nurse, she’s very meticulous, knows how to keep things nice and tidy. Ayoola is the beautiful, charming, capricious, younger sister, but she also happens to be a serial killer.
Philpott: “Happens to be.”
Braithwaite: Yes. (laughs)
Philpott: How did you first meet these women in your mind? Where did they come from?
Braithwaite: In 2007, I was reading up on the black widow spider. For the first time I realized they existed — this creature who, you know, the female spider is bigger than the male spider, and after they mate, if the female spider happens to be hungry, and the male spider is still hanging around, she will eat him. And I thought this was hilarious. It made such a huge impression on me that I immediately wrote a poem called “Black Widow Spider.”
Then, after I wrote that poem, I followed it with another poem, probably a few months later, about the traditional black widow — this idea of a woman who marries men, poisons them, and inherits their wealth. So, I had done that poem, which was about two women as well. They were friends, not sisters, but the black widow was the more attractive one, and the plain friend was the only one who knew that her friend had this other side to her.
So I think in many ways these two poems laid the foundation for what would be My Sister, the Serial Killer ten years later. They weren’t Ayoola and Korede then, but their foundation was there.
Philpott: And they’ve been with you ever since?
Braithwaite: Yes. I didn’t have to dream up a new plot. I was playing with an idea I was familiar with.
Philpott: I’m curious, do you have siblings?
Braithwaite: Yes, I do. Two sisters and a brother.
Philpott: What about your sibling experience did you tap into for this book?
Braithwaite: At the time I didn’t think I was tapping into anything, but looking back on it I do realize that. So the girl after me, there’s just two years between us. After that it’s six years and thirteen years. So, she’s the one I grew up with.
Philpott: The closest sister.
Braithwaite: Yeah, she’s the closest to me in age, and there were periods where we couldn’t stand one another. At some point I was convinced one of us was adopted, and it wasn’t me, because I looked like my mom. So it had to have been her. I’m not sure where she came from. We did have a very tempestuous relationship, but I also knew that when push came to shove, she would be there. Whatever happened, she would be there. I think that that’s probably what I drew from, in some respects, creating these two.
Philpott: Is there something different about the sisterly relationship from, say, two female friends? Do sisters have a bond that goes beyond that?
Braithwaite: When I did the poem, initially, it was two friends. When I was doing the novel, I thought, “Okay, hang on, this isn’t going to work the same way.” Because you choose who your friends are, you have options. But there’s something about family. First, you don’t get to choose them. And then you’re sort of stuck with them. So I wanted a relationship that would be hard to dispense with.
Even at that, I still felt like it wasn’t enough. I wanted to make their bond even tighter, which is the point where I introduced the trauma that they go through together — to ensure that they have an almost unbreakable bond.
Philpott: It’s much harder to walk away from family.
Philpott: This book is, in many ways, about the things we hide or cover up, including sometimes literally the things we clean up — such as a bathroom where a murder may have taken place. What about that intrigues you, the idea of covering up, or cleaning up on behalf of someone else?
Braithwaite: Again, I think it’s just this idea of family. Whatever goes on in a family is usually kept within those walls. Whatever culture you’re from, I don’t think people are quick to talk about certain things with outsiders. Say your mother has a drinking habit, or your father does, you keep it within the home. Also this idea of maintaining appearances — which, again, is a very universal thing that we do. These days we do it with social media, we construct these perceptions of ourselves that aren’t necessarily real. So I think I was just fascinated with that, the duplicitous nature of people, and the idea of why we’re so attracted to beauty and perfection and maintaining ideals like this.
Philpott: We human beings tend to enjoy typing people — going “this is the good girl and that’s the bad girl” or “this is the sexy one and that’s the studious one.” But I got the impression you were not interested in doing that.
Braithwaite: When I was writing it, I was very interested in why we’re so obsessed with beauty, and why we’re so obsessed with perfection. I do think that generally, people are unwilling to look beyond what’s presented on the outside. Because the truth is that if we think about the classic literature that we read, often the “good” women were also beautiful; it was a hand-in-hand sort of relationship. But that’s not true to life. You can have someone who is gorgeous and she’s evil, and someone who’s maybe not universally thought to be attractive but who has a really gentle heart. You can’t put people in these tiny boxes, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Philpott: Speaking of not putting things in tiny boxes… This book and your writing in general strike me as sort of genre-busting, in that you could call this book a thriller, but it’s not like a lot of other thrillers. You could call it a little bit of a mystery, but it’s not exactly comparable to any other mystery I’ve read. I wondered if that was a conscious resistance on your part — to write something different from what you had read in other books?
Braithwaite: I don’t think it was a conscious thing. I didn’t think about genre when I was writing it, so maybe that’s why. If you think about genre first, it does limit you. If you decide, “Okay, this is the genre I’m writing in,” you’re forced to follow the conventions of that genre because you’re aware that that’s what you’re doing.
I like to write fantasy. I don’t do it a lot, but when I am writing fantasy, a thought that often comes into my head is, “Within the first paragraph, I need to let the reader know they’re reading fantasy,” because that’s what I’ve been taught. You’ve got to introduce the reader to the fact that it’s a fantasy novel quite early. But what if you didn’t? I mean, I’ve never tried not to do that, but it’s an interesting question. I think also it’s mostly about training. If you know what the conventions are, then you can also figure out how to bend them.
Philpott: Right. You can play with them a little bit.
Braithwaite: But I just wasn’t really thinking about genre with this particular book, and I’m glad I wasn’t held back by all those different things.
Philpott: I’m glad, too. It made the story surprising in a lot of different ways, which I really enjoyed. I want to talk about your sense of humor. And I should mention that the humor in this
book is not slapstick, punchline kind of humor. It’s really dry. How do you locate the threads of
humor in really dark, grim situations?
Braithwaite: I didn’t! I didn’t locate them. At the time, when I knew what I was going to write, I
knew it was going to be dark. But I didn’t want to be in darkness for the time it takes to write a novel. I didn’t want to be immersed in darkness for that period of time. So I decided my characters were going to be very matter-of-fact about things that were going on, and I was going to be very matter-of-fact about it.
And I think humor comes from this idea that you’re subverting expectations. People think one thing is going to happen, and then comedy usually happens when it’s like, “That’s not what I was expecting.”
Even though I wasn’t consciously doing it, now I can see it — from the way people have responded and told me that the book had them laughing at inappropriate moments. This is going to sound weird, but when you’re murdering someone, you’re supposed to have a particular kind of reaction or response to that. So seeing someone clean up a bathroom filled with blood and then go and make pancakes or whatever, your mind tells you that’s not the way it’s supposed to go.
Braithwaite: But I didn’t think I was writing a funny book when I was writing it. Also, my mum says that a lot of it is just me — the sense of humor that I have. There was a line in the book, actually, where after they’ve dumped the third guy into the lagoon, Korede says, “Well, at least he won’t be lonely.” My mum, when she read that part, she was like, “This sounds so much like you!” They thought that was really funny.
Philpott: So maybe you’re funnier than you think you are.
Braithwaite: Yeah, maybe.
Philpott: I was laughing, and then I would look around like, “Does anyone know that I was just laughing at a murder scene?” It was great. Let’s talk about your influences. What did you read that helped make you a writer?
Braithwaite: I read a lot of English, so, classics — like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. Actually, sometimes when I hear people talk about influences, I think about Great Expectations, even though I didn’t think about Great Expectations at the time. But now I think about it, because of Estella.
Philpott: She’s got a little bit of that “black widow” thing going on.
Braithwaite: Yeah. She was groomed to be a heartbreaker, and she was heartless in many respects. I remember she and Miss Havisham made such a huge impression on me, because I read it as a child.
I think a lot of times, you’re not always conscious about things that influence you; but now,
looking back on that book, I’m like, “How did I not realize this had a huge part to play?” And a lot of those books were quite gothic in a sense, so I think they had a huge influence on me.
These days I probably say that when I was creating Ayoola, I drew quite a bit from Japanese anime.
Philpott: I can see that in the description, in the physical description of her.
Braithwaite: Yeah. You do get a lot of women who fight in anime, and who are very mischievous. And anime is also filled with two-dimensional characters. So, anime is what
showed me that you can have a two-dimensional character, and the character will still feel like a three-dimensional character if you’ve done it right. In many respects that’s what gave me the confidence to create a character like Ayoola.
Philpott: Some English major somewhere could write a great term paper on My Sister,
the Serial Killer and anime and/or Great Expectations. Not to embarrass you, but your writing has been nominated for, I think… every prize on the globe as of now? (laughs) How does that feel?
Braithwaite: I think these last two weeks or so, I started feeling like it was happening to someone else, because there was only so much that I could digest at a time. So I was like, “Okay, I think there’s another Oyinkan that this is happening to.” I just feel really blessed and fortunate.
I didn’t realize until I got into the industry how collaborative it is, and how much it has to do with people loving loving your book and championing it and wanting it to do well, and it’s so much. I
wrote the book almost two years ago now, but other people have just flown with it.
Philpott: It takes on a life of its own.
Philpott: Does it change your perception of your own writing in any way to realize how many people are reading it?
Braithwaite: It gives me anxiety attacks. Like a lot. There was a phase around the Women’s Prize where I was pulling out my hair, I couldn’t write. But I figured out how to write through it, how to write through the torture.
Philpott: What’s the answer? How do you do it?
Braithwaite: It’s just to write, because the thing is — OK, I liken it to this: I remember when I was younger and I got to “learning how to drive” age, my mum was super neurotic about it. One day I got into an accident, it wasn’t a major accident, but I thought she was going to say, “Right, no more driving for you.” But she insisted I had to get back behind the wheel almost immediately. She said, “If you don’t, you’re going to freeze up and you won’t be able to drive.”
I think it’s the same thing with writing. If you stop, you’re going to get in your head. You’re going to think, “Oh, I’ve got to be this person that they think I am, I’ve got to be…”
Philpott: This persona.
Braithwaite: Yes. There was a point where — again, I don’t think of myself as a comic writer but
I’ve been described as a comic writer — at some point, I’d be writing and then I would think, “Oh, right, right, insert funny sentence here.”
Philpott: (laughs) “People expect me to be funny here.”
Braithwaite: And it just doesn’t work like that!
Philpott: Tell me about your editing process. One of the things I love about this book is how efficient and sparkling it is. It is a jewel, and I wonder if that is your nature — if
you’re a naturally efficient writer — or if you’re editing down, carving down from much longer drafts.
Braithwaite: I’m trying to see how to respond to this question without sounding cocky. (Laughs) Own it?
Philpott: Lean into it.
Braithwaite: It’s natural. Do you know what it is? I don’t edit down. I find editing really, really tiring. My first drafts are usually quite tidy, and I think it’s because I don’t go off on a tangent. If anything, the editors have to encourage me to write more: “You’ve got to describe where they are. You’ve got to describe what they are doing.”
Philpott: Is that the poet in you, that efficiency?
Braithwaite: I think it is poetry. I also think it’s laziness. I just want to get going. Also, I tend to try and out-write my self-doubt, so I write quite quickly. I need to get what’s important about this scene down. My editing is actually more about developing what I’ve already put down.
Philpott: Speaking of efficiency: As a reader, how long do you give a book before you give up on it? Or do you make yourself finish it?
Braithwaite: I’m usually quite committed. It has to be really, really terrible for me to not try and see it through to the end.
Philpott: What grabs you, in fiction? What sort of thing makes you go, “Oh, this is my
kind of book”?
Braithwaite: It’s different things because I like different genres. For fantasy, I like to see a world I haven’t seen before. I enjoy seeing people cornered and sort of fighting for their life. I’m interested in who we think we are when things are going well, when everything is rosy, and who we actually are when everything falls apart. That’s a huge passion for me, so I like to see that.
Philpott: That’s fascinating, because I feel like you do that so well in this novel. You show what these sisters, the older sister in particular, what she’s made of when she’s trapped in a very strange situation. Backed into a very interesting corner. Oyin, thank you so much for joining us.
Braithwaite: Thank you for having me.
This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Oyinkan Braithwaite recommends:
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Lola Shoneyin
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Stay with me, Ayobami Adebayo
Milkman, Anna Burns
Lagos Noir, Chris Abani
Oyinkan Braithwaite is reading:
Scrublands, Chris Hammer
She Lies in Wait, Gytha Lodge
Dark Chapter, Winnie M Li
About Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oyinkan Braithwaite is a graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University. In 2016, she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Braithwaite is the author of My Sister, the Serial Killer, which won the 2019 LA Times Award for Best Crime Thriller, the 2019 Morning News Tournament of Books, the 2019 Amazon Publishing Reader’s Award for Best Debut Novel, the 2019 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. It was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019, and longlisted for the 2020 Dublin Literary Award.