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Fiction Contemporary Women

Butter Honey Pig Bread

by (author) francesca ekwuyasi

Arsenal Pulp Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2020
Contemporary Women, Literary, Lesbian, Sagas
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2020
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  • Downloadable audio file

    Publish Date
    Feb 2021
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Nov 2020
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Finalist, Lambda Literary Award, Governor General's Literary Award, and Amazon Canada First Novel Award; Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Spanning three continents, Butter Honey Pig Bread tells the interconnected stories of three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Kehinde and Taiye. Kambirinachi believes that she is an Ogbanje, or an Abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. She has made the unnatural choice of staying alive to love her human family but lives in fear of the consequences of her decision.

Kambirinachi and her two daughters become estranged from one another because of a trauma that Kehinde experiences in childhood, which leads her to move away and cut off all contact. She ultimately finds her path as an artist and seeks to raise a family of her own, despite her fear that she won’t be a good mother. Meanwhile, Taiye is plagued by guilt for what her sister suffered and also runs away, attempting to fill the void of that lost relationship with casual flings with women. She eventually discovers a way out of her stifling loneliness through a passion for food and cooking.

But now, after more than a decade of living apart, Taiye and Kehinde have returned home to Lagos. It is here that the three women must face each other and address the wounds of the past if they are to reconcile and move forward.

For readers of African diasporic authors such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of choices and their consequences, of motherhood, of the malleable line between the spirit and the mind, of finding new homes and mending old ones, of voracious appetites, of queer love, of friendship, faith, and above all, family.

About the author

francesca ekwuyasi is a writer, artist, and filmmaker born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging. Her writing has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Brittle Paper, Transition Magazine, the Malahat Review, Visual Art News, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and GUTS magazine. Her story "Orun is Heaven" was longlisted for the 2019 Journey Prize. Butter Honey Pig Bread, is her first novel; it won the Writers' Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ2S+ Emerging Writers; was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award, the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and a Lambda Literary Award, and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In 2021, Butter Honey Pig Bread was named runner-up in CBC's Canada Reads competition.

francesca ekwuyasi's profile page

Excerpt: Butter Honey Pig Bread (by (author) francesca ekwuyasi)


If you ask Kambirinachi, this is how she’ll tell it:

There was a spirit, a child, whose reluctance to be born, and subsequent boredom with life, caused her to come and go between realms as she pleased. Succumbing to the messy ordeal of being birthed, she would traverse to flesh realm, only to carelessly, suddenly let go of living like an inconvenient load. Her dying was always a simple event; she would merely suddenly stop breathing. It was her nature. Her intention was never to cause her mother misery, she was just restless. The dark tales of malevolent spirit children, Ọgbanjes, are twisted and untrue. The way that you breathe, it’s necessity to your being alive is that same way that being born and dying was essential to her existence. Perhaps you find it ugly.

The time before her final birth, in an attempt to make her stay, the Woman through which she chose to come -- her Mother -- marked her with a red-hot razor blade, just as the Babalawo instructed. Three deep lines at the nape of her neck, below the hairline, smeared with a pungent brown paste that burned and burned. All this so the Ọgbanje would stay bound to her body, and if not, at the very least, the Woman would recognize her should the child choose to be born again. The child died, of course. She returned again, and maybe she took pity on the Woman, or perhaps she was bored with the foreseeable rhythm of her existence, but she chose to stay. And the three horizontal welts on the back of her neck signified to the Woman that this was the same child that she’d had scarred. It might have been a coincidence, perhaps the Woman’s mother-in-law (she’d never liked the Woman, found her haughty) marked the child in secret to torment her.

Nevertheless, living for Kambirinachi, was a tumultuous cascade between the unbearable misery of being in this alive way indefinitely, and what seemed to be an utter intoxication with the substance, the very matter of life. When there was peace, it was near blissful, but otherwise, her childhood was a nightmarish event for her Mother. The exhausted Woman couldn’t help it. She hated the child a good portion of the time. And the child, too, must have hated her after making her wait and suffer, only to wail the way that she did -- unprovoked, inconsolable, and seemingly interminable. To preserve her sanity and, frankly, the child’s well being, the Woman retreated inside of herself, saving all tenderness for her husband, and leaving only a barely concealed indifference for Kambirinachi.

Kambirinachi was elusive, even if she was to sit right before you, her absence would be palpable. As an eleven-year-old, her attention was always elsewhere.

“Where is Kambirinachi today?” her Father often teased, a broad smile stretched across his bearded face to reveal crooked and tobacco-stained teeth. She chose that smile to be her anchor when the songs calling her back home -- home across the flimsy rotted wooden boards covering the unfinished borehole in the backyard, with an opening just wide enough to swallow her small body and water just deep enough to drown her -- were most persistent. Loud, loud, shouting, it shocked her that nobody else could hear them. They made her accident-prone. The unfortunate thing tripped on stones that weren’t there and ended up with broken bones that couldn’t entirely be explained; she would go to sleep healthfully robust but wake up with blistering fevers that couldn’t be accounted for. She learned to think of her Father’s smile and sit still until the voices grew muffled, and she could carry on with her adventure of the day.

Any thoughts of the future worked like a loosened tap that let the voices rush out in a high pressured stream, so she learned not to think too far. She thought of things she liked about being in her alive body: the smell of the dust rising from the ground outside when heavy rain struck the earth, the burnt sugar coconut taste of Baba Dudu, sweet, sweet cake, jollof rice, smoked fish. She thought of things she disliked: the sound of her Mother’s voice when hardened by anger -- she was angry often -- the fervour in the pastor’s voice when he shouted on Sundays -- he shouted often, about hellfire, holy ghost fire, and smiting one’s enemies. She thought backwards about the in-between place before birth and after hollow body, her home -- the place where she could become the things she loved most, where she would join the rays of sunlight and sing sing in sharp tones, high and joyful. It struck in her a sadness, the pitying kind of sorrow, to know the things that alive bodies could never be.

There were lovely things about being alive, she had to remember, like the taste of guavas. Their existence filled her with so much joy that it burst out of her in gleeful laughter. This is how she ate them: She found the sharpest knife in the kitchen, hid it If her Mother was near, the Woman could shout, eh! Holding the blade as far away from her body as her thin arms would allow -- because she had images of her throat, tattered and bloody, flash through her mind whenever she saw a knife -- she sliced the bumpy emerald skin off, always trying and often failing to make a single long ribbon of the tart rind. After taking delicate bites of the soft pink flesh, shallow bites to leave the grainy seeds undisturbed until the fruit became a knobby slimy ball, she would pop the entire thing into her mouth, and spit out its tiny seeds, one by one, all sucked clean.

Kambirinachi didn’t know about any future, how could she?

Even if she struggled past the voices, she couldn’t have imagined a future that involved her leaving Abeokuta, studying fine arts at a university in Ife, meeting a person that would want to keep her, or becoming a mother for that matter.

But before all that, how could she know that day when she found herself in her Father’s decrepit Peugeot 504 pickup, that she was being taken to boarding school in Lagos? Queens College in Yaba. She would become a ‘QC girl.’ There had been discussions about it. She was present at these discussions. It was exciting, but she was elsewhere. Her Mother talked of Aunty Anuli -- her sister, a biology teacher at Queen’s College. She’d told Kambirinachi that it was the best choice because of the discount on school fees offered to the family of the school staff. She’d said “thank God you did so well on you Common Entrance Exams! Who knows how you did it, this one that your mind is always in the sky, but thank God O! It is far, in Lagos, but it will be good for you to be with your mates.”

Kambirinachi had heard all that, but she couldn’t dare imagine that far.

So you’ll understand why she was addled on the day she found herself in Father’s pickup, dazed by the sweltering heat -- for as long as they’d owned it, the A/C had never worked. Her Mother sat at the driver’s seat in a faded Adire Iro and Buba, talking talking, “Kambirinachi you have to behave o! But don’t worry, it’s a good school, it’s far, but not that far, we will visit every two two weeks, don’t cry biko, it’s okay.”

But even as she said these things, her voice strained against jagged emotions which she cleared her throat to mask. Kambirinachi let the tears fall freely down her face. She looked at her Father as he leaned his large frame against the dusty car window, his weathered face inches from hers, the smell of chewing tobacco on his breath.

“Kambi my girl, be a big girl now okay? Nwa m nwaanyị, adịghị eti mkpu.” He smiled despite his sadness.

“See you later, Papa,” her small voice shook with a question mark, “in two weeks?”

“In two weeks, my darling.” he reassured her, “if it weren’t for this rubbish car with only two seats, me sef I would be coming with you.”

A blast of heat filled the bottom of the pickup when her Mother ignited the engine, and Kambirinachi moved her thin legs to touch the Ghana-must-go that her Mother shoved in the space underneath the rusted metal of the passenger seat. She rested her legs against the woven plastic bag that her Father had filled with tins of powdered milk, Milo, Golden Morn cereal, and guavas, eight of them, tied tight in a black polythene bag. She watched him wave as the car pulled out of the compound, watched him grow smaller and smaller as the distance expanded between them, waving all along. She waved back furiously, sobbing quietly.

It wasn’t until he was entirely out of sight, until she thought about seeing him again, in two weeks, the future, that the voices started their cruel song again. At first just a single voice, high pitched and familiar. And then another. More and more until they were an overlapping riot of noise. Hard and harsh, relentless waves.

You won’t see him again, he will die.

She clutched her ears, they were inexplicably hot, she sobbed and cried out “no, no, please” through her tears.

“Ewo, this girl you’ve started again. It’s okay!” her Mother said. She wanted to be firmer, but something in the tremor of the child’s voice softened her. She felt warm wetness slide down her plump cheeks, found that she too, was crying. She wiped her tears with the back of her hand, pretending it was only sweat.

Editorial Reviews

"The descriptions throughout the novel, from Taiye's cooking to the feel of Lagos to the urgency of new love, invite readers to fully savor Ekwuyasi's language. Mixing emotional depth with supernatural elements, this is a masterful debut." —Booklist (STARRED REVIEW)

"In this remarkable debut novel, a family of Nigerian women attempt to carefully tiptoe around an unspeakable tragedy. Through masterfully crafted scenes full of sumptuous imagery, readers are moved, just as these characters are, by forces beyond their control, beyond their lifetimes." —Catherine Hernandez, author of Scarborough

"Butter Honey Pig Bread roves through the ingredients of things that mark the modern, if enduring, currents of familial and amorous bonds by a writer of ample talent." —Canisia Lubrin, author of The Dyzgraphxst

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