Yejide Kilanko is a Nigerian author, poet, and social worker based in Ontario, Canada. Her debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, was published in April 2012 by Penguin Canada and is due to be released in the US next year.
The first of five children, Kilanko graduated from University of Ibadan in 1998 with a BSc in Political Science. She also holds a Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of Victoria and a Masters from the University of Windsor. She currently works as a therapist in children’s mental health.
An early reader, Kilanko’s love for words led her to poetry writing when she was twelve. As an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, she wrote regular columns for two student press organizations. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about her debut novel, how she managed to land a publishing contract with Penguin.
Tell us about your debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path. What is the story about?
Set in modern day Nigeria, Daughters Who Walk This Path is the story of Morayo and Morenike, two female cousins who experience the pain and shame of child sexual abuse.Thrust into a web of oppressive silence woven by the adults around her, Morayo learns to fiercely protect herself and her younger sister. Only her older cousin, Aunty Morenike—once protected by her own mother—provides Morayo with a safe home, and a sense of female community which sustains Morayo as she grows into a young woman in bustling, politically charged, often violent Nigeria. It is a story about loss and gain, life and death, family and love in a culture where dark secrets are often, masked with bright smiles.
What inspired you to write the book?
In June 2009, I had just started work as a newly minted Social Worker in child protection services. The role guaranteed a constant exposure to heart-wrenching stories of child sexual abuse and I struggled to fall and stay asleep. So, Daughters Who Walk This Path, really began life as a short poem written in June 2009. That poem was titled Silence Speaks. After sharing the poem with friends, I was surprised at the discussions that followed in regards to the prevalence of child sexual abuse. I decided then to write a novel about it. It took me about eight months to write the very first manuscript.
How is the book doing so far, and in what countries is it/will it be available?
The response to the book has been overwhelming positive. It was published in Canada on April 10, 2012. Following the exciting news that the novel was Costco Canada’s buyer, Catherine Bergeron’s pick for the month, on May 5, 2012, the novel debuted on the Globe and Mail bestseller’s list. It was on the bestseller’s list for six consecutive weeks. The novel will be published in the United States by Pintail Books (Penguin USA) in Spring 2013. I am very hopeful that the novel will be published in Nigeria/Africa in the near future.
Some critics have labelled the book feminist (in a positive way). Would you consider your writing feminist? In what ways?
I do see my writing as feminist in the sense that it reflects my personal convictions. I strongly believe in the value and potential that is part of the girl child, regardless of their social location. I believe that women deserve equal status, to be part of the decision making processes, whether in their homes, at work or in public forums. As reflected in Daughters Who Walk This Path, my hope is that ultimately, women are able to decide on what is empowering to them as unique individuals without judgment from men or other women.
It is quite a remarkable achievement for any first time writer to be published by a prestigious house like Penguin. What was your journey to getting published?
My journey to publication really was a whirlwind, surreal one. The novel took me about a year to write and on August 16, 2010, I sent out queries to literary agents in the United States. That same day, I received a request for a full manuscript. Exactly one week later, I had an offer of representation from my fantastic agent. In May 2011, after we had spent some time polishing the manuscript, we made submissions to Canadian publishing houses. We heard back from my editor at Penguin Canada, about three days later. We subsequently received a publishing offer later that month.
Have you got tips for other authors who are trying to get their books out there?
After reading so many query/submission horror stories, I almost talked myself out of trying to find an agent. I told myself that if all these people who had all the writing education/ experience behind them were finding it so difficult, who was I to think I could do it. So my first tip will be don’t give up on yourself before you even begin. You never know what could happen when you try. My second tip would be to put your best work forward always. Try to take full advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. There are so many writers and limited chances. Remember that it might take a while before another one comes along.
Any personal influences? What writers have inspired you along the way?
Growing up, a lot of the books I read came from the African Writer’s Series and from these, the works of Buchi Emecheta, Cyprian Ekwensi and Ama Ata Aidoo really made me think about issues relating to gender roles and societal expectations. In my teenage years, I started watching and reading plays. Zulu Sofola’s Wedlock of The Gods and Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead were favourites. I’m glad I later discovered Nadine Mortimer and Toni Morrison. They both expanded my world with their works. As a reader and writer, I really enjoy humour and find stories like those written by E.C Osondu, a breath of fresh air.