For someone who straddles the duality of being a Nigerian writer with strong connections to their home country and fully embraces their identity as a Nigerian diaspora, Chibundu Onuzo has had a better run than most. Her debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, released when she was a teenager, set her apart as a Nigerian writing prodigy in the company of Chimamanda Adichie and Helen Oyeyemi, but it was her press run for her sophomore novel Welcome To Lagos, that really set her apart as wholly her own person. Onuzo became famous for her singing as much as her writing, and her very strong connections to the motherland, which proved a handy tchotchke for western interviewers unsure of where to place her.
However, her recent essay in the Guardian UK, took things a step too far. Onuzo who comes from an affluent Nigerian family, many of whom have dual citizenship in European countries took a family trip to Barbados to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her parent’s marriage. Events like this often provide writers with fodder that appeals to Western media; a person of colour providing perspective on a country or tourist destination populated by Black, Asian or Middle Eastern people.
Long the preserve of white travelers, current race sensitivities mean that many of the ‘casual’ observations the original bastions of this form of travel writing lead to backlash, but with POC writers with considerable influence, audiences might be more lenient.
Not so with Chibundu Onuzo, whose essay was panned as ‘classist’ and ‘tone deaf’. It is hard to ignore the lack of research about Barbados that went into Onuzo’s essay. She didn’t mention once Rihanna, who is the country’s tourism ambassador and has done significant work to help the country’s public image. She knew little about the country’s history and its relationship with slavery, and from her own words, didn’t leave the resort where her family was couched to actually visit the tiny island country and understand its people. Most people couldn’t reconcile that Onuzo willingly chose to visit a former slave plantation, preserved most likely by white owners who still profit off this relic of slavery and were quick to tell her so.
Onuzo is lucky, so far, no one has mentioned ‘cancelling’ her; and quite a few people are laying blame at the feet of the Guardian UK, whose job it was to ensure that an essay lacking this much nuance even made its way to publication in the first place. But Onuzo’s public ribbing offers an important lesson. Fame doesn’t preclude a writer from researching a topic before speaking authoritatively on it. Neither does being a person of colour of African descent mean that your words and actions cannot be harmful to other people of colour.
Not every platform needs to be used, sometimes just enjoy your vacation and like the waves of the Atlantic, let your opinions wash away.