“It’s The Most Eviscerating Thing I’ve Ever Written” – Stephen Buoro On His Acclaimed New Novel
Maths, Marvel movies, an encyclopaedia and a Blackberry. These are the unlikely building blocks of Stephen Buoro’s literary career. If his name is unfamiliar, it won’t be for long. The 30-year-old Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship recipient has just released his debut novel The Five Sorrowful Mysteries Of Andy Africa. It tells the tragi-comic tale of Andy, a teenager growing up in Kontagora, Nigeria, who falls in love with a white girl as sectarian violence descends on his home and a mysterious man arrives claiming to be his father. Bittersweet, movingly rendered and formally audacious in its direction, it is the first move of an undeniable new literary talent.
Buoro, who was a maths teacher in Nigeria before moving to the UK, says of the novel’s first drafts: “I brought all my fascinations to the book. Mathematics, science fiction, Afrofuturism.” It was written in snatched notes on his Blackberry, inspired by the encyclopaedias in his school library and a copy of Ulysses downloaded to a small Motorola flip phone.
We are having coffee in London and Buoro, a voracious reader who views books as portals to other worlds, has just arrived from Norwich, where he is studying for a PhD in creative and critical writing. He apologises for “being better at writing my ideas than talking about them”.
Buoro’s novel has been declared a ‘condition of Africa’ tome by its publisher, a heavy mantle deservedly applied. He describes a sensation of powerlessness during his youth in Nigeria, and how writing was his liberation. “Writing fiction gave me power – you feel like a god of your own world,” he says. Andy’s Marvel fixation reflects this. “Growing up, we were engulfed by Western culture,” Buoro explains. “We all wanted to be Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, to be superheroes. I wanted to capture these key moments of coming of age.”
The dominance of Western influence on Andy is a recurring theme. The novel begins as boldly as it goes on, with the line ‘Dear White People’ followed by a description of Andy’s obsession with white, blonde women. It is unafraid to tackle seismic and problematic issues – colourism, religious wars and oppressive patriarchy – through the eyes of a young man grappling with the long shadow of colonialism and the yearning for a better life for what he calls his ‘cursed continent’.
These are vast topics, but this is resolutely a character novel. “[Andy’s] voice just came to me, this powerful voice that wanted to confess, to understand things,” he says. “I remember staring at it afterwards and realising it was the most eviscerating thing I had ever written. I knew I had to carry on.”
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries Of Andy Africa is out now. Stephen Buoro will be in conversation with David Olusoga at the Hay Festival on 29 May 2023
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar