Daring to be Different: An Interview with Stella Oni
By Jane Link, Leanne Francis, Shaniah Shields and Jia Wen Ho
You have crafted three strong, multifaceted lead characters in Toks Ade, Coretta Davis and Philip Dean. How did you manage to craft such distinctive characters within your story?
When the idea for Deadly Sacrifice came, the first one was Toks Ade. I wanted her to be representative, to be a Black African woman and to struggle with weight like most women. But as the story formed, I thought - oh, she can't be all on her own and she has to start from somewhere. So, Toks was a uniformed police officer who then became a trainee detective. I also wanted her to have a strong mentor. If she didn’t have a strong mentor, her ability to solve the crimes she does would not be as strong as it is.
That's how Philip Dean came along. He’s a mentor, but he's also human: someone who has feelings. I didn’t want anybody that was stereotyped. And the same with Coretta. I wanted Toks to have a strong, biracial friend. I didn't want to just stick to having Black characters. Yes, there's racism and there's so many things going on, but we are part of the world. And for me, I'm passionate about saying, here I am, this is who I am, and I'm part of it. We've been here forever.
There have been a few literary articles and opinion pieces about the rise of Black and African crime fiction. Why do you think the genre has found favour with many writers?
I don’t know whether you write what you read, or what you're interested in. When I started out with writing a literary book, which is still in a drawer, I was just kind of playing with it and at the very end, I gave myself a few years to write the work. Then I found the publisher, but I was on the point of changing my life, I just got married, I was having babies and starting an education. So, I left the literary work.
I love crime fiction, so I thought let me try to write crime. When I started crime fiction, the landscape was white, but beautiful. I love crime fiction so I can still relate to the books. But in the process of me writing Deadly Sacrifice and getting published, it took fifteen years. During that time, Black people and people of colour started writing crime fiction. I don't think it was just kind of like a trend, it was just people that decided look, actually I like crime fiction and I would like to write crime fiction. We're still a handful, but I was quite excited to see that people were cropping up around the world to write crime fiction. I admire authors like Dorothy Koomson, Louise Hare, Leye Adenle, Vaseem Khan and Nadine Matheson.
Crime fiction is a form that you can make into anything. You can put your message in it if you want. Most people want to write literary fiction or memoirs. But few people write crime; maybe that will change in the future. The more of us that write, the more people would see that it's not impossible to write. Younger people that want to write can feel that there are people like them that are writing crime and they can do it too. For me, when I started out, I felt like an imposter. So, daring, you know, to want to write crime fiction.
For me, when I started out, I felt like an imposter. So daring, you know, to want to write crime fiction.
What advice would you give to BIPOC authors who want to write crime and thriller?
The advice I'll give to you is to read. You can’t write what you don't know. Almost to the point of obsession, I read. If you don't read you don't write, that’s number one. Number two: if you want to write, you have to learn the craft of writing. Most people that are writing now are also getting their masters in Fine Arts.
I went and got my masters in IT, because I love IT. Maybe I should have just got a masters in writing as well, that would have saved me a lot of pain because I love stories. It is not like I don't have stories in my head, but the form of the story is so important, that's the beauty. You don't have to wait as long as I did for you to hone your craft. Mine kind of evolved over time. If you really want to do it, you can.
And, you can actually write anywhere. I remember telling someone that I will probably start writing my next book on a phone. One of my best articles on Medium, a food article, was written on my phone. You don't have to wait for a particular moment; you can steal moments. You don’t have to be sitting down and waiting for it to happen, because it won’t. Time just passes you by, really.
I read that Deadly Sacrifice was inspired by true events. How did you research the novel?
The first inclination of Deadly Sacrifice, before I thought of Toks Ade, was about a journalist who was in crime, but she wasn't Coretta. So, I merged the journalist, the person who was a true-crime author, with Toks Ade. In terms of research, a real-life event happened in 2001, where the torso of an African boy was found in the River Thames. So grim, really, really horrific and the boy’s killers were never found. I'm very passionate about the plight of children and the parts of the world where horrific things happen to children that are not highlighted. Even though the torso in the Thames was horrific, there are other parts of the world where things like that happen. I didn’t want that boy to be completely forgotten. I didn’t like that something so horrific happened to a child in my work, but I also didn't want to run away from something that I know is still happening.
I have got life experience and looking at characters, human beings and how people would act was what brought the book together. When I sent it off for submission to agents, some were kind enough to say, “Look, why don't you do this? Why don't you do that?” Every piece of feedback that I got, I put back in. But, it was a real-life event that inspired the work.
How did you become one of Jacaranda’s Twentyin2020? And what was it like to be part of that?
I waited a long time and I got to a point where I got fed up. And I just felt, I have done as much as I can with this manuscript. I just want to move on to something else. If I can't get it published, I'm done.
I have a friend who is in the publishing world, who told me about the Soroptimist International Leeds Literary Prize (SI Leeds Literary Prize) for female Black and Asian unpublished writers. I was very reluctant to enter because I just felt I’d never win anything. But she kind of begged me, so I entered. I didn't win but I got shortlisted. The SI Leeds literary prize didn’t go “Oh you’re shortlisted, bye.” One gift they gave shortlisted authors was to attend a workshop in partnership with New Writing North. New Writing North is incredible at nurturing their writers. So, I went to a workshop for pitching to agents. The Sl Leeds Literary Prize got my feet wet. So, I thought, there's something to this work, it is not just me imagining things.
Then my friend told me about Jacaranda’s Twenty in 2020 initiative and said they wanted authors. I entered and thought I probably didn’t get it. Then months later, I got an email saying congratulations, you are picked out as one of our 2020 authors. I have been honoured to know the authors and to read the books. I'm on my way to gathering all twenty. I haven’t got all of them, but I am nearly there.
I don't know if it’s just authors or authors of colour, but if your book is just midlist at a big publisher because you're just starting out, you might get lost in the process and you might feel hurt. They're so focused on their best: it's a business. Being part of the Twenty in 2020 made me feel nurtured. Jacaranda did a lot for us to feel confident to say: “Okay, yeah, I can do it, I can go on to the next work and I can do more work now.” It's the nurturing aspect of it that new authors need.
Writing is not a one-shot thing. For me, it's lifelong. I will write till I drop. I'm not here to rush over each of my works. I'm not here saying, I must make millions for my work. My message, my essence, is what I'm putting out there. So, if I'm doing that, I want a home. But publishers have to be conscious, I feel, when new authors start out that they also need to be nurtured and encouraged. You just can’t throw them aside because maybe they didn't make the money you wanted first time. That can destroy future work.
Publishers have to be conscious, I feel - when new authors start out they also need to be nurtured and encouraged.
I really enjoyed how you incorporated religion and Black magic into the story. Was it difficult to write about Black magic within the framework of traditional crime fiction?
I'm British Nigerian. It's not the norm in Britain, but in Nigeria, the supernatural exists side by side with daily life. Supernatural beliefs fascinate me and the books I write will incorporate supernatural aspects. But when I say supernatural, I'm not talking about things that drop in the night. I'm talking in terms of people's beliefs and characters and in terms of opposites. I like looking at the opposites of character: the ones that do evil and one that does justice. I think it creates a kind of friction. And in life, there's lots of friction with religion and belief and people change when it comes to that. It's my simple experience and my background as Nigerian. It is part and parcel of what I will do in some of my work.
Editors, though, might come back and say, “take away this aspect of this magic, it might not work or take away that aspect.” I cut out some aspects in Deadly Sacrifice because it might not work within the context of the book. But you can incorporate anything in crime fiction, as long as it's part of the story, the dynamics and it is woven into your work.
As an avid reader, can you recommend three excellent novels?
Instead of three novels, I will give you five authors: Susan Hill. She writes the Simon Serrailler series. Andrea Camilleri. He writes the Inspector Montalbano series. Stieg Larsson. He wrote the Millennium series. Lee Child and Jo Nesbo.
Stella is writing a cosy mystery series as well as continuing with writing the next books in the Toks Ade series. One of her short stories will be available in Midnight Hour, an anthology by Authors of Colour that will be published by Crooked Lane in November 2021.