Nigerian-Canadian Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut novel is a Giller Prize finalist

Cheluchi Onuobia

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut novel The Son of the House is shortlisted for the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She started her writing journey by joining community writing groups such as the CBC Books’ Canada Writes Facebook group. She has been detailing every step of her journey, inspiring aspiring writers to follow in her footsteps.

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a lawyer, academic and advocate who works in health law, policy and violence against women and girls. She divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

The Son of the House is the story of two Nigerian women, the housemaid Nwabulu and the wealthy Julie. The two live very different lives, but when both are kidnapped and forced to spend days together in a dark, tiny room, Nwabulu and Julie keep hope alive by sharing stories and discovering common ground.

Describing The Son of the House, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia says: “[It’s] about two women. When the book opens, we find two women who have been kidnapped and locked up in a room. It’s a situation that is not as uncommon as we would wish it to be in Nigeria today. These two women are obviously in a bad place and they’re terrified. But the older woman gathers her courage and tells the younger one, ‘We’ll be here for a little while longer while we wait to hopefully get rescued. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and I’ll tell you a little bit about myself, so we can pass the time?’

“This book is about motherhood, gender, class, the ties that connect us and about the commonalities of women, even when they’re divided by a heavily patriarchal culture.”

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia added that the stories reflect experiences that she had as well as that of other women. It was a deliberate attempt to recreate a world that she lived and that I have seen, and to open it up for engagement, for discussion, for questioning and interrogation, and hopefully maybe to change people’s minds.

However, “I don’t know if I found [writing this book] therapeutic or cathartic in any way. I would say it actually left me with a sense of heaviness and reminded me of all we still have to do to make the world a more equal place. It was definitely a story that I had to tell. I’m really happy that it’s now out in the world and that others can read it and engage with it.”

As to what advice she would you give aspiring writers, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia was realistic: “I would say to keep pushing. It sounds easy to say, but writing can be tough. Rejections are tough and many people give up. Keep pushing means many things. It could mean: keep working on your craft, encouraging yourself to write one more paragraph, sending out your work again to agents, writing a second book or trying out a new idea.”

“I would say two things. First, get writing — especially if you’re like me and you have the story in your head. Many people are going to wait and the next thing you know, they don’t submit anything. Write it down, as clunky as it may be. Then you can tinker with it.

I would also tell writers to give [their stories] a little time. Allow it to breathe, even if it’s only for a day. Come back to it with fresh eyes and see what you might want to do differently or what resonates most with you.”