“I like a bit of drama in my drama,” writer Nikki May says with a laugh. And in her debut novel, Wahala, the first-time novelist most definitely serves up the drama—along with generous helpings of Nigerian culture and cuisine.
The word “wahala” means “trouble” in Nigerian pidgin English, and the book dishes plenty of that, exploring the intrigue and machinations that push friendships to the boiling point. It’s an absorbing page-turner—which opens with a foreshadowing of the danger ahead and then keeps you dangling till the denouement.
Born in the U.K., May, who is bi-racial, moved to Lagos as a toddler. “I was 2 when I went to Nigeria, so I don’t remember living in England at all before that. So, to me, Nigeria is home,” says. the novelist, expressing a deep connection to the country of her father’s birth.
“My mum was English, so even in Nigeria, I was slightly different,” she notes of her diverse culture. “I was called Oyinbo, which means white. And obviously, I’m not white, I’m mixed race, but in Nigeria—and it’s not meant in an offensive way at all—it’s just what you get called.” May says she visited England with her mother every few years during the summers and would stay for a couple of weeks. “But Nigeria was home; Nigeria is what I knew. And I did try very hard to fit in sometimes.”
After moving from Lagos, May was able to maintain ties to her African roots partly by connecting with the Nigerian community in London. Still, once she embarked on her advertising career, she found herself struggling to adapt to her new environment.
“I remember at that time I wanted my hair to look more British, so I started straightening it, which I’d never done in Nigeria,” says May, who spoke with us from her home in England’s West Country. “Having tried to blend in in Nigeria then I got here and tried to blend in here.”
She adds, “It’s funny how I think being mixed race can be quite complicated. In Nigeria, I’m universally called white, and here I’m universally called Black. And always you’re not necessarily quite as white or as Black as you should be, if you know what I mean.”
In the spirit of writing what you know, Wahala’s three intriguing main characters also are of Nigerian-British heritage. Besties since their college days, thirtysomething ladies Ronke (the hopeful romantic and moral center), Simi (the go-getter plagued with self-doubt) and Boo (the stifled, bored housewife and mom) all now live in London, and all are trying to balance life and love in their own individual ways.
Unfortunately, when wealthy outsider Isobel enters their orbit—a cat among the pigeons, if you will—she causes their lives to implode in unimaginable ways. It’s the perfect recipe for the cinematic treatment, so it’s no surprise that Wahala already has been optioned for a BBC six-part series next year.
The author admits to adding elements drawn from real life to all three of the book's girlfriends’ narratives. “It’s not autobiographical in any way, but you borrow little bits of yourself or your friends or people you know,” she says.
In fact the the book's character she most relates to is Simi, the married advertising wiz who unceremoniously left medical school in her twenties. “My father’s a doctor, so going to medical school was kind of assumed,” shares May. “I don’t think it was ever discussed, it was just, ‘you’re going to be a doctor.’ And it wasn’t something I rebelled against. Until year three, when I realized I would make the most terrible doctor.” Simi not only shares having left medical school with her creator, she, in fact, also shares the anguish that departure caused. “In West Africa, education is hugely important," notes May. "In fact, one degree is not usually enough—you should also have a Master’s and a PhD. It’s taken me a long time to sort of think it’s not a failure, and it’s not something I need to be ashamed of, so I gave Simi a bit of that."
For May, the notion to finally write a novel gelled over the course of a three-hour train ride after having what she calls a “Niaja [Nigerian] lunch” in London with some compadres of like heritage. “I came out of this restaurant where we’d been talking really loudly and our syntax had changed and we slipped into a bit of pidgin English and we were talking about such different things,” the British-Nigerian novelist explains. “And as I sat on the train, I almost felt myself change and leave that version of me and slip back into English me. And I suddenly started thinking that that’s such an interesting concept… that I should actually write a book that has people like me with these two cultures in it.”
The future author began sketching out her characters then and there, and shared her concept with her husband when she got home. Excited about the potential of her idea, she enrolled in a six-week creative writing course. “Literally, the story poured out of me in six months, and I had a first draft.
Fueled by her purpose and inspiration, May crafted her story around these three friends, each with their own baggage and, therefore, each vulnerable to interloper Isobel, who Simi knew as a child in Nigeria. Iso, as Simi calls her, implants herself into their lives and proceeds to sow seeds of mistrust and division among them and those they love.
Isobel is first introduced to Ronke when Simi unexpectedly brings her along to one of their lunches. As Ronke makes her way to the restaurant, ticking off a mental checklist of the food choices ahead of her, you discover her love for the traditional dishes of her Nigerian culture.
Wahala's author has a kindred reverence for Nigerian cuisine. In between all the scheming and backstabbing, food remains a comforting constant. The author not only uses her descriptive acuity to help create a vivid mental picture of the time-tested dishes Ronke prepares, but she happily includes some recipes, via an appendix, too. Ronke’s jollof rice and chicken stew, as well as Aunty K’s moin-moin are all ours for the making.
“I love to celebrate the nature of food the way we have it in Nigeria. I love the way we think of food as a way of caring for people and bringing them together. And to me, Ronke’s attitude to food is just such a wonderful Nigerian attitude,” shares the author, who also admits she wanted to show how tasty the West-African cuisine is to her non-African compatriots. “In London we have a lot of Asian and Indian restaurants that everybody goes to, but Nigerian food is not on the map. I wanted to celebrate our food. It’s wonderful. And I think food is such a big part of culture."
Racism, struggles with identity, unconscious bias in the workplace and colorism all are part of the book’s tapestry. “When I first came to England, I think my biggest shock was racism,” May says. “Nigerians are very proud. We’re very proud people. That anybody would think I was inferior was just shocking. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. In Nigeria, in some ways we think we’re the best—we’re clever, we’re smart—so to come to a place where some people think that because you’re not white you’re worse, was actually surprising and ‘shocking’ is the best word I have for it.
One scene in the book depicts Ronke’s Nigerian boyfriend Kayode in a run-in with police that has an all-too familiar ring for Black men in America. Kayode steps in to defend Ronke when a white stalker (Mr. Owen) accosts her at her apartment and yet, when cops arrive on the scene, they assume Kayode is the bad guy:
The male officer barked at Kayode. ‘Step back, sir. Calm down. Hands where I can see them. I don’t want to have to cuff you.’
The female officer crouched beside Mr. Owen, comforting him, fetching his glasses and helping him place them back on his nose. She sat him back on the wall. ‘Are you OK, sir? Are you hurt? Did he hit you?’
“I’ve been in cars when I was dating a boyfriend who was stopped by police for no other reason than he was Black,” the author recalls. “There’s just that feeling of, ‘because I’m driving a nice car why do I have to explain to you that I haven’t stolen it?’ And I’ve been there saying, ‘just calm down, show him your driver’s license...’ But why should you, right?”
Despite the abundance of knowledge dropped about Nigerian culture and the British-Nigerian experience, May says those things are secondary to her story, which is all about keeping the reader enthralled. “I wanted to write a book that was entertaining and that was fun to read.”
With Wahala, she has definitely done that and created in Isobel a villain of epic proportion who seems to delight in watching the triumvirate’s long-standing friendships rocked to the core by her lies and deceit.
“Toxicity is a part of friendship, unfortunately," notes the author. "I think even in the closest of friendships you get rivalry, you get jealousy and impatience at times—you get all those sorts of things.”
In other words, you get drama.