Efua Traoré's Children of the Quicksands draws on her childhood in Nigeria and the mythology of the regions.
Efua grew up in a small town in Nigeria and, for as long as she can remember, her head was filled with little stories but it was not until much later that she began to write them down.
Efua won the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa with her short story True Happiness and she is a literature-grant-holder of the Munich Literaturreferat. Children of the Quicksands, her debut novel, won the Times/ Chicken House Fiction Competition in 2019.
She now lives in Munich with her family.
Connect with Efua on Twitter: @efuatraore
Children of the Quicksands (Chicken House Books)
Efua Traoré's Children of the Quicksands is a compelling story set in Nigeria and weaves the region's mythology and culture into a contemporary magical adventure.
Q&A with Efua Traoré
1. What brought you into writing children's books? Do you do other work aside from being an author?
I love telling my daughters the stories and adventures of my childhood in Nigeria and some years ago I was looking for children's books set in Nigeria that told similar stories, but couldn't find any. It was difficult even finding any books at all that showed black or brown characters going on adventures.
At the time I had just discovered my passion for writing and so I decided to write the kind of book I was looking for myself. The process was wonderful because I began reading the book to my children while I was still writing it. We would snuggle up in bed in the evenings and I would read a chapter or two. They absolutely loved it and it was wonderful hearing their thoughts and questions along the way and seeing their excitement and worries about what would happen next. They kept asking for more.
We soon caught up with my writing and I had to write faster than ever to keep up. It was such a fulfilling and fun process that I stuck with writing children's books. Aside from writing, I work part-time in a consultancy and I am a busy mum of three daughters.
2. How life changing has it been to win the Times/Chicken House Prize for Children of the Quicksands?
Very much so! I studied business administration and worked in market research. So when I began writing fiction I felt insecure because I wasn't sure if a head bubbling over with stories and being passionate about writing them down was enough to make a good author. I had previously won a very renowned prize for a short story, which reassured me somewhat that I might be doing something right. However, winning the incredible Times / Chicken House prize for a whole book was mind-blowing. It made me and my daughters, my husband and my family very proud of me.
3. Can you tell us a little about Children of the Quicksands?
Children of the Quicksands is a magical adventure story set in Nigeria. Simi, a 13 year old city girl, is sent to a remote village where there's no TV or phone network or even electricity, to stay with her grandmother whom she has never met. Her witchlike grandmother seems to be more than just the healer and dispenser of advice for the villagers. Like Simi's mum, she is tight-lipped about the past but Simi knows something happened in the past that caused her Mum and grandma to quarrel and she is determined to unravel the family secret.
Simi soon finds herself steeped in myths, legends and superstitions. But her real adventure begins when she strays into the forest to a forbidden lake and suddenly finds herself sinking into quicksand.
4. How much of the story is drawn from things you remember from your own childhood?
The idea for the story was inspired by the place where I grew up. It was a little town in Nigeria where I had an adventurous and never-boring childhood. We lived at the very edge of town, and beyond our house there was nothing but bushes, farmlands and forests. My friends and siblings and I (my little sister often perched on my back) would often go in search of mango trees or adventures. We would scale fences and farm gates, slide down a secret red valley we discovered and explore a vast stretch of dry land we called 'desert'. But our most thrilling discovery was a forbidden lake with muddy red water and slippery banks that were like quicksand.
When I wrote Children of the Quicksands, it grew out of this setting. I immediately knew it would be a magical adventure and that it would centre on a forbidden lake with quicksand just like in the place of my childhood.
5. Does your main character, Simi, have experiences you remember such as the culture clash of urban and rural?
Yes, when I turned 14 we left our little town and moved to the mega-city Lagos. I was stunned by the impressions, the urgency of daily life, cable TV, parties, the coolness of the people. Things like style, type of music, latest films and series suddenly seemed very important. There are often prejudices against rural places and I got to hear some comments that were not too nice. But I adjusted quickly and luckily soon fit in and made many new friends.
In Children of the Quicksands I wanted to show the different sides of Nigeria, the bustling city life and village life. But it was important to me to show that a simpler life in a rural area can be very beautiful and fun and full of adventure.
7. Is the setting of Ajao village based on a real place?
No. Ajao is definitely an imagined village. The descriptions are based on impressions from villages I have visited or driven through but not based on a specific one.
6. Who is your favourite supporting character in the story?
That would definitely be Bubu, Simi's new friend in the village. I think she's the kind of kid that makes you smile when you just see them already. Sweet, chubby cheeks and bright eyes gleaming with cheekiness and a very wild imagination. Bubu is very superstitious! It was really fun writing about her and thinking up funny or bizarre things that she would say or do.
8. Simi's has many joyful and celebratory experiences in Ajao and with its people - did you feel it was important to give these positive insights to the culture in children's books?
Absolutely! Like I already mentioned, there are hardly any books available for kids to get any insight at all into Nigerian culture or other African cultures. Also I have been somewhat disappointed at the negative image of Africa in Europe and worldwide. News in the media is often linked to poverty, refugees and immigrants. I remember being shocked when my six-year-old daughter came home from school saying she learnt that children in Africa suffer and don't have food and water. There is so much more to teach kids about Africa!
So when I wrote Children of the Quicksands I think I had a pretty clear mission. Nigeria is full of beauty, legends, culture and music and there is so much courage, pride, love and friendship in people's lives. I definitely wanted to show all that in my book.
9. We learn about some myths and goddesses through the story, are these based on traditional stories you heard growing up?
The myths and goddesses in my story are based on the Yoruba mythology which has always fascinated me. My grandma was Yoruba so obviously that also inspired my interest. There are a lot of wonderful legends and myths surrounding the mythology and I always found the ones about the deities the most enchanting. Gods and goddesses controlling an element of nature or having a particular power are things most people associate with Greek mythology or with super-hero films. In Nigeria we have our own deities with super powers and I really enjoyed including some of them in my story.
Depending on where you grow up in Nigeria, you might learn about traditional mythologies in school or they may be part of daily life. The Yoruba people of Osogbo for example celebrate the goddess Oshun in August every year with a huge two-week festival.
10. Can you tell us a little about how you set about weaving old stories and myths into a contemporary setting?
I think this just came naturally. Everyday life in Nigeria is often still intertwined with wisps of the supernatural. Between all the modern aspects of daily life you still hear of people consulting priestesses or oracles in times of need or hear about spirit children that plague families or people cursed with juju.
So all I needed was to create a setting and an atmosphere that allowed for magic and the supernatural and then the old stories and myths just fitted in naturally.
11. Do you have any more adventures planned for Simi? What are you currently writing?
Even though I really enjoyed writing Children of the Quicksands and loved the company of the characters in there, I think it will remain a stand-alone. Although I am never one to say never... but I think more likely not.
My next book is definitely another children's novel and from what I have written so far and knowing myself, there will be lots of myths and superstitions and magic again. (Imagine me grinning happily here as I am writing this :-).
12. As an author and of Nigerian descent, are you pleased to see more children's and YA books referencing this culture and its people? Are there any other books you'd recommend to our readers?
Oh, definitely! Nigeria has so many different ethnic groups and cultures with over 200 different languages. Each ethnic group has their own wonderful stories and many of them have ancient story-telling traditions. I can hardly wait for more of these stories to find their way into books, especially for children.
Even though I hardly found any books for children, in the past few years there have been increasingly more YA books referencing West African and in particular Nigerian cultures. Nnedi Okorafor is a multi-award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction who has been doing a wonderful job writing incredible YA and children's books. I can recommend Akata Witch (for children) or Who Fears Death (YA) among others. Her YA books are Africanfuturist and her worlds incredibly creative and alive.
Tomi Adeyemi's highly acclaimed Children of Blood and Bone is part of her Orisha Trilogy which is also based on the Yoruba mythology and the deities. It's a stunning, fast paced, magic-dripping YA read.
I recently read Jordan Ifueko's Raybearer, an epic YA fantasy that I devoured and in which I also happily recognized Yoruba influences. I am very excited about book 2, titled Redemptor, which will be out later this year.
13. Simi loves the food her grandmother cooks for her - are you a foodie, and do you cook these dishes yourself?
Definitely a foodie! I guess it's because I don't get to eat my favourite Nigerian dishes that often, so when I do, they always feels so special and sooo delicious. Here in Germany I can cook some dishes myself because we have a few shops that sell some of the ingredients I need. But things like fresh-leaf sauces or fresh pounded yam or my favourite banga sauce made from palm-kernels remain holiday treats that I only have when I visit my family in Nigeria.
14. What are your favourite ways to relax?
Chilling in my hammock in my garden in summer with a book on my lap and a cup of tea and biscuits on a stool beside me.