Interview with Oyinkan Braithwaite, Author of My Sister, the Serial Killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s breathtaking novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer was published last November (Doubleday, 2018) and while the title caught my attention I picked it up because again and again I heard someone call it their favorite book of the year. The New York Times called it ‘pulpy, peppery and sinister… a scorpion tailed little thriller.’ Publisher’s Weekly called it a ‘blazing debut as sharp as a knife,’ and once I started reading I understood all that praise. Clocking in at a slim 240 pages I flew through this book – could not put it down or stop thinking about it.

Braithwaite’s story focuses on Ayoola and Korede, sisters who live in Lagos, Nigeria. They survived a brutal childhood and emerged as adults depicted as apparent opposites. The narrator, Korede, describes their differences in relation to their appearance saying Ayoola is “made wholly of curves while I (Korede) am composed only of hard edges.” Braithwaite makes it clear this juxtaposition goes well beyond the physical. Korede is a hard-working nurse with a steady salary and Ayoola is a sometimes fashion designer with no means of supporting herself. What drew me to these women was that even though they were presented as dichotomies the reality was they were two sides of the same coin, bound together and dependent on one another in a way I’ve never seen: one sister kills and the other erases her crimes. The simplicity of this description belies the complexity of the deeper narrative. In truth, one sister tries to show they are being suffocated by men while the other fights to prove her wrong. Even when these sisters seem most at odds, their unity is unbreakable and the reader is left wondering if any of the men Ayoola killed deserved what they got as much as they’re left cheering for her.

Braithwaite’s brilliant book is not a murder mystery. It is an exploration of sisters and a harsh commentary on the male gaze that strains their bond from the moment the first man calls one more beautiful than the other. Through biting humor and irony, this book is laser focused and brought me back again and again to three questions: Who values a woman? Why? And is infatuation because of beauty in any way affection a woman wants?

Read this book because it is a bombshell of a love story between siblings and because it is a testament to the power of the absurd showing truth is sometimes hard to define. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when Oyin agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff:

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Oyin, the idea for this book came from a poem you wrote in 2007. How did it evolve from there? Did you write an outline and get right to work or was the journey to a first draft more convoluted?

In 2007, I was reading up on the black widow spider (I have no idea why); but I was so entertained by what I learnt that I was inspired to write a poem, named Black Widow Spider. Soon I left the creature and began to play with the idea of women killing men recklessly. I produced another poem, a short screenplay and a fantasy novel with this theme. I believe that writing My Sister, the Serial Killer was a smooth experience because I was wholly comfortable with the concept by then.

What was the hardest part to capture or convey to readers about the love between Korede and Ayoola? What surprised you most about the sisters as you brought them to life?

I suppose the hardest part was understanding why Korede would go so far for Ayoola. Yes, they were sisters, but was that enough? Then as I was trying to wrap my head around this, their shared trauma came to me and that seemed to work.

I love that this book didn’t start with a woman being trapped, killed or captured the way so much current crime fiction seems to begin. Instead your leading characters are strong women. Supporting roles are played by men who may or may not make it to the last page. Why and how did you choose this approach?  

I have always been attracted to strong women in literature and in life. Once I had the premise, the rest of it fell into place.

Our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing My Sister, the Serial Killer?

The father got more evil.

Moving along to content. Korede is one of the main characters. She is also the narrator, but her voice is passive. She sounds more like an observer than an actor and I couldn’t help but think this approach masked her pain – and power. Why did you choose this voice for Korede?  

I wanted Korede to tell the story almost as though it wasn’t hers, as though she wasn’t a player, so that she was in a better position to focus on Ayoola – how Ayoola looked, what Ayoola was doing, what Ayoola was thinking and so on.

Also, the fact that she is passive, means she doesn’t take steps she probably should take in order to prevent Ayoola from killing men.

Then there was tone, her passiveness and deadpan manner helped me to keep the story light.

**(SPOILER ALERT)** Muhtar was my favorite supporting character. He was a coma patient. Since his prognosis was poor, and Korede needed a friend, she confessed all her crimes to him thinking he’d never tell a soul – only he woke up. I adored the friendship he provided, the release he gave Korede, and the fact that he recovered. He was a ticking time bomb and a brilliant piece in your puzzle. What did you think of Muhtar? Did you ever consider having him spill the beans, call the police?

I liked Muhtar, for the most part. And yes, I did consider having him report her; but I’m glad he didn’t. I like that she sealed her fate herself.

Tade is the man Korede loves and Ayoola ensnares. His growing relationship with Ayoola, highlighted one of the pressing questions in the book: Do the men Ayoola kills deserve what they get? What do you think?

Haha. I don’t think they deserved what they got. Death is an extreme punishment for being shallow. But for the men who may have committed a grievous act against her, well… The problem is it is hard to tell whether or not anything Ayoola says is true.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

At the moment, I am reading The Power by Naomi Alderman. And I would recommend it. I would also recommend anything by Robin Hobb.

About Oyinkan Braithwaite: Oyinkan is a graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University. Following her degree, she worked as an assistant editor at Kachifo, a Nigerian publishing house, and as a production manager at Ajapaworld, a children’s educational and entertainment company. She now works as a freelance writer and editor.

In 2014, she was shortlisted as a top-ten spoken-word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam, and in 2016 she was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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