Stephen Buoro’s debut novel The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa announces the arrival of an exciting new verbal craftsman with a fresh voice, or perhaps multiple voices. There’s the Stephen Buoro who creates a memorable and sympathetic character in the book’s titular Andy Africa, there’s the Stephen Buoro whose satirical language is hilarious and reflection-inducing, there’s the Stephen Buoro whose hypersensitive attention to modern Nigerian life educates and pulls in the reader emotionally, and there’s the Stephen Buoro who writes texts within the text—little poems, permutation theory description, and math formulas to describe the phenomenon of “HXVX,” for example—that leave the reader in awe of the writer’s versatility and prowess.
I spoke with Stephen about, among other topics, his inspiration and seeds for the novel, ideas of change in Nigeria, the book’s complementary characters, the West, and the reverence and distaste in which it is held by the main character, permutation theory, “HXVX” and “Anifuturism,” and the importance of his perspective in writing about such heavy topics after moving from Nigeria to the UK.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I wonder what made you say, I can do this. What made you want to become a writer, and what were some of the “ ‘Eureka’ moments?” Did you have a blog like Andy Africa in the novel, did you win a prize? What were some of the catalysts for you getting into writing?
(Laughs) I had a blog, yes.
Didn’t we all?
I wrote poetry on my blog, and some of my poems were published in some Nigerian papers and magazines.
I found myself writing in 2005 one afternoon after finishing my homework. I was sitting outside my house. It was like 40 plus degrees Celsius, very hot. Suddenly I just found myself writing a story.
It was like I was doing something spiritual and illegal at the same time. It felt very empowering. I wrote a story about a war in the animal kingdom, how the fish were ostracized, forced away from the land, made to live in water, and how they were forced to struggle and adapt.
When I was writing this story as an eleven-year-old, I could do whatever I wanted [with my creativity and imagination]. I had this huge love for words. I just can’t describe it.
I mean, they’re just letters, they’re just words, I know, but [the effect is outsized] in what they can do and the impact they have on our psyche and our emotions. So I just had this huge love for words and a love and fascination for words—for writing, for the spoken word, the written word.
It all came from, I think, my experience of being a Christian, right? My parents would take me to church and all that and in the Catholic church then, the priests would read from this sacramentary, from these big books, holy books, and it’s really some wonderful poetry. You wonder, Who composed all this stuff? Where did they come from and who were they? Like, what were they thinking about? I mean, I was so fascinated with all these things.
I wonder then, about perspective. As you got into writing this book and working on it-I’m not sure exactly when you moved to the UK-but I have the notion that perhaps moving to the UK allowed you to write about Nigeria, with the mindset that when it’s been five years or ten years or 15 years, you see your home or you see your place in that home differently.
Luckily for me anyway, I began writing this book in Nigeria in June 2018 and wrote it very quickly [in draft form] within two and a half weeks, on my BlackBerry phone, because I used to love my phone. I wrote night and day, quick drafts in Nigeria, and then I came to the UK to study for an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. When I came to the UK, that began the second iteration of the novel. From the first draft, I saved the first two pages, which came to me in a very wonderful moment of inspiration. So I saved the first two pages and then began from scratch for the second iteration of the novel. This was really helpful and powerful, as it made the story come even more alive because I was now a bit far from home, now there was a sense of distance, and I could see [Nigeria] in a much more clear way. The emotions were more intense and there was this huge clarity, this huge clarity that came from this distance. Those aspects of myself, aspects of my family, my friends, my community, I could just see them so clearly. So I was just writing with so much anticipation, so much joy.
There’s a scene in the book with Eileen and Andy. Eileen says she’s reading his poem and she says it’s moving and Andy remarks that it’s amazing how a work of art can live beyond its creator, outside of its creator. I wonder how much you feel like the book is timely, like for 2023, but also how it’s maybe talking about 1980s or 2000s Nigeria?
How much of a sense of place do you feel this book has, being that you talked about how you’ve been working on it for a long time?
Nigeria, my country, is where this novel is set, and in this postcolonial country, so many things are happening, and when you observe the history of the country, you begin to see that there are so many constants, right? So many things that haven’t changed. They are still the same and they’ll remain the same even in the next 50, 100, 200 years or something.
It’s also a place of so much turmoil. It’s a country that is formed of like three, four, or five countries or so perhaps all those melded together, forced to become one, and we’re still trying to understand who we are in Nigeria. What is this all about and who we are as Nigerians—that is a constant question.
I think for the next 100 years, 200 years, Nigerians will still be asking [these questions], and then there’s the whole concept of postcolonialism, about what happens to a people who have been subjugated and exploited, who have had their sense of self shattered. That’s what the book is about, exploring postcolonialism, but also colonialism, and themes of the collapse of governments, corruption, and that search for identity and search for self.
Corruption and the collapse of government, for example, are themes that have been part of Nigeria since independence, since 1960, and my parents were dealing with these issues even when they were little. My older siblings have been dealing with these issues, and now I’m dealing with them. [In my writing] I want to follow that trajectory. You almost become so cynical, so pessimistic about the country that that sense of cynicism and pessimism definitely comes through.
The book is structured into the Five Sorrowful Mysteries, with the title being The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa. The Agony in the Garden is the first. It’s fitting that we’re talking a day before Easter, where all of these take place-Holy Thursday, Good Friday-within 48 hours as far as you know the Christian calendar goes. It’s the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion. And then with each of those, there’s a theorem, And this idea of a permutation and permutation theory. I’m so impressed with the “mathematicalness” of it, if that’s a word.
I wonder how permutation theory comes into play. Permutation in my basic understanding is the idea of the different ordering of things, and so are you trying to get at the arbitrariness of life in some ways? Why was I born here? Why was she born there? Why was the sister born first? I wonder what you were going for with the permutation references?
This is a very powerful question. The suggestion you made about the order of things and like, why was I born here? The randomness of things. That’s a good explanation, too. But I think one of the things I was going for in writing this book, I mean, I have a background in mathematics. My first degree was in maths.
I began to realize how many things like being Nigerian, being Black, being African, for example, had so much to do with permutations, because permutations are about a discrete but definite arrangement of things. I mean, you could have three elements. You could have, let’s say a ball. You could have a water bottle. You could have a kettle. Let’s take this order as the original arrangement. Once you change this arrangement, for example, you bring the kettle first and then the ball and then the water bottle, everything about the ordering/sequencing of these elements is completely changed. You have altogether something new, a new logical system. I was thinking how race is just like a permutation; being Black, being white, and all the ways in which we humans are ordered, and that’s what I’m examining in the book: the sense of a dual identity. For example, I see Andy as having these two selves, this African self and this Western self, and these selves are ordered in different ways. Other young Africans, many postcolonial people like my friends and I when we were young, we had these two selves in continual conflict and we were ordering those in different ways. We’re looking at how things like race, class, and even the intersectionality of life, have to do with permutations.
“HXVX” is a term used by Andy, something he sees as its own malevolent entity. In the book, it’s described as a tetragrammaton shorthand for the curse of Africa. There’s even a math formula Andy uses [to define its meanings]: “HXVX equals Sauron plus Thanos.” There is this idea of the infinity sign that signals that the curse of Africa-HXVX- is in some ways infinite, which obviously shows that there’s a pessimism that Andy often has, but HXVX also gives Andy an enemy as he imagines himself a superhero.
Andy feels that it’s his destiny to destroy all these forces like colonialism, kleptocracy, slavery, all these huge negative things and objects that have befallen Africa and Africans. Andy conflates these negative forces into a construct he calls HXVX. So in the narrative, Andy is essentially battling HXVX. The narrative is also like a superhero story, and superheroes usually have supervillains that they are in conflict with. Superheroes of course also have origin stories and alter egos and it’s his own alter ego, Ydna, who he’s in constant confrontation with. I mean, he loves this person, and he wants to be that person, but he also doesn’t want to be that person at the same time. These are the complications caused by the legacy of HXVX.
There’s also a lot of optimism with Zahrah, right? She’s a very interesting character. She’s maybe 30, so she’s not way older than Andy, and she’s kind of like a cool older sister or aunt. She’s a teacher and she’s quite eccentric. She doesn’t write, you know, canon literature. She writes a lot about “Anifuturism,” the idea of animism mixed with Afrofuturism. How would you define Anifuturism, and how did you draw on real-life philosophies and theories for this Anifuturism?
Anifuturism is a fusion of animism and Afrofuturism. In the novel, Zahrah creates this idea and movement as a way for Black people to reclaim the history and heritage that have been stolen from us by slavery and colonialism. To create a future that we’ve been denied. Zahrah uses these two disparate elements, on the one hand, animism, how the world is animated, and how everything about the world is sacred, is alive, and why we have to give huge respect to nature and things around us. So Anifuturism is a way of reclaiming the future and the past that Black people have always been denied.
This interview is excerpted from Episode 178 of the Chills at Will Podcast. Listen to the complete conversation here.
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa
by Stephen Buoro
Published on April 18, 2023
I am a high school English and Spanish teacher, and the host of The Chills at Will Podcast. Previous guests of podcast include Deesha Philyaw, Jeff Pearlman, Jean Guerrero, Jonathan Escoffery, Morgan Talty, Taylor Byas, Steph Cha, Gabby Bates, Luis Alberto Urrea, Justin Tinsley, Jordan Harper, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Allegra Hyde, Matthew Salesses, Dave Zirin, Nadia Owusu, and Father Greg Boyle. You can find me on instagram, @chillsatwillpodcast, or on Twitter, @chillsatwillpo1. I love to play basketball and tennis, read, study Italian history, and spend time with my two little ones and my wife. My favorite authors include Mario Puzo, Ernest Hemingway, Steph Cha, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Tobias Wolff. I have published four short stories in three online magazines, American Feed Magazine, Circle Magazine and The Paumanok Review, as well as four in print in The Writer’s Block, Short Stories Bimonthly, Storyteller Magazine, and The Santa Clara Review.