Nikki May: 'I just wanted to write an entertaining book that had people like me in it'

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Author Nikki May. (Photo: Mike Cooper/Supplied)
Author Nikki May. (Photo: Mike Cooper/Supplied)

BOOKS: Anglo-Nigerian author Nikki May was born in Bristol and raised in Lagos. She ran a successful ad agency before turning to writing. She lives in Dorset with her husband, two standard schnauzers, and way too many books. Wahala (Penguin), her debut novel, is being made into a BBC TV drama. It takes the honesty, laugh-out-loud humour and self-searching of the best group friendship novel and pushes its genre boundaries to embrace a shocking revenge story. In it, Ronke, Simi and Boo are inseparable mixed-race friends living in London. When Isobel, a lethally glamorous friend from their past arrives in town, she is determined to fix their futures for them. Cracks in their friendship begin to appear. Here May uncovers the process of writing the novel.

Wahala is one of those wonderful pidgin English words that you hear at least ten times a day in West Africa. It’s usually said with a sigh, a groan, or a shake of the head. Wahala! It’s an exclamation of trouble, and there’s quite a lot of it in my book.

Wahala shifts between the perspectives of Ronke, Simi, and Boo. Making their voices clear and distinct was relatively easy – by the end of the first draft I knew them inside and out. But moving from character to character was challenging – it took me a few hours to get out of Ronke’s head and into Boo’s. There was a lot of staring at the screen and backspacing.

Hardest of all was keeping track of things. Harnessing the spirals of thoughts and plots was a nightmare. I had to keep back-pedalling to remember who knew what and how they’d found it out. But now that it’s done, I can’t imagine telling the story in any other way.

Wahala is not autobiographical, but you draw on what you know, so I have to admit that bits of me did creep into each of the characters. Ronke’s grandparents who wanted nothing to do with her – well, mine were similar. Simi dropping out of medical school, freaking her parents out – I’ll put my hands up to that (sorry Dad). Boo’s desperation to fit in, to assimilate – I’ve been there, straightened my hair and tweaked my name. But rest assured, Wahala is fiction – I don’t have anything in common with Isobel, at least I hope I don’t!

Wahala book cover
The cover of Wahala by Nikki May. (Penguin)

Starting out with the book, I was naïve, which in hindsight was a good thing! I didn’t know that blending genres was "against the rules"; I just wrote what I wanted to read – an entertaining story about three flawed women, vengeance, and family legacy with a killer ending. Unwittingly (and luckily), I hit the sweet spot.

I didn’t start out with an agenda to address racism or class, I just wanted to write an entertaining book that had people like me in it. So much black literature is focused on struggle, but black people are not a monolith. I wanted to reflect my experience – I’m mixed-race and middle class. But it’s impossible to have four mixed-race characters without race and class creeping in, so Wahala explores privilege, identity and belonging. I think it adds something new and under-explored to the conversation – racism, colourism and classism are universal. Black people can have “isms” too.


Subscribe to Page-turners - News24's weekly books newsletter. 

This article was first published in The Penguin Post, a magazine about books for book lovers from Penguin Random House South Africa.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.