Quite a few people were strangely hostile to the idea of me writing a novel at 17. Either they were derisive, 'You don't know anything. What do you have to write about?' Or they were dismissive, 'Teenage novels are no good.' Or they were concerned at what they saw as arrogant ambition, verging on hubris. 'Focus on your studies. You don't have enough experience,' a well-meaning relative once said. No matter the tone, the message was the same. I was too young, too inexperienced and too green to write anything worth reading.
In one way they were right of course. I was inexperienced and I was young and I didn't know much about the world. It is good for teenagers to be reminded of these facts. There is nothing more insufferable than a teenager who believes she has seen it all, whose curiosity has calcified into a posed cynicism and who has a knowing manner about things she cannot possibly know anything about. At 17 I had a fair amount of insufferable tendencies that my quashers, in the personages of my older siblings, were ever eager to sit on, a hobby they avidly pursue to this day.
At 17, I hadn't seen everything (no-one ever has) and I shouldn't have been allowed for a second to believe that I had. But at this age I had seen something and I had seen a something very specific to me. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria with parents who lived comfortably from running their own medical practice. I lived a sheltered life in one of the richest cities in Africa. I lived a sheltered life in a place where there are many who are not sheltered.
Lagos is affluent, Lagos is fast and you haven't seen money until you've seen it here. When I was 14, I moved to England to study for my GCSEs. It was the first time I came into close contact with other people's views of the continent where I was from. At my school in Hampshire, to prove her point that 'wealth' was relative, a classmate of mine once said, 'We're middle class in England but if we lived in Africa, we'd all be super-rich.' I very quickly interjected and asked, 'Which part of Africa?' Certainly not Lagos. The super-rich of my city deal in private jets and yachts, not the type of money you saw knocking about in my school, where most parents were professionals like mine: doctors, lawyers, architects, and so on.
On the other hand, Lagos is tough, rough and you haven't seen poverty until you've seen the frustrating, entrapping deprivation that many live in in my city. These were the paradoxes that I saw growing up in Lagos. These were the contradictions I was trying to make sense of in The Spider King's Daughter, the debut book I began writing at 17. In fact, these are puzzles that I'm still trying to make sense of in my next novel, Welcome To Lagos, and perhaps I'll be working on these conundrums until my city becomes a more equal place.
At 17 I knew something about a slice of Lagos and I'm glad my agent, my editor at Faber & Faber, and eventually my readers were willing to take a chance on that something. Young people's views are too often easily dismissed, easily put aside and easily patronised. It is true that our views are not as wide-ranging as they will hopefully become, not as articulate or as polished but nevertheless, they are valid.
This is why BBC Radio 3's Young Artists Day on 4th May, which celebrates people under 25 working in the arts today, is so important. At the venerable age of 24, I'm straining at the upper limits of a list which includes the 18-year-old dancer and choreographer Folu Odimayo and 23-year-old designer Richard Malone, who has already shown at London Fashion Week. Or 17-year-old performance poet Isaiah Hull or Samantha Shannon, who signed a seven book deal at just 20 and whose first novel, The Bone Season, went on to become a UK and US bestseller. We're all starting out in our careers, we're all painfully inexperienced and woefully ignorant but each of us in our own small way knows a little something and these somethings are valid.
Chibundu Onuzo is part of BBC Radio 3's Young Artists Day, Monday 4 May (6.30-00.30). BBC Radio 3 has commissioned Chibundu to write an original story for The Essay: Sunita (22.45-23.00) as part of the day's programming.
Young Artists Day is part of Get Creative - a year-long celebration of British arts, culture and creativity, launched by Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, in February 2015 - in partnership with cultural movement What Next? as well as a huge range of arts, cultural and voluntary organisations across the UK.Suggest a correction