Making Food, Making Fury: Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread

Butter Honey Pig Bread Francesca Ekwuyasi Arsenal Pulp Press 2020, 368 pp., $23.95


“This is how you make a salted caramel chocolate cake for your twin sister who you haven’t seen in… God a long time.”

Francesca Ekwuyasi captivates us in her novel Butter Honey Pig Bread with tantalizing food while journeying us through a story of memory, myth, and severed kinship. This debut by the multidisciplinary artist, longlisted for the Giller, is both lyrical and daring. See-sawing through the trisecting protagonists—adult twins Kehinde and Taiye, Nigerian students studying abroad in Montreal and Halifax, respectively, and their dynamic mother Kambirinachi, living in Lagos, Nigeria—this read offers us high stakes and sweet rewards.

The novel’s opening is pulsing with tension: estranged Kehinde and Taiye travel from Canada to Lagos to visit their mother, carrying with them deep-seated anxieties, angers, and apologies. But it must be said, we cannot talk about Butter Honey Pig Bread without talking about food.

Food is most obviously present in Taiye’s vignettes, who is half aspiring chef, half hapless glutton. The intricate way food is prepared through the writing resonates deeply for us as readers, particularly those who are diasporic and see the brilliance that Ekwuyasi employs, knowing that food is in itself another language. When words fail, a hot meal, a baked cake, or a shared cup of tea can open space or can be a peace offering. This type of language acts as entry point for much more layered and complex relationship building that has been compounded by familial collective trauma and the realities of being dispersed. Food’s language carves tenderness in the afterlife of distance.

The intricate way food is prepared through the writing resonates deeply for us as readers, particularly those who are diasporic and see the brilliance that Ekwuyasi employs, knowing that food is in itself another language.

But cooking is even more nuanced for Taiye, as it acts as harm reduction when casual sex is a scapegoat for unpacking her own guilt and shame. Food can be a net to cast out to loved ones in hopes they are captivated by the aromas, textures, and tastes. The consumption of both food and sex satiates the indulgences of the flesh for Taiye whereas Kehinde, her identical twin sister, experiences a much different type of consumption: one of jealousy and depression.

Kehinde’s bitterness is deeply intriguing, often unfair and insatiably sorrowful. Her jealousy is birthed in trauma and further crystallized with distance. Ekwuyasi captures how remarkably all-consuming surviving a rupture within one’s self can be. Kehinde’s relationship to her own body is the inverse of Taiye: a body is to be concealed, hidden or shed, never to be filled and indulged. Being a larger, fleshier woman in comparison to her sister (another point of contention!), desirability, self-esteem, and confidence manifest quite differently for Kehinde.

In her eyes, food is the enemy for many reasons. The pig scene that Kehinde shares with us reminds the reader that food can also be a violence. While Taiye experiences cooking from a place of curiosity and passion, Kehinde works in a restaurant out of necessity and is left traumatized over the slaughtering of a pig. The repetition of a rejected meal signals a message to sustain excommunication, as is the case of Kehinde’s defiant refusal of an easy apology from her sister. The language of food is a language that still requires reciprocation and dialogue—it can only go so far. Kehinde’s pain remains despite these peace offerings, which speaks to the vastness of her personal hurt and abandon.

Yet by no stretch of the imagination can one call Kehinde a passive character. She exudes agency and simmers up her own liberation when she chooses to disconnect herself from Taiye—sometimes as an act of survival, and sometimes as an act of rebellion—as she positions her new self, her separate self, as “light and cheerful,” repositioning Taiye as the shy twin. As they grow older and explore these new Western cities and their new separate identities, Francesca Ekwuyasi captures sex and relationships within the context of being a modern-day twenty-something for both women well. Taiye may be perceived as barrelling through women—the queer lovemaking is by far the best sex scenes in the novel—but she is never venomous, nor does she lie to cover her mistakes. As for Kehinde, she experiences her socialization quite differently, seeking something authentic while also not being too precious. “We went out once, when I felt reckless and deserving of a wound.” This pain is self-inflecting, perhaps at times recklessness, and still acts as a means of processing trauma and understanding one’s place in the world. The “mess” is never moralistic or judgemental, and coupled with Ekwuyasi’s deeply refreshing storytelling, we witness both siblings allow themselves to be consumed by another person and delight in such devouring.

Which brings us back to the notion of consumption, whether it be via food, sex, sorrow, or life itself, and how it underpins all three protagonists’ journey. Here we engage Kambirinachi, the matriarch and the ogbanje—a misfortunate spirit who comes and goes, bringing tragedy and death to a family. She is intoxicated by the thrill and electricity of life, choosing the literal flesh over an eternity in the spirit realm. Flesh-binding is her choice and breaking away from spirit is what she chooses over and over again, despite the consequences. When Kambirinachi betrays her origins, she tells us the result of such a decision. “This is how you make fury. She [Kambirinachi] made this fury, this dark spirit, howling, feral and bloodthirsty. She made it by turning her ears from their cries because she yearned to weave herself into the fabric of aliveness.”

Births are coupled with the haunting of miscarriages and stillbirths—a cycle of beginnings and endings which lapses into itself throughout the novel.

Ekwuyasi’s prose conjures up a particular energy and literary finesse reminiscent of Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater; yet, in Butter Honey Pig Bread, we are not propelled into a deep tug of war with multiple spiritual entities. The stakes are far more tempered. Instead, we are drawn into Kambirinachi’s agency, and we are acutely aware of how her choice to remain in this world reverberates into the bones of the children. Births are coupled with the haunting of miscarriages and stillbirths—a cycle of beginnings and endings which lapses into itself throughout the novel.

Kehinde, through no fault of her own, has her own spirit broken; Taiye, strangely enough, finds a spiritual companion as she stumbles to find her purpose. Our intrigue as readers fiercely yearns for Kambirinachi and by extension, the webs that connect these characters to this spirit realm. How does one navigate as a spirit-plagued child (or, perhaps, an earth-plagued spirit) within the mundanity of life? At the kitchen table, we first realize the quite elderly woman stirring milk into cocoa is indeed the spirit from the opening chapter who anchors the narrative together.

So, let us return to that kitchen table, the alchemy of meal-making, the magic and marvel of how food, of how Ekwuyasi’s skill to pierce us into heartbreak with food, actually works. The craftwork, both impressive and seamless, of using food as language is best accentuated in the scene when all three are together to make mosa, or fried plantain puffs. It’s less about the recipe and more about the actions: mastering the steps to make the batter, selecting how many Atarodo peppers to add, assigning the best task for Kambirinachi and the best for Kehinde. All these considerations are precisely orchestrated to bring about harmony and invite intimacy among the protagonists. The curried chicken, ofada rice and ayamase, puff-puff, coleslaw, and the unforgettable egusi soup—all this food is plated in lieu of communicating, particularly when communication is undesirable. Instead of the food activating the conversation, as one would predict, it almost replaces the very thing that all three women must do to reach a place of genuine healing—talk.

What is so very fascinating about Ekwuyasi’s work is that although all three characters resist deeper conversations with each other, the narrative voice offers many opportunities for each character to speak candidly with us as readers. The direct address, or the “you”—a not quite second person—arrives in the prose sparsely but often enough to notice. At first, it is a bit unexpected, but eventually it builds a rapport between the reader and the characters: a three-pronged intimacy. For young Kambirinachi, she recalls the massive shift when all at once she belongs to her parents and then suddenly does not. This is jarring for her, since it was she who chose them, not the other way around, “so you’ll understand her confusion that day,” when she is dropped off in Abeokuta to attend boarding school unceremoniously. Here the “you” is always leaving space for intimacy, a living quality to the narration without committing to the second person in full.

For a cool and action-oriented Taiye, the direct address is directive and instructional, not unlike advice from a close friend—like when she describes to us earlier how to bake a caramel cake for Kehinde. Ekwuyasi does this again through Taiye’s perspective when speaking of romantic love: “Perhaps in your life you’ve come across a force that matched and moved you. Maybe it changed you so profoundly that when you look back at the landscape of your life, you are struck by the indelible mark it left.” This ‘not-quite-second-person’ under Taiye’s perspective calls us readers to sift through our own experiences of heartache and transformation.

Finally, Kehinde uses the informal direct address quite often. She is the only character we see through first-person narration, the person who experiences trauma most directly. Her use of the intended “you” takes hold of us with urgency, notably when Kehinde is reflecting on the root cause of the silent feud between her and her sister. Mid-storytelling, she stops altogether and declares, “I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you about the bad thing, the first thing that split us,” and the secret that holds the story together is suddenly unravelled. The direct address guides us to one of the turning points of the novel and this disclosure resonates more readily because of the conversational tone, suggesting we’ve arrived at a place of trust.

In all these instances, Ekwuyasi equips the women in her novel with this language of directness, a gateway to gain intimacy with us readers. Her characters express a desire to draw us in to their storytelling—to yearn for someone to witness a pivotal moment, to unravel a ribbon of their trauma or to simply notice when something within them has been severed. A failure to approach each other through the novel actually redirects a desire, perhaps even an agony, to connect directly to us readers. There is no purity in narration (straight first person or straight third person) rather the appearance (and disappearance) as the “you” constructs a bridge for the characters to not simply tell their story to us but to magnify that story. To invite us to be part of its vividness. Reading Butter Honey Pig Bread, we become privy to such intimacy.

Yet they deny this intimacy with each other. As we weave between the three narrative voices, the characters are locked in their own reverie and don’t actually interact with one another as much as we anticipate they would. And this is where we, as readers, are hungry for more. Much of the novel is locked in memory, and sometimes unnecessarily so. There is a missed opportunity to sit and swell in the awkward, in the uncomfortable, in the anticipation. To have them not speak is one thing, but to have most of the storytelling in the past at the expense of the present circumstance in their childhood home is another. One element we crave in Butter Honey Pig Bread, beyond the spellbinding depiction of dizzying Lagos, the hot sizzling meals and the sharp dialogue, is more space. Space for these three women to stand before each other, holding the weight of their regrets until their arms give out.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is about food and yes, forgiveness, but it is also about how long either form of sustenance nourishes the body.

Butter Honey Pig Bread tells us how we’ve arrived at this tense moment of unspoken family traumas through carefully crafted flashbacks, but doesn’t allow us to truly feel through this arrival point. Only by the novel’s ending are we offered a front row seat to the inevitable bursting. The novel gorges us in a good way, a bloated agony of being too full with secrets, that full belly explosion, so heightened we may just burst at the seams.

And still, Ekwuyasi keeps us as readers satisfied until the last bite, to the last page, presenting us a complex and unpretentious examination of familial forgiveness: when it begins or when it faulters, when it’s given or when it’s relinquished, when it is useful or when it is discarded. Butter Honey Pig Bread is about food and yes, forgiveness, but it is also about how long either form of sustenance nourishes the body. By the book’s end, we are offered no simple answers. Instead, Ekwuyasi offers us a rather cyclical conclusion that invites a return to the dichotomy of sorrow paired with joy, the give and take that composes this life.


About the author

Whitney French is a writer, an aspiring farmer, and a self-described Black futurist. In her work, she is committed to building radical new worlds by centering stories of Black women and queer BIPOC communities around memory, loss, technology, and nature. Language is her favourite collaborator. Whitney French is the co-founder of the Black queer feminist press Hush Harbour. Currently, she lives in Toronto.