I am often asked whether my new novel Being Lara is based on my own experiences as a foster child. And even though it isn’t, I will admit to certain similarities with one of the main characters.
Like Lara, I have lived with a very British family and I adore most types of cake. But unlike her, I was never confused about my African heritage. Poor Lara is forced to search the Internet for anything relating to her roots, from what foods to eat, to discovering what language her family spoke. But growing up, I had the privilege of being part of two cultures — living in the UK but also regularly traveling to Nigeria, to visit my birth mother.
As a vivacious nine-year-old, I’d enjoy the searing heat in Nigeria, the food, the music, the color and the landscape. But these trips were only just a fraction of my African influences and perhaps not as much as what my older brothers were able to impart.
Without being asked, they felt it their duty to keep me immersed in as much ‘Africanism’ as possible.
I remember one birthday when I was about 12 or 13, being handed a beautifully wrapped gift, suspiciously in the shape of a writing set (which I wanted) or even a box of chocolates – I’d have been happy with either. But instead I unwrapped my present to reveal a book and my heart sank. A book!
Admittedly, I have loved books from a young age, so that wasn’t the problem. It was the subject matter – a collection of speeches. I didn’t read speeches! I preferred my battered copy of Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews and Forever by Judy Blume, not a load of paragraphs relating to an African leader. I mean, who was this Thomas Sankara? And where was my sky blue notebook with the pink furry pen?
I put the book away and decided to forget, only taking a curious peep from time to time, lying to my brother when asked; “Have you read it yet?”
“Hey, I’m 12!” I wanted to say.
And then they brought in the big guns. They allowed me to tag along one night to a fundraiser for the End South Africa Apartheid NOW campaign (which also happened to be my first real adult party). African music wafting from the speakers as guests gyrated in time to the beat; women in colorful headscarves made from beautifully decorated cloths, men dressed in T-shirts adorned with ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and swinging necklaces in the shape of the distinctive map of Africa. It was great!
But the book which finally did the trick and yes, another gift from my brother, was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It changed something in me and opened the door to so much more, including a thirst for a knowledge that went beyond what I was being taught at school or on TV.
So, when I am asked if the character in my book, Lara, is really me – I can safely say, no. But I clearly understand that without a relationship with my birth mother, family and Africa – it might have been.
Lola Jaye is the author of “Being Lara,” a novel about a young woman adopted from Nigeria by a British pop star.