Lizzie Damilola Blackburn | 'We’re all human and we all go through the same things'

Lizzie Damilola Blackburn | 'We’re all human and we all go through the same things'

If there were a prize simply for the best title of a novel coming in 2022, the irresistible Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? would surely be in the running. The eponymous Yinka narrates, a single, 31-year-old British Nigerian woman from Peckham who frequently finds herself on the receiving end of the title’s question, as the book’s (very clever) publicity material makes clear: “Huzband (pronounced auz-band), noun. 1. A male partner in a marriage, e.g. Yinka’s younger sister Kemi is married to Uche. 2. A non-existent man in a non-existent marriage whose whereabouts is often asked about, usually by Nigerian mums and aunties to single British Nigerian women, e.g. ‘So, Yinka. Tell me. Where is your huzband? Ah, ah. You’re 31 now!’”

The novel charts Yinka’s urgent search for a plus-one when her cousin Rachel announces she is getting married. The summer wedding date gives Yinka around six months to find herself a boyfriend. An academic overachiever who works for an investment bank in the City, she draws up a meticulous and very specific plan (complete with key performance indicators to monitor progress) and launches into “Operation Wedding Date”. But things do not go smoothly. Firstly she gets made redundant, then she runs into her handsome ex who—wouldn’t you know it—has just got engaged to someone else. Although she does meet someone at church who looks quite promising…

When Lizzie Damilola Blackburn pictured right speaks to me over the phone from her home in Milton Keynes, various restrictions having prevented us meeting in person, she explains that the character of Yinka was born on a blog that she set up back in 2014–15. Each character was a Christian with a different love dilemma, she explains, and “at the end of each post I would have different options of where the story would go next, then readers would have to vote. But I only had, like, a handful of readers”, she says laughing. 

Fulfilling a need
Blackburn had created the blog to fulfil a need: “I was looking for mainstream fiction with Christian characters and I couldn’t find any.” There was Christian fiction available, but she didn’t find those books particularly satisfying. “I think maybe the publisher has guidelines of what you can and cannot include, like swear words for example. It’s not really a reflection of who we are, so I wanted to do something which was more relatable.” Her blog featured six characters altogether, but it was the character of Yinka who stood out when Blackburn attended a blog workshop and showed her work to author Jackie Ley. “She said that she immediately fell in love with Yinka and [her story] would make a great novel.”

Ley’s encouragement was the impetus Blackburn needed. “I went into it blind,” she says now, “I didn’t plan it. I just started writing chapters. I just thought, let’s see where it takes me.” Blackburn, who grew up in Peckham, the third of four children, was a great reader, especially of Jacqueline Wilson—“I loved the fact that she wrote stories which were very relatable, especially for young girls from a working-class background” —and had enjoyed writing stories as a child. Now she found herself working on the novel around a full-time job at Carers UK, plus planning her own wedding and relocating to Milton Keynes. 

But by 2019 she was ready to enter a writing competition with an early draft of Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? Although, as she explains, she very nearly didn’t enter it at all: “I read the bios of the previous winners, and it seemed like they all had some sort of writing background.” But her faith and her husband encouraged her to apply. “I was praying to God to get longlisted, so when I got shortlisted I was like OMG, really? And when I won, it was a life-changing experience for me”. 

Winning the competition led Blackburn directly to her agent, Nelle Andrew, who was one of the judges and was so impressed she offered her representation. When the book was ready to be was sent out to publishers, Viking pre-empted within 24 hours of submission and it will be the imprint’s lead commercial fiction début for 2022. Netflix has already snapped up TV rights.

Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? is timeless, a story about a young woman’s search for love, but also very contemporary. Chapters begin with WhatsApp messages or a screenshot of Yinka’s recent online search history. Blackburn explains she was inspired by Bridget Jones’s Diary, and originally experimented with a similar diary format before finding something even more of the moment: “What better way than to get into the psyche of Yinka than knowing what she taps into on the internet?” The structure also echoes her favourite TV show, HBO’s “Insecure”, in which social media messages flash up on the screen as the characters receive them: “I wanted to have that immersive experience for the reader as well.”

In one sense Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? is a traditional rom com but Blackburn does subvert the genre slightly. “I didn’t want her to just end up with someone and have a happy-ever-after kind of ending. I didn’t think it would be close to real life. There are loads of single women out there looking for someone and they probably have a timeframe in mind, but sometimes it doesn’t go to plan so I didn’t think [that sort of ending] would be inspiring for them.” Yinka does have a potential relationship on the horizon by the end of the novel, but Blackburn says: “I wanted the message of self-love being the most important love of all to come through.”

Yinka is also a Christian, which I found interesting and unusual in a heroine, but as Blackburn points out: “There’s loads of Christians out there, especially Christian women, who are going through what Yinka’s going through, but they don’t see themselves in the books that they read, or the shows that they watch. Christianity is seen as old-fashioned, outdated. So I wanted it to be a comfort read for them.” But, she adds: “We’re all human and we all go through the same things regardless of our faith or our background or whatever.” 

Serious issues
Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? is shot through with humour, but Blackburn does not shy away from the more serious issues faced by Yinka and her friends. “I felt that I couldn’t write a story about dark-skinned women and not touch on colourism because it’s such a prominent thing, not only in the Black community but also in the South Asian community as well. I think you only need to look around to see colourism in your day-to-day life. Obviously in the media—not seeing enough dark-skinned women in music videos or playing the love interest in movies. Even when it comes to ‘Love Island’, the dark-skinned woman is always chosen last.” 

Blackburn wanted to show how this insidious culture affects her characters, “how they perceive beauty and attractiveness, and how it can affect their self-esteem. I also wanted to raise awareness of colourism, especially to non-Black readers. It’s been very heartening to hear from non-Black readers saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was a real issue for Black women.’” Ultimately though, if she has a hope for her début novel it is this: “That those who are in Yinka’s shoes will find it relatable and inspiring and I hope that it might even make them go on a self-discovery journey of their own. And I hope that wider readers will fall in love with Yinka and they will enjoy the roller-coaster of her journey to try and find a date.”

Extract

It’s two hours into my sister’s baby shower and so far not one person has said, ‘So, Yinka, when is it going to be your turn?’ Or the classic, ‘Yinka, where is your huzband?’
 
Thank you, God!
 
After going crazy with the party popper emoji and asking Nana what time she’ll reach, I shove my phone into my back pocket. Let’s just hope I haven’t inadvertently jinxed myself by celebrating too soon.
 
Slouching back in my chair, I stare at Kemi and her friends dancing in the centre of her living room: all bumping and grinding, serious expressions on their faces, as though they’re competing in an Afrobeats dancing competition.
 
I look at those still seated: a red-haired woman and another with an eyebrow piercing who must be Kemi’s workmates, and four of my aunties. Like me, my aunties are struggling to finish their plates of jollof rice. It’s far too mild for our palates. I know everyone can’t take spice, but whoever made this didn’t represent us, Nigerians. Succumbing to defeat, I abandon the plate under my chair. When I look up, I spot Mum waddling through the throng of dancers, her wide hips swaying. When she gets to the front, she jabs her fingers against Kemi’s phone, before giving up and swivelling around. Mum still owns a Nokia 3410 so operating an iPhone is beyond her capacity.
 
‘Hello- o! Hello-o!’ she cries in a thick Nigerian accent. The thick Nigerian accent, mind you, that she still has, despite having moved to the UK way back in the Eighties. ‘Can I have everyone’s attention, please?’
 
But the music drowns her out. Kemi and her friends carry on dancing to the song. Except my younger sister goes one step further. As though she has completely forgotten about the massive bump attached to her front, she dips her knees and bends her back and – oh, good Lord. She’s twerking.

Photography: Aiden Harmitt-Williams.