The JRB presents an excerpt from Nikki May’s debut novel, Wahala.
Penguin Random House, 2022
Read the excerpt:
Boo had bad memories of being five. She’d been an outsider, wished her hair was straighter, her skin paler, her nose narrower. The only mixed-race girl in a small Yorkshire village—white mum, white stepdad, white stepbrothers. Desperate to fit in. Being inconspicuous had seemed the best way to achieve it.
She wasn’t much older than Sofia when she decided to change her surname. The register at school was daily torture.
‘Boo Babangari?’ the teacher would call.
‘Bang. Bang. Boo!’ the boys at the back would chortle.
So she asked her mum if she could use her stepdad’s name. There were lots of reasons for not wanting to be a Babangari. She’d never met her biological dad—he had abandoned her mother before she was born. And it was a daft name, indecipherable and unpronounceable. But it wasn’t the best idea she’d ever had.
‘Boo Whyte?’ said the teacher.
‘Oh no, she’s not! Boo’s brown!’ the boys at the back would snort.
She’d never been outright bullied but she was made to feel like a misfit. One day she’d stand out—be picked on and poked at. The next she’d be wallpaper—overlooked and ignored. Boo coped by keeping herself to herself, staying quiet and never making a fuss. Running had helped—she was good at it, won prizes for the school. Best of all, it wasn’t a team sport.
Her mum and stepdad loved her, but they didn’t understand her. ‘A levels?’ they’d asked when she was sixteen. ‘Why? You can get a job now, start earning money.’ They hadn’t gone to university so why would she want to? She didn’t admit she had to get away. She didn’t want to hurt them.
It wasn’t until Bristol (chosen mainly for its distance from home), where she met Ronke and Simi, that she started to feel comfortable in her skin. They were the first mixed-race people she’d ever spoken to and to them, being brown was an asset, not a liability. It meant you could always fit in—with black people, white people and all shades in between. They pitied the poor souls with one solitary culture, who used fake tan (or worse—bleaching cream). They were proud of being half Nigerian and half English. They loved jollof rice and fish finger sandwiches. They had two football teams to support.
Determined to fit in, Boo softened her Yorkshire accent and squashed down her shyness. The three of them were soon a unit—The Naija Posse. They were Boo’s first real friends. She felt connected. She liked it.
Simi taught Boo how to transform frizzy curls into smooth waves. (Rule number one: There is no such thing as too much hair conditioner.)
Ronke introduced Boo to Nigerian food. She tried to introduce her to Nigerian guys too. That was never going to happen. Boo had learned all she needed to know about Nigerian men from the father she’d never met.
- Born in Bristol, raised in Lagos, Nikki May is Anglo-Nigerian. She ran a successful ad agency before turning to writing. Her debut novel Wahala was inspired by a long (and loud) lunch with friends. It is being turned into major BBC TV drama. She lives in Dorset with her husband, two standard schnauzers, and way too many books.
Ronke, Simi and Boo are inseparable mixed-race friends living in London. They have the gift of two cultures, Nigerian and English, though not all of them choose to see it that way.
Everyday racism has never held them back, but now in their thirties, they question their future. Ronke wants a husband (he must be Nigerian); Boo enjoys (correction: endures) stay-at-home motherhood; while Simi, full of fashion career dreams, rolls her eyes as her boss refers to her urban vibe yet again.
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, and it is soon obvious Isobel is not sorting but wrecking. When she is driven to a terrible act, the women are forced to reckon with a crime in their past that may just have repeated itself.
A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on love, race and family, Wahala will have you laughing, crying and gasping in horror. Boldly political about class, colorism and clothes, here is a truly inclusive tale that will speak to anyone who has ever cherished friendship, in all its form.