Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

Set in Nigeria, award-winning book tells of hatred, prejudice and, above all, hope

Buki Papillon didn’t write her award-winning debut novel in one fell swoop. She stopped and started “An Ordinary Wonder” for years, tossing out 70% of it at one point.

Anne Kniggendorf


Buki Papillon didn’t write her award-winning debut novel in one fell swoop. She stopped and started “An Ordinary Wonder” for years, tossing out 70% of it at one point.

“It took many iterations to become itself,” Papillon says.

The same could be said of her and of her protagonist. Perhaps the same could be said of most people, but for some, the becoming and becoming is more striking — as are the results.

Papillon, whose full first name is Olubukola, was born and grew up in Nigeria, the oldest of six, and now lives in Boston. She earned a law degree in England, married a Frenchman and moved to the United States, where she could not practice law without recommitting to another round of law school. Instead, she worked as a chef, then as a certified massage therapist, then earned a master’s degree in creative writing. Then she wrote a novel. And those are only the parts she talks about.

Her character’s becoming is of a more personal nature. Physical. Emotional.

“An Ordinary Wonder” (Pegasus, $25.95) is about Otolorin, an intersex Nigerian teenager whose gender at birth is unclear, leading to the assignment of male — wishful thinking on the parents’ part, which goes wrong almost immediately. The child identifies as a girl, the same as the twin sister.

The whole story works to right this wrong.

“It delves into African belief systems. It delves into superstitions. It delves into folklore,” Papillon explains. “And it really is a story about having the courage to become who you know that you truly are.”

And courage is necessary when going up against that list: belief systems, superstitions, and folklore, but also a warring family and sometimes-dangerous boarding school.

Buki Papillon’s “An Ordinary Wonder” is the latest selection of the FYI Book Club.
Buki Papillon’s “An Ordinary Wonder” is the latest selection of the FYI Book Club.

The book is mostly set in 1990s Nigeria. Otolorin is caught between a mother controlled both by fear and the temple prophets she looks to for guidance; traditional healers and advisers; and Western ideas about medicine and education.

The prophets, or Wolis, insist that Otolorin’s notion that “he” is really a “she” can be exorcised, and the mother agrees.

“‘Get back on your knees,’ Woli Omolaja shouted. ‘You’re here for purification, not to sit around! This is no joking matter. Tonight you shall part ways with your demons,’” Papillon writes in a particularly brutal scene of abuse.

But a traditional spiritual leader also weighs in after an invasive examination and comes to another conclusion.

The Babalawo, or high priest and reader of oracles, says: “‘While she does embody aspects of the cosmic gourd enfolding both male and female facets of life, her stone whispered that the form which best favors her destiny in this lifetime is female.’”

A urologist also agrees that Otolorin is physically more female than male.

“I have budding breasts that will keep growing. I should have been raised female. Mother was dead wrong. I’m not a changeling. Or any sort of demon. Or cursed. I’m Lori,” Papillon writes — Lori is Otolorin’s preferred female name.

Papillon says she tried not to give more weight to one way of thinking than another; she sees each as knife-like.

“A knife in a kitchen is an incredibly useful tool; there’s not a lot that can be done without it. But a knife can also be used to do incredible harm,” she explains.

For instance, the same Wolis who try to beat the demon out of Otolorin also come to the mother’s aid when she needs help.

Papillon says we can’t be too quick to say that any force in the book is wholly good or bad. “That’s a gray area that I want readers to explore.”

And if that presents a challenge to a reader, imagine how the teenage character feels.

Papillon manages to shepherd Otolorin from surviving to thriving through a hellscape of humiliation, assault, a suicide attempt, peer derision, lost friendships, and interactions with parents who should be behind bars.

She gives the character her own Dantean Beatrice as a guide. Yeyemi is a mermaid-type creature who shows up when Otolorin is in the gravest danger. Papillon says she’s a mix of Oshun and Yemoja, the two main goddesses of the waters in the Yoruban pantheon of gods.

Yeyemi is a source of nurturing and safety and, Papillon says, embodies the idea that the human imagination is powerful and allows people to become whatever they want to be.

“I think the way to identify with Yeyemi is to regard her from the lens of the universal, the need that we all have to hope for something bigger than us, something that is bigger than this existence,” Papillon says.

Hope is essential in “An Ordinary Wonder.”

The author says she heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu say in a documentary that he is not so much an optimist as he is a “prisoner of hope.” She recalls having to sit and think about the idea.

“If one considers oneself to have as much of an obligation to be hopeful as one has to say, feed one’s body food to survive, in a sense treating hope as a matter in which you have no choice,” Papillon says, “then it’s possible to move from surviving to thriving.”

In her hands, hope is not a silent feeling but has a voice. It’s a voice that may be hard to project over the sometimes louder voices of hatred and prejudice, but it must be heard.

“Silence is a form of complicity, but also sometimes silence happens as a result not just of fear, but a misplaced desire to protect,” Papillon says.

Otolorin’s twin, for instance. She worries about the price of not conforming — in this case, of not agreeing with her twin’s gender assignment – and does not speak up for Otolorin as a protective measure, as if her silence were a cloak of invisibility.

Papillon, who throws out Yoruban proverbs in conversation the way others throw out statistics, says: “Only if you have never been in a room with a mosquito will you say one tiny voice is too small to make a difference.”

She continues, “I hope it comes out in the book that when one person finds the strength and courage to say, ‘No more,’ then many who were silent also find the courage to speak up in support.”

And while she would like readers to research and support intersex advocacy groups and individuals, she says the book is not only about that.

“I have witnessed and experienced all sorts of inequality, including around aspects of gender,” Papillon says, “and I would say writing about it is the best way I know to speak up and combat all forms of hatred and prejudice.”

“An Ordinary Wonder” won the 2022 Maya Angelou Book Award, the first time it’s been given for fiction. The Kansas City Public Library, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and five other Missouri universities established the national award, which recognizes literary merit, how a writer and their work reflect a commitment to social justice, and how the work “serves to enrich the diversity of American literature.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library and is the author of “Secret Kansas City” and “Kansas City Scavenger.” Follow her @AnneKniggendorf.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of Buki Papillon’s “An Ordinary Wonder” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, at the Kansas City Center for Inclusion. Email Stover at to join in.

An excerpt

My name is Otolorin. I’ve been called ‘monster.’ Within dark valleys of flesh I defy the given — a snake curled upon itself, two in one, mythical and shunned. Yet, in that magical place between worlds, in the realm where the great mother gives milk to her offspring, I become like a goddess. There, in words unspoken, my voice is heard. I often wish I could take Wura, my sister, with me to visit that place where I truly come alive, but I cannot because Wura is normal, so it would be death.

Wura and I are twins. Like all other Yoruba twins that have ever been born, we should be called Taiwo and Kehinde — the one who came first, and the one who lagged behind. Even in this, our natural names, our parents kept us apart. Otolorin — one who walks a different path; and Wuraola — a wealth of gold.

Wura is everything to our mother, who will never have any other children because she is the woman who birthed the unspeakable, and my father has no desire to sire any more monsters.

Here in Nigeria, the road ends at my secret, but America, they say, is a land where wonders are created and the wondrous is made ordinary. Now that I have wedged one foot onto that path, I am determined to make it all the way. Because if I do, perhaps I, too, can become an ordinary wonder.

Kansas City Star

Share this:

Back to top

Sign up for the latest news, updates, and analyses by email