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Nikki May Shares the Cultural Significance of Her Book Title ‘Wahala’

What is 'Wahala' anyways?Derived from the Arabic word ‘wahla’ which means ‘fright’ or ‘terror’, this glorious word was brought to Nigeria through the trans-Sahara caravan routes. Part punch, part sigh, part curse; in Lagos wahala is ubiquitous. You hear it at least ten times every day, usually accompanied by the shake of the head, or a groan.

When I read back the first shitty draft of my debut novel (it had a very different title back then), I realised it was as boring as hell. I’d created three women whose lives included jollof rice, carjacking and cornrows in the same breath as spiralizers, Soho House and dodgy boyfriends – but nothing really happened. I’d made the mistake of liking my characters so much, I’d shied away from hurting them. But charmed lives are interminably dull.

I buried my manuscript at the bottom of a filing cabinet and tried to forget about it. But I couldn’t get my women out of my head. Every ponytail reminded me of Boo, Ronke popped into my head whenever I cooked, and Simi peered out of the fashion pages of my favourite magazine.

Months later I had my eureka moment. Chatting to my sister on the phone, we slipped into pidgin English, as we always do. ‘Can you pick up some plantain on your way over,’ I asked. ‘No wahala,’ she replied. And that was it. Suddenly I knew exactly what my manuscript needed: Trouble. I had to give those women wahala. And lots of it.

I dug out my manuscript, unpicked my scenes and injected wahala into their lives. It had to be the right wahala for each woman, I knew them well enough to do the worst thing to each of them. I sowed the seeds of destruction into every scene and tied the threads, so the reader had to watch powerless as their lives unravelled.

Sometimes I feel a tiny bit guilty about what I put them through. But as we say in Lagos, ‘Wahala dey o!’. There’s always trouble.


About the Author

Born in Bristol and raised in Lagos, Nikki May is Anglo-Nigerian. At twenty, she dropped out of medical school, moved to London, and began a career in advertising, going on to run a successful agency. Her debut novel, Wahala, was inspired by a long lunch with friends. It is being turned into a major TV series. Nikki lives in South West England with her husband and two standard schnauzers.