Lizzie Damilola Blackburn isn’t loud, she’s certainly not an extrovert and she’d definitely never describe herself as cool. The British-Nigerian first-time author, 32, spent her early twenties — by her own admission — “goofy” and “naturally a little bit awkward”. So why were the only black women she was seeing on TV and in books being portrayed as strong black cool-girls?
Blackburn grew up on a diet of Jacqueline Wilson and teen-lit, but never saw herself reflected on the page or on screen. So when she reached the age of 27, she decided to do something about it. The protagonist in her debut novel, Yinka, is in many ways identical to Blackburn herself: both are British-Nigerian, Christian and grew up in Peckham to mothers with a habit of asking them when they planned to find a husband. The biggest difference is her character works at a bank and is slightly more obsessed with spreadsheets, she jokes.
Blackburn’s novel, Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? follows Yinka, a single 31-year-old operations manager from Peckham who’s always a little behind her friends, doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and sets herself a deadline of finding herself a plus one for her cousin’s wedding in six months’ time. It’s warm and witty but with an edge of pathos. Critics are comparing it to Bridget Jones — except chapters begin with a rather more 2022 diary-entry alternative: Yinka’s WhatsApp conversations and internet search history.
“It’s an honour — [Bridget Jones] is iconic, but I also want Yinka to be her own standalone character,” says Blackburn as we sit down for coffee (a green smoothie, in her case) at a café near King’s Cross. The former charity officer turned full-time author finished the book in May 2020, but she started it five years ago in the midst of her “chaotic” twenties. She had no master plan, no time off work and her family certainly had no connection with the literary world (her father works for the Royal Mail and her three siblings have gone into psychology, architecture and analytics). “I was just winging it,” she says. The writing process has seen her through a series of major life events: meeting and marrying her now-husband Martin, and buying a house.
Yinka’s story touches on many relatable aspects of life for young Londoners: friends getting married, siblings having babies, bumping into exes at parties and (mostly bad) online dates. How much of Yinka’s experience was based on true events? In 2015, Blackburn met her husband, a British-Jamaican filmmaker, on OkCupid. “I had to kiss a lot of frogs.”
She wanted to set the book in Peckham, where she lived until 13 and where her dad still lives. She’s pleased it retains much of its identity from her upbringing, like the library, hair shops and African supermarket. But it’s changed, too. “I remember telling people I lived in Peckham growing up and they’d pull a face like I lived in the ghetto,” she says. She feels “mixed” about the gentrification since then, but notes that many locals have been priced out. “That’s why I included a chapter with Nana [Yinka’s best friend] having a word with Yinka about supporting small businesses.”
The book also touches on race and colourism, from Yinka’s bids to “be more attractive” and cover her bum with cardigans, to hair shops selling skin lightening creams. “I just knew I couldn’t write a story about a dark-skinned woman with short, kinky hair and not touch on colourism and texturism,” says Blackburn. “I see colourism all the time, whether that’s in music videos where you never see a dark-skinned woman or in romantic movies where dark-skinned women barely ever play the lead. I wanted to show how that impacts dark-skinned women’s self-esteem. If you’re not seeing yourself on screen, what does that say about you as a person and your attractiveness? In Yinka’s case, she internalises that and thinks ‘OK, maybe the reasons I’m not finding someone is because I’m not beautiful enough’ — which is really sad.”
It’s for this reason Blackburn didn’t want Yinka’s journey to be “neatly tied into a bow” because “I think that would send a wrong message to the readers. There are a lot of women and men out there who have timescales and deadlines [in their heads for meeting someone] and not all the time do we meet it. I didn’t want [the book] to be unrealistic.”
Instead, Blackburn wanted “self-love” to be the key message of her story. She knew she was “worthy of love” by the time she met her own husband and wants readers to come away with that message beyond all else. Clearly, that messaging worked. Blackburn says the messages she’s received already have been heartening – everything from fans on Instagram saying “I was Yinka once” to men and women thanking her for writing about a character who sticks to her morals around celibacy.
What about the response from her family? Blackburn smiles at the pride she’s received, whether it’s from relatives in Nigeria on the family WhatsApp group or her dad, who bought her Jacqueline Wilson books growing up and “always knew [she’d] be an author”. But the most meaningful has to have come from he mum, who usually only reads the bible. “Yinka was the first fiction book she’s read cover-to-cover,” Blackburn says proudly. “She read it all within a week and called me halfway through to say how much she respected me”. Did her mother recognise much of herself in the story? Blackburn says her own mother and aunties weren’t as “intrusive” as Yinka’s, but the fact that Yinka’s mother carries a Nokia 3410 phone didn’t go unnoticed. “My mum had that for a very long time – that made her chuckle,” says Blackburn.
Blackburn replies to every message she receives from fans – part of her mantra to practice gratitude every morning. She’s currently writing book two (“it’s connected to Yinka… that’s all I can say”) and tends to write from bed in the winter, or her dining table when the weather warms up. She’ll write from the British Library or the Wellcome Collection whenever she’s in London.
Alongside gratitude, her daily pre-writing routine tends to involve praying, working out to a YouTube video, and reading 20 pages of a book before starting work. So who are her favourite authors to read? Blackburn says she adores Zadie Smith, calling her a “G”, but that trying to write like her was a mistake – it didn’t feel true to her own style. Instead, she’s found a series of chic-lit writers who felt more relatable: Beth O’Leary who mixes humour with the serious in books like The No-Show; Jendella Benson, whose book Hope & Glory is set in Peckham; and Nikki May, whose novel Wahala is also set in south London and features bi-racial characters. What’s next on her list? “I’ll have to check my spreadsheet,” laughs Blackburn. Perhaps she shares more of her character’s Excel passion that she originally made out.
Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? is published in the UK by Viking on March 31 and available to pre-order now.