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Oyinkan Braithwaite. Image: © Amaal Said, courtesy Allen & Unwin

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.
I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

These brilliant opening lines are our introduction to sisters Ayoola and Korede, the two women at the heart of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial ​Killer (Atlantic Books). Korede works as a nurse at a hospital in Lagos, Nigeria. Her beautiful younger sister, Ayoola, has an unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends. Taking sibling solidarity frighteningly seriously, Korede cleans up Ayoola’s messes with cover stories, bleach and a scrubbing brush. But when Ayoola meets handsome doctor Tade, who has been the object of Korede’s affections for some time, Korede is forced into a situation where she may have to choose between sacrificing her sister or seeing the man she loves end up with a knife in his back.

I speak with Braithwaite while she’s in the country for Adelaide Writers Week, hours after My Sister, the Serial Killer is longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The novel is a darkly humorous debut – so it’s surprising, then, when Braithwaite tells me she didn’t set out to write a funny book. ‘I didn’t want to stay immersed in the darkness,’ she explains. ‘I’m generally quite comfortable writing dark scenes, but I wanted [the novel] to be breathable; I didn’t want it to be depressing. And I guess in my desire to balance that it ended up being a little bit funny.’

‘I’m generally quite comfortable writing dark scenes, but I didn’t want it to be depressing. And I guess it ended up being a little bit funny.’

Much of the comedy comes from seeing easily recognisable elements of sibling relationships (jealousy, rivalry, responsibility) pushed to the extreme. I ask Braithwaite, who has two sisters and one brother, her thoughts on sibling relationships in this context. ‘It’s interesting, the first time I came up with this plot idea it was two female friends instead of two sisters’, she says. ‘It still had the same themes of jealousy and competitiveness, loyalty and betrayal. For me it was more about this relationship between two women, as opposed to two sisters.’

Braithwaite lives in Lagos, where the novel is set, and brilliantly capitalises on elements of life in the city (thunderous rain, endless traffic jams, policemen on the take) to create a vivid sense of place. I ask her how it felt to write about her home in such a dark context. She laughs: ‘I don’t have the best memory, so it’s easiest for me to just look out of my window and say okay, this is what the world looks like. Even though I wasn’t too sure how this story would work in a Nigerian setting. But as I started to explore it, it got to a point where I thought it couldn’t work anywhere else. Because of the kind of society we’re in in Lagos, because of the kinds of things people get away with, the level of corruption…this story was meant for that setting.’

Korede, ostensibly the ‘good sister’ (largely because she doesn’t murder anyone – admittedly, a low bar), makes some morally dubious decisions of her own. ‘I find [Korede] interesting because you sort of understand her plight,’ Braithwaite says. ‘You understand the difficult situation she’s in, but at the same time you can’t back her choices. And I think that’s very true of normal, everyday life. Your friends can tell you about a situation that they’re in and you can see that the choice they’re making is the wrong one, but there’s nothing you can do about it, except be extremely frustrated. I know a lot of readers found Korede difficult to swallow, but people are not one hundred per cent good or one hundred per cent bad. I like the fact that she’s on the edge.’

‘People are not one hundred per cent good or one hundred per cent bad. I like the fact that Korede’s on the edge.’

One of the central themes of the novel is the power that Ayoola’s beauty has to blind people to, or shield them from, the truth. Braithwaite explains, ‘For a while now I’ve been interested in this whole idea that beauty is a virtue. Like when someone dies, and there’s this whole thing of, “and she was so beautiful”, as if that makes it that much more tragic. I’m interested in our obsession with beauty today in the 21st century, on social media, and how we’re constantly trying to change our bodies and attain this level of perfection. I think we’re applying a lot of our energy in the wrong place. I exaggerated it quite a bit in this novel but I do think that when you look at someone beautiful you somehow think that because they’re beautiful they’re better people.’

‘There was that #PrisonBae hashtag that went viral [Jeremy Meeks’ mugshot went viral in 2014]…that was one of the moments where I thought, hang on a minute, there’s something not quite right here. I still don’t know what crime #PrisonBae committed but I know that he’s now got a modelling deal and is dating an heiress or whatever…and it’s because there’s this idea that it’s enough that you’re beautiful.’

Social media permeates the sisters’ lives throughout My Sister, the Serial Killer: missing men trend on Twitter, Ayoola is constantly distracted by her phone, Korede spends time looking up Ayoola’s former victims online, the sisters debate how soon is too soon to post a selfie after your boyfriend has mysteriously disappeared. I ask Braithwaite if she specifically wanted to explore social media as a theme, or if it was something more incidental to the sisters’ modern lives. ‘It was very intentional,’ she tells me. ‘I hadn’t ever infused social media in my work before, but there was a point where I was writing this and I thought to myself, “you say you’re writing a contemporary novel, you’ve got twenty-something year-olds in this book, you’ve not got any social media and it doesn’t make any sense”. I was a little bit hesitant because I was worried that if I did add social media it would make it somehow…a little trite. But once I got into it I was able to explore all the things about social media that irritated and baffled me, and I was really happy that I was able to navigate it.’

‘I’ve been interested in this idea…that when you look at someone beautiful you somehow think that because they’re beautiful they’re better people.’

The novel also explores the legacy of violence. The weapon Ayoola uses is inherited from her father, who had a violent temper of his own. At one point Korede explains that ‘the only retribution she [Ayoola] ever feared was the one that came from her father.’ I ask Braithwaite more about this history of violence in the family. ‘I wanted to know why Korede would go so far. Yes, there’s the idea of protecting your sibling, but she begins to protect Ayoola at a cost to herself. I needed to understand what was going to bind them to that extent. I knew that trauma is one of the things that people go through that can cause them to bind together and have a deeper, sometimes unhealthy, relationship. There’s kind of where the violence came from.’

‘I was playing with the idea of nature versus nurture in the book. I don’t think I ever really answered the questions, but I was asking: who is really to blame here? Where did Ayoola’s violence come from? Did it come from her dad? Where did his violence come from? How much power can an object have? I don’t have any answers, but I was interested in the questions.’

My Sister, the Serial Killer is available now at Readings.

Oyinkan Braithwaite will appear at the Sydney Writers’ Festival from 2–5 May.