Can You Get Away With Murdering Men If You’re Beautiful?
Oyinkan Braithwaite on “My Sister, the Serial Killer” and why society treats beauty as a virtue
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Does anyone have a “normal” relationship with their sister? Once you get someone talking about siblinghood, the crazy stories begin to pour out: resentment, betrayal, zaniness, competition, loyalty. Oyinkan Braithwaite has created a manic cocktail of sisterhood into her novel including all of the above. My Sister, The Serial Killerdoesn’t make a decision about whether to be disturbing, insightful, hilarious, or melancholy: it revels in all of those and more.
The book begins with Korede methodically helping her beautiful sister, Ayoola, dispose of the body of a man she’s killed. But he’s not the first, or the second. He’s the third, and Ayoola shows no signs of remorse, and it’s immediately clear that she will have no problem killing again. Ayoola claims all the men have tried to hurt her, but Korede, who’s spent her life cleaning up her sister’s messes, both metaphorical and actual, knows that Ayoola’s role as a victim is at best a passive act, and at worst a willful manipulation.
Despite her sister’s disturbing extracurricular habit, Korede manages to compartmentalize her brain and retain focus on the rest of her life, most importantly, her recent promotion to head nurse at a hospital. But her duties at her job aren’t quite her main priority at the hospital, either: she’s fallen in love with a surgeon, Tade, who values her professionally but may or may not see her in a romantic light. As the novel progresses, the inevitable occurs: Tade and Ayoola meet, and Korede desperately tries to avert what she naturally assumes will be their fate.
The macabre plot of My Sister, The Serial Killer would be enough to keep you propelled through the novel, but there’s much more buried within the pages: Braithwaite has a razor sharp commentary on power relations, the role of beauty in society, and the way young people operate on social media. We spoke on Skype about the misrepresentation of beauty as a personality trait, the mistakes people make in selecting partners, and, of course, our own experiences with sisterhood.
Rebecca Schuh: What was your initial inspiration for the novel?
Oyinkan Braithwaite: The initial inspiration would have been the black widow spider. The first time I came across the black widow spider, [I learnt] how when the female and the male mate, if the female happens to be hungry afterwards and the male is still around, she’ll eat him. I thought that was hilarious. I wrote a poem the black widow spider and from then I kept playing with the idea, it kept showing itself up again in a poem or a short story or whatever, until I finally sort of got here. Ayoola is obviously the black widow.
RS: That’s really interesting! I was going to ask, do you have a sister that you have a very dramatic relationship with — but this makes more sense.
OB: I have two sisters and a brother, and I think that my relationships with all three of them are interesting in one way shape or form. I’m the eldest of all of us and some of what Korede went through, that sense of responsibility and wanting to care for and be there for your siblings and protect them, I can understand.
RS: Early in the book, after one of the initial murders, Ayoola accuses Korede of victim shaming her. Korede finds this ridiculous, but you can see that Ayoola believes the narrative of her as a victim. How did you navigate the relationship of Ayoola as a victim versus Ayoola as a perpetrator?
OB: I do think that she claims to think she’s a victim, but I’m not sure she actually considered herself to be a victim. It’s convenient for her to say “woe is me,” but out of all the characters in the novel, she’s really the one who’s having the time of her life.
She understands the way it works, she’s been through certain experiences through which other people would consider her to be a victim, but whether she herself actually considers herself to be one, I think is open to debate.
That’s what allows the novel to be light in tone, because she’s not doing it necessarily out of a place of pain, she’s doing these things because she can get away with doing them. Ayoola’s not somebody who spends a lot of time reflecting on herself and her behavior and on the things that she’s done. She does things out of impulse as opposed to really thinking, why am I doing the things that I’m doing.
RS: And then she uses the victim narrative later because it’s convenient.
OB: And it’s what’s expected, and she knows how to work what she’s been given.
RS: Something I thought was really fascinating about the book as a whole was how it integrated so much social media, instagram, hashtags, Snapchat. We’re at an interesting point with books because in our lives, we know that social media is fully integrated, but books have not fully made the leap yet.
OB: This book was my first time doing it, and when I was writing the book, at some point, I thought oh, it doesn’t make any sense that social media isn’t here. They’re both females in their twenties, and it’s supposed to be a contemporary novel, and it wouldn’t make sense — you’re on instagram half the day.
Everybody sort of knows this now but we are all a victim of social media in a sense. You know that what you see on Instagram isn’t real. You know that what you see isn’t necessarily people’s true lives. It’s in our nature to represent the best of ourselves. On Twitter, a lot of people sound intelligent, but that’s not how they talk all the time. And yet we still are intimidated by it. Some people have been caught in lies, representing things that just aren’t true. I think that’s really interesting that we go so far to deceive people that we don’t even know. That was definitely something that fascinated me when I was writing it.
RS: I was really fascinated throughout the novel by the descriptions of the power relations between men and women. There was a line that really stuck out to me, when they were at the father’s funeral and the young woman came up to Korede and said oh you know your father paid for my whole university and she says he did it for a lot of women, and then says “When you have money, university girls are to men what plankton are to a whale.” I just thought what a knife of a line. What I thought was so interesting about her attitude was that she was so disdainful but so resigned to this idea of how powerful men interacted with women.
OB: I was having an interesting conversation today with my sister, we were talking about the book and she was mentioning how she had been surprised at some people’s response to the novel. She was like aren’t these things normal? Why are people highlighting them?
I think you become desensitized after a certain while, you just kind of have to. When I first moved back to Nigeria permanently, there were things that bothered me. They used to really get on my nerves. I would be all self righteous. Now I don’t have that same reaction to it.
After a while when you’ve seen things over and over and over again, you kind of have to work very hard to stay sensitive to it. And to stay shocked by it. And to want to even do something about it, to have the energy to want to do something about it.
That’s one of several things in the novel that people seemed shocked by but, what Korede said about the university girls, that’s a very common thing here.
RS: I thought that the pairing of Tade, whose attention is so intoxicating, with Ayoola, who’s a charmer herself, but more impervious to his attention, was, no pun intended, a deadly combination.
OB: There was one thing that I knew at the start of writing this novel, and that was that there was going to be a Korede, an Ayoola, and a Tade. I didn’t have his character lined up but I knew there was going to be a guy who was going to be the middle of the two of them.
Tade is central to the story, and he’s what tests Korede’s loyalty and devotion to Ayoola. Without him, there would be no real conflict — she’s been dealing with this, maybe she just would have continued to deal with it, had someone who she cared deeply about not been at stake.
RS: He created the biggest tension in their relationship thus far. It was so well illustrated in the first few chapters, the methodical nature of just wrapping up the bodies and putting them outside. She’s treating it like it’s her job.
OB: I think it’s the same thing, you know, you become desensitized to it and at first you might think oh my gosh this is so horrible, but once you’ve done it once, I’m pretty sure doing it again isn’t so bad.
It was tough on her, but without Tade being at stake maybe she would have just have kept on getting irritated but getting the work done.
RS: Tade was interesting because she saw him as so charming and perfect but even from the beginning I was like hmm….is this guy….is he really all that?
OB: Tade’s not one of my favorite characters. I think it was very much just how she saw him. I’m not even entirely sure who he necessarily was because at the end of the day we’re seeing the entire story from Korede’s point of view, so I think she put him on this pedestal that he maybe didn’t deserve.
That’s also what the book is about, to not make snap judgments about people. Because again, it’s this whole thing about social media and the time we’re in, people are working so hard to give this impression of perfection. Whether it’s physically they want to be perfect but maybe they also want to come across as good and charitable and kind. And we work very hard to convince other people that this is the way we are, when in fact, most of us aren’t great people.
Let’s be honest. We prioritize ourselves, we prioritize our well being we prioritize the well being of our friends and our family. We claim to care about the world at large but you have to choose. At the end of the day. It takes a lot to be able to put someone else’s well being ahead of yours or ahead of the person that you love. I think it’s good to give people time to reveal themselves, not just to assume that what you see or present is real.
RS: It’s almost like that’s the process that Tade went through with Ayoola where he was so easily like oh my god, she’s perfect. And didn’t believe it even when he was getting warnings about her being a killer.
OB: To be fair to him it’s not easy when someone comes up to you and says oh this girl, she kills people.
RS: Hah yeah, why would you believe it? It doesn’t sound real. There’s a line about how beautiful people get a pass at life, and I was like oh, yeah, again, accurate. That’s a zinger. There was kind of a lot of strains in the book about how beauty is it’s own form of privilege. Did you have any thoughts on that?
OB: It’s something that I’ve always been interested in, beauty being treated as though it were a virtue or a quality that one should emulate. Beauty is attractive, there’s nothing wrong with that. But beauty isn’t a characteristic. It’s not the same as being kind or being patient or being loving. But it’s often treated as though it is one of those things, which is what I was trying to explore with the novel.
When you see someone beautiful, you want to think they’re good. It’s part of the package. One is supposed to go with the other. So then when they do do something that’s not great, you’re more likely to forgive them.
I’ve heard it happen where somebody passes and the person was attractive, people say “oh they were so beautiful.” As if that made it more tragic than if they had not been so beautiful. You can definitely see how people work so hard today to fix their bodies. We’re trying to stay young and beautiful, as thought it would fill some kind of void and satisfy something on the inside. It’s always been something I’ve been interested in, as well as how being treated according to how you look can affect your mindset. Whether it’s that you’re really attractive, or that you’re unattractive, how it can form your character and who you are. Going into the novel again, that’s something I knew, which is how Korede and Ayoola look so different.
When I was younger, I got a lot of attention, and I got older and fatter and the attention changed. It was weird because I was like I’m the same person, I’m not different. I have the same values. I like the same things. But people treat you differently.
I lost a bit of weight this year, and I found myself resenting whoever my future boyfriend would be because I was like “he didn’t love me when I was fatter!”
But I hadn’t met the guy! If he comes up to me now that’s because I’m more appealing to him now. I resented someone I hadn’t met yet. I had it in my mind that I was getting less attention because I was bigger and when I’m smaller I’ll get more attention, so therefore whoever I’m going to date will be shallow.
Luckily I ended up with someone who is pro plus size, so that works, he would have liked me before and he likes me now, I’m at peace with it. But it’s definitely something that has weathered me in my own safe space.
I want to look good, but that’s not essential to who I am as a person. I believe that a lot of women probably have that issue as well where it’s like, I’m a good person, I’m a nice person, why does it have to do with how I present myself all the time?
It’s almost the same thing as when you’re very unattractive, because they’ve summed you up and you aren’t sure how much of it is based on how you look and how much of it is based on your personality. Ayoola is not given a chance to grow because she doesn’t need to grow because she already gets what she wants because of how she looks. She’s boxed in and decides to use it to her advantage. I think that in and of itself can also be quite limiting.
RS: When Tade meets her, and Korede asks him, “What do you actually like about Ayoola?” and he says “Everything! She’s special.” And it’s like, you’re not saying any words. Those aren’t things.
OB: Use your words Tade! Yeah, exactly.
RS: I loved that exchange because I feel like I’ve seen it with so many friends where like, “I’m so obsessed with my new girlfriend/boyfriend” and you’re like “Tell me about them,” and they’re like, “she’s just lovely.” And you’re like, sure.
OB: (laughs) And it might be why, I don’t know how it is in the States, I don’t know if this in insane but here it’s kind of started to feel like people aren’t having the right conversations before they decide to get married.
We’re all kind of more shallow than we used to be. You need to say, who are you dating? What are their values? What are their principles? What do they believe in? Are you guys going in the same direction, as opposed to how the two of you look next to each other on Instagram?
RS: It really goes back to the social media question. You can even fall for someone on social media, based on the way they present themselves. When that’s really just a manufactured image. It’s self-manufactured, but still. It’d be interesting to see a relationship that started on social media, how that would play out.
OB: I know people do do it, I’ve heard people do it.
RS: I don’t think it’s all bad. I spend a lot of time on the internet, and we’ve had to accept that it’s the way things are. It’s a fascinating concept.
OB: It’s not bad, but it’s risky. Taking a massive risk. If you start off on social media and then decide you’re madly in love and then take it from there, then it’s a little bit dangerous I think.
I’ve been surprised at how people received the novel. I wasn’t expecting it to receive so much love, and a lot of people have said they have a sister or they have a sibling, and it’s funny how much they empathize with Korede. I thought some things were unique to the culture here, and it’s really nice to see that this is very universal and all over the world where we have these interesting relationships with our siblings.
RS: With my sister and I, I’m older but I’m less responsible and obviously I don’t kill men I date, but I can always tell she gets so frustrated when I make another mistake and she’s like “you get away with so much!” It’s not that she doesn’t get away with anything but you know, straight A’s, she’s now getting her PHD in Economics, and I’m working at a bar in New York, and I can tell every time I mess up again she’s like, “Really? Really?”
OB: My sister, the one who’s right after me, there’s two years between us, she’s the more meticulous one and the more responsible one and I’m more chill. She gets annoyed at how my attitude is like, everything will work out at the end. It drives her crazy, she’s like why can’t you do things properly. We barely get each other, and we’ve been around each other for forever.
RS: My sister and I didn’t get along for our entire lives until we lived in New York at the same time. And then it was like oh we have a common enemy, it’s New York, and we could fight it together, and since then we’ve been fine.
OB: My sister and I we went through a period where we were not friends, we didn’t really like each other very much and now we’re much much closer, and I think with age you become more understanding. She’s actually here. She just said she wishes she could add something here.
RS: I think I’m going to give my sister your book. She’ll probably like oh my god, you’re insane. But I think she’ll like it.
OB: And write a really quirky note so she’s confused. Something like, I hope you have my back if necessary.
RS: Rip this page out if anything happens.
OB: Exactly, it’ll drive her up the wall, like what have you done.