Shelf Space: A Debut Writer’s Journey to Claim His Place

19th July 2021
3 min read
14th September 2021

Femi Kayode looks back at how, mid-career, he turned a creative compulsion into an award-winning reality with his debut novel.

Femi Kayode

After writing across mediums for almost three decades, I suffered something I had assumed was beneath me: a crisis of purpose. So … I went back to school.

The more I developed the character(s), the more I became concerned that I was becoming alienated from the story. I realized that I may have taken my desire to appeal to a predominantly western audience a bit too far. I was writing through what Toni Morrison referred to as the ‘white gaze’. For months, I could not write. Indeed, I was ready … but now was stuck. ‘Write a love letter to Nigeria,’ my tutor advised when I shared my challenge, and snap, everything fell into place.

I reached out to a diverse group of people in different parts of the world with two critical things in common: they were avid readers and they were all Nigerian. Their brief was simple – to tell me how my protagonist made them feel. Was he sufficiently invested in the case and in the people that the tragedy had affected? Most of all, did he exhibit an ambivalence towards Nigeria that almost every national, both in the country and the diaspora, could relate to?

The completion of the manuscript, graduation and subsequently winning the Little, Brown/UEA Award for Crime Fiction gave me the perfect subject line for my emails to agents: ‘Award-winning writer seeks representation’. I got referrals from the university and from the judging panel at Little, Brown.

On 1 February 2020 my UK publishers sent me a congratulatory note. Lightseekers was reviewed as the Standout Thriller of the Month by the Independent.

My book is placed next to the works of other writers from around the world, both known and unknown, but all storytellers. Just like me.

This is an abridged version of an article taken from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2022, available to purchase now from

Femi Kayode and his debut book, Lightseekers

Femi Kayode has worked as an advertising copywriter and as a screenwriter and developer of several award-winning TV shows. He was a Packard Fellow in Film and Media at the University of Southern California. While studying for an MA in Creative Writing – Crime Fiction at the University of East Anglia, he wrote his first novel, Lightseekers (Bloomsbury 2021), which won the Little, Brown/UEA Award for Crime Fiction in 2018. Femi lives in Windhoek, Namibia. Follow him on Twitter @FemiKay_Author.

Writing stage