Ayóbámi Adébáyò | 'I wanted to write about a time that really shaped the way Nigeria is today'

Ayóbámi Adébáyò | 'I wanted to write about a time that really shaped the way Nigeria is today'

Nigerian author Ayóbámi Adébáyò’s first novel Stay with Me (Canongate) is a culmination of years of writing experience—including numerous workshops and two Masters degrees—and mentorships from behemoths of literature Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

In 2007, Adébáyò was accepted onto a 10-day workshop with Adichie, which proved to be a formative experience for the young writer. “It was at that point, aged 19, that I was making a decision that [writing] was what I wanted to spend my life doing and [the workshop] was good to experience,” she says.

More recently, Adébáyò worked with Atwood while studying Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and recalls being “so impressed with her”, especially with the fact that Atwood has “read absolutely everything”. Adébáyò says: “That might be one of the most important things I took away from that class. I’ve always loved to read, but it just showed me that people who work at that level are really voracious readers. I didn’t know how that was possible.”

Atwood worked with Adébáyò on the first chapter of what became Stay with Me, a devastating début about how the pressures of motherhood, masculinity and marriage slowly undo a relationship. The multiple threads that run through the novel—the intricacies of Yoruba culture, the turbulence of Nigerian politics and the painful realities of sickle cell disease—make for a rich, textured work which explores the fragility of married love against the background of a country rife with instability.

Spanning decades

Oscillating between 1985 and 2008, the novel follows Yejide and Akin, a couple who meet while the former is at university—and quickly marry. They are slowly pulled apart by the pressure of childlessness and then, when they finally manage to conceive, by the secrets they keep from each other and the grief that amasses because of them.

The novel started out as a short story Adébáyò was working on while at university in Nigeria in 2007. She says: “I had written this scene where a couple were breaking up, and they had a child who was in hospital. I had completed the story but I just wasn’t satisfied. I felt that there was something about it that I didn’t understand. There was something the characters were saying that I couldn’t hear. So I remember going over it again and again, [and finally I had a] sort of eureka moment, when I sort of knew, ‘Oh my god, this is what they’re actually talking about.’ Then I went back and finished the story”.

Adébáyò’s realisation was that the crux of the story would concern what Yejide and Akin were not saying to each other, and how all the secrets they keep from each other drive them further apart. “[The story] came from the fact that they were having this dialogue but they were not really speaking to each other,” Adébáyò says. “That everything they were saying or wanted to say was left unsaid; to understand each other they would have to listen to what was not being said. I think the whole book came from that, the idea that two people spend hours talking and never quite say anything that matters because they’re both afraid.”

I think the whole book came from that, the idea that two people spend hours talking and never quite say anything that matters because they’re both afraid

Discussing the relationship dynamics of the couple and the fears that drive them, Adébáyò says: “The tragedy of Akin and Yejide’s marriage lies in their inability—Akin’s in particular—to accept their flaws. Yejide is afraid that Akin is going to leave her, [and] Akin is afraid that the pressures [of the relationship will force] Yejide to start asking him questions that he can’t answer at his own pace. For him, there is a major disconnect between who he is expected to be, what he thinks he should be, and his lived reality. He never quite accepts the facts of his life and perhaps because of this he is never vulnerable enough with Yejide.”

Spanning decades

When Yejide eventually gives birth, her children are diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a serious blood disorder that affects around 20%–30% of the Nigerian population. Adébáyò herself is very close to the disease, and describes being “both consciously and subconsciously preoccupied with the topic”, adding: “At [the time I was writing the book], a couple of friends, both in their early twenties, who lived with the disease died as a result of its complications. I spent a lot of time thinking about them, about some of the conversations we’d had. I also knew by then that although I wasn’t a sufferer, I did carry the sickle cell gene and if I chose to have children with another carrier, we could have children who had the disease.

“This was obviously something that would have a lot of impact on my decisions going forward. So I began to look into the disease and read everything I could about it. A lot of what I read didn’t make it into the novel actually, but I found it remarkable that though this is something that affects millions of people—directly and indirectly—I didn’t come across many non-scientific texts that explored the subject.”

Structural challenges

Figuring out the structure of the era-hopping novel was the “most challenging thing”, Adébáyò says, but the decision to set the novel in the 1980s was an easy one. “The ‘80s are a time I’ve always found interesting: I was born in 1988 and it was a time in which so many things were happening in Nigeria. There was so much change: I had always been interested in it but I didn’t see it in fiction as much as I would’ve liked to. So I wanted to write about what it would have been like to live in this time that I believe really shaped the way Nigeria is today.”

Nigeria of 1985 is marred by coups and political turbulence which subtly permeates the daily lives of the characters, but there are also times when the effects of this political instability are much more overt. There is a passage in the novel when Akin urgently needs to get their child to hospital but there’s been an outbreak of gunfire outside the hotel. He has to hold the baby up in the air to convince the soldiers to let him leave. Adébáyò says: “What I really wanted to look at were those points where there would be an intersection between the political and personal and how important that can be in the course of anybody’s life. People who aren’t even necessarily, or directly involved in politics . . . everything that’s happening at the centre impacts on the course of their own lives.”