Professional writers need to be professional readers: Jennifer Malec chats to Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ about her debut novel, Stay With Me

Jennifer Malec sat down with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ at the recent Open Book Festival in Cape Town to talk about her debut novel, Stay With Me, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction—and was the final book reviewed by Michiko Kakutani.

Stay With Me
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Canongate, 2017

Jennifer Malec for The JRB: In the dedication at the beginning of Stay With Me you mention a childhood home in which ‘every room brims with books’. It’s a wonderfully evocative image. Did you spend your childhood reading?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes I did. We had a television, but we didn’t subscribe to cable, so there was really nothing on it. Even now, I’ve been in the hotel for two nights and I haven’t switched on the TV at all. I’m just not used to it. But when you’re young you need some distraction, you have a lot of time on your hands, so it was books for me. All the time.

The JRB: Do you think that opened up a view that you could become a writer yourself? When did you realise that was a possibility?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I started writing pretty early. I remember keeping a notebook when I was nine, and writing poetry very consistently, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer, it was just something that I did. It wasn’t until I was a teenager, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, that it occurred to me that it would be fantastic if I could do this for a living, if I could somehow manage to do that. So I think reading a lot probably helped me to find my own words more quickly. When I was younger I think it did play a role. I read an interview with Hilary Mantel who said she understands the novel form because she has read so many novels, and I think perhaps even in a subconscious way you start to have a sense of how stories work and how a reader’s attention is drawn in, even if you can’t quite articulate that yet. I think that reading a lot when you are quite young helps to put the infrastructure in place.

The JRB: The refrain is, if you want to be a writer, read.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Tell me about it! People who say, well I want to write novels but I don’t really read, you know, I just don’t like books. And I’m like, well … how are you going to do that? There are different ways that we tell stories, but even if you are not going to do what anybody else has ever done, you still need to have an understanding of how it’s being done. So, for example, I’ve never considered writing for screen; I’ve had people suggest it, but I’ve just not watched enough movies, I don’t understand that form at all.

The JRB: A lot of debut authors put a lot of themselves in their books. I didn’t really get that impression with Stay With Me, but I’m interested to find out what of yourself you think you put into it.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: That’s something that I consciously try not to do. It happens with short stories, where I would write a short story and I would see myself and I would just take everything out. I’m something of a reclusive person so I’m very nervous about putting myself in fiction, but it’s difficult to avoid it. That’s what I’ve discovered. So I spent about five years working on this book, and it wasn’t until it was about to be published that I realised that the house that Yejide and Akin were living in was the first house that my family lived in. I’d never made that connection.

The JRB: The duplex?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yeah, the duplex! The rooms, everything was where it had been in real life, exactly. It was the first house I knew, when I was young; I think we moved away from the place when I was four or five. But it’s my first memory of a home, and then I put it in this book, but I somehow imagined that I was creating something new. It wasn’t until my mother read it and said, ‘Oh, you are writing about this place’, that I realised. So I think in terms of the sense of place there’s a lot of places that I knew growing up and the perspectives that I had of them in Stay With Me.

The JRB: Both intimate spaces and city spaces?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yeah. Yes. As far as city spaces go, it’s set in the town where I grew up and all of that. But I didn’t realise that I had taken even the more intimate spaces and created them. So I do think, like you said, that it’s probably impossible to take yourself out of your debut novel. Because I did try.

The JRB: It’s nice to see another book set partly in Jos. I chatted to Adam Abubakar Ibrahim a couple of months ago, and he’s so fond of Jos, it was really great to hear him speak about the city, especially as a South African who doesn’t know much about it.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I had Ibrahim read some of the book while I was writing it.

The JRB: I saw you thanked him in the back.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yeah. I love Jos, it’s probably my favourite Nigerian city, but I’ve not spent a lot of time there. But the little time that I have spent there … I think sometimes you just fall in love with a place, and it just had that effect on me. It’s the Nigerian city I wish I could live in.

The JRB: Your book will go down in history as the last book to be reviewed by Michiko Kakutani for the New York Times, and it was such a glowing review. She’s known for her scathing reviews …

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I can’t believe my luck. I knew that my American publishers would try to get a review by the Times; my publicist hadn’t quite confirmed it, but I had a sense that there was a Times review coming. I never expected that it would be her. I follow her on Twitter and the night she published the review I saw it, and I thought, oh my god, this is going to be terrible! [laughs]

The JRB: Did you think … should I click the link?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I did not click the link! But I never click the link. I never do. I think it was about 1 a.m. in Nigeria at the time, so I said no, I’m not reading this. And then my publicist sent me an email about thirty minutes later saying, oh my god this is wonderful, and I was like, okay. It was wonderful, absolutely.

The JRB: What interests me in some of the reviews that I’ve seen is that some of the reaction, especially in the States, is slightly different to the experience that I had reading it in Africa. There is a lot of humour in the book, which I love because a book without humour doesn’t feel real, but some critics have said that they find the scene in which Yejide drags a goat up a mountain to visit a healer, in a desperate attempt to fall pregnant, to be very humorous, and I thought to myself, well, I actually didn’t find that very funny.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: It’s interesting, that scene, because I went through several drafts for this book, and that was one of the scenes that was there at the beginning and it was there at the end, pretty much in the same way. And it was the only scene that every time that I rewrote the book I kept asking myself, why is this here? Do I need to put this here? I felt like I needed to justify it to myself. I feel that I did do what I needed to do to make the experience seem to be from Yejide’s perspective, very closely from the way she’s viewing it, and why this is something that would make sense for her to do. I didn’t want someone to look at it from the outside and think, oh these weird, strange people. So it’s interesting that it seems to jump out a lot of times.

The JRB: Sometimes it seems the scenes that were written first that stay in the novel till the end stand out somehow. I don’t know if it’s something in the writing or something slightly different about the passage, but I’ve had similar conversations with a few authors before.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Well, to get back to your question—I don’t think it’s funny for her, for Yejide. It’s a desperate situation. In fact, if I were to write something like that some other time, I would probably make the person laugh, because I can see how it would seem absurd.

The JRB: I think absurd it the right word. Absurd, but not humorous.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I don’t think it’s humorous. If it’s humorous, it’s hysterical. But for me it’s a desperate scene, it’s the depths of desperation for this woman.

The JRB: It’s like a car crash, where you can’t look away.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Exactly. And that’s how I felt every time I had to edit it. I didn’t want to see it.

The JRB: Has the reception to the book changed depending on where you are?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I can only speak for the people I speak to, the people who ask me questions, the audiences. I would say that the baseline reception has been almost the same, people find it moving and all of that, but I would also say that when I’m reading outside of Nigeria, there are more questions about some details about the work that Nigerians wouldn’t ask. Say, the significance of some of the names, and things like that. For instance, Rotimi’s name plays a role in the book; it’s the title. So I guess a lot of people, when they read it, assume that the other names might have some significance. So I get questions like that outside of Nigeria. I would say that some Nigerian men—I wouldn’t say many, I wouldn’t say all—are not very happy, about Akin in particular. I have had people say to me, very passionately, that I was very unfair to him. That’s one thing that I’ve found to be unique about reading the work in Nigeria; I’m more likely to be interrogated about why I chose to write him that way.

The JRB: Despite the careful restructuring of the book that you’ve mentioned you did to make the narrative more sympathetic to him, switching between characters’ perspective in the different chapters.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: That was crucial. The initial draft was Yejide’s perspective first and then Akin’s, and then I realised that by the time you get to him you’re not interested in what he has to say.

The JRB: You studied under Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Margaret Atwood. They’re two very different writers, in many ways, and I was wondering if they gave you very different advice?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: There was the usual read and write, read and write. But when I interact with other writers the things that stay with me are not always the things that they say, necessarily. It might be something that distracts me or something that makes me think, oh my goodness this is something I need to start doing. With Margaret Atwood we were at the University of East Anglia, and we were a very international class. We had people from Singapore, from Australia, from the Philippines, from South Africa, everywhere. She asked us to bring one book, any book, that we loved the first chapter of very much. And imagine fifteen people from at least seven different countries, and people doing all kinds of things. And she went around the room, and you would talk about the book and why the first chapter mattered to you, and with every single person she had read the book, except for one, and in that case she had read other books by that writer, and that book had come out maybe the week before. I just found it absolutely spectacular, because I hadn’t heard the names of some of the writers that my classmates brought. And it just stuck with me. I read a lot and I’ve always read, but I never thought of it as a discipline that was so essential to being a writer, and to being as prolific and accomplished as she is. I’m never going to forget that, that was absolutely astonishing.

With Adichie, I was quite young when I did the workshop, I was nineteen, and it was the very first time a writer read my work and gave feedback. And a lot of that stayed with me. One of things she spoke about that was so important when I was writing this book was how crucial it is to edit yourself and rewrite and look at what you’ve done over and over again. It was very helpful to have that kind of information very early on, or I would have given up on this book and thought, well, maybe I just can’t write this, or maybe it just can’t be done, because it did take a lot of drafts to get it into shape.

The JRB: I see you also thank Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, who is on The JRB’s Editorial Advisory Panel. I was wondering what she helped you with.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: So Stay With Me has had a very interesting journey to publication. It was shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013, and in 2014 Kwani? offered me a contract to publish it in East Africa, but I wasn’t ready. So I asked for time to work on it myself and I took about another year, and when I submitted it, Ellah was the one who I was working with, she was my editor for the Kwani? edition of the book.

The JRB: You’re grinning … was she a hard taskmaster?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: No! She was really good, very perceptive about what needed to be done and helpful with the structure. But we had interesting conversations about whether we should italicise or have a glossary, even for the Kwani? edition. So it was interesting to work with her before working with a British editor.

The JRB: A lot of people mention how the book is intricately plotted, but you spent about seven years conceptualising and writing it. Was the plot there from the beginning?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: For some reason people talk to me about my plot, and I have no idea—I mean I do know what plot is, I have an MA in literature, but I never plot anything! I try, you know, but …

When I was at UEA I submitted a chapter from another novel, and my workshop tutor, who was really lovely, kept telling the class, oh this is really good, and he was just talking about how well plotted it was and how he wanted to read the next chapter. And he would say, well what happens next? And I said, I don’t know! So it’s always funny to me. I mean, I try to plot and I can’t, so I find it hilarious because I’m someone who plans everything, but with books, it just falls apart very early.

So I just kept writing it over and over again, and I remember where I was when I realised, I can’t move one more chapter or everything will collapse.

The JRB: So this is a level-of-the-sentence question, but it reflects on the book as a whole, I think. Akin’s mother tells Yejide, ‘Women manufacture children, and if you can’t you are just a man.’ That ‘just’ is interesting because in the same conversation she is emphasising that Akin is her firstborn son, and she’s saying my firstborn son is the most important person in the world, you must do this for him and for me. So there’s an interesting paradox in that conversation that perhaps indicates how Nigerian women operate in a patriarchal society, the structure is important to them but within that structure they play with gender and power.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: It’s interesting that you picked that up, and I like that you did, because not everybody notices the ‘just’, and it is very deliberate, I remember the sentence very well.

The JRB: I’m glad. It did cross my mind that you may have just written it like that by accident.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: No! Sometimes there are sentences that you work on for a very long time and you still remember taking out something and putting it back, and being very certain that this is exactly how you want it to be. It’s that paradox in the way Akin’s mother interacts with her children and with her daughter-in-law she places a lot of value on the fact that her first child was a male child. She thinks that that’s important. But, on the other hand, she’s also in many ways the leader of the family. When, for instance, there’s a conflict between Akin and his brother, she drags them to their father for a resolution, when she is actually much more influential with these children. It’s the paradox of somebody like that, which sometimes I’ve personally observed; women who uphold patriarchy while they themselves are powerful in a way that undermines those ideas. There are people I’ve wanted to tell, ‘Would you just look at yourself!’ I think that it also speaks to how these kinds of ideas can be so ingrained that even when you are the living testimony to the fact that they are not the truth it’s difficult for you to see that. So you have a woman who has done everything that people say women can’t or shouldn’t do, and instead of taking that at proof that other people are wrong about what women are capable of, what happens is that she becomes apologetic about it; she finds ways to minimise it. I’m interested in that paradox, I think.

The JRB: You’ve often said that you wanted Yejide to explore whether happiness is possible without marriage and children, but there are so many layers to that, because Yejide herself has internalised the societal pressure. So the pressure that she gets from her family is there, the pressure that she’s putting on herself is there. I came away thinking that if you’ve grown up and been socialised in that situation, it’s possibly not possible.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I think it is possible, but it would need to be a conscious unlearning and a rediscovery of yourself. It would be very difficult if it’s not something that you do consciously. Like I said, it would also be possible to live a life that defies tradition but still believe in those traditions, in spite of the fact that your whole life has upended the basic ideas that uphold those said traditions.

The JRB: And then of course the other external factors that are acting on the central couple are the political situation in Nigeria and sickle-cell disease. So there’s not only societal pressure, there’s other external forces that act against them. [Adébáyọ̀ laughs] You really put them through the ringer. But I read that you actually toned down the political aspects of the book.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes, but that was always going to be there, because I was always very interested in it. And by the time I decided to tone it down … there was a draft that just took everything out, there was no reference to the politics, and I didn’t like that; it felt like they were in a vacuum—where are they, when are they? So it took a while to figure out, what will they notice, what will they be unable to ignore? And what was interesting was that I discovered myself, as I was making an attempt to figure all of that out, that in many ways Yejide and Akin represent many middle class Nigerians in the way that they are insulated from all that’s going on. So things are falling apart, I mean this is during the Structural Adjustment Programme, although I don’t say a lot about that in the book it was a very difficult time economically, for many Nigerians. But if you were above a certain pay grade it meant you just changed the kind of margarine you used, you know? But there were people who couldn’t eat any more, in the same country. But because you weren’t one of those people, it was easier for you to ignore what was going on, even though you were better placed to speak up, so to say.

The JRB: It sounds a little bit like South Africa …

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I didn’t think about this before writing the book but by the time I was working on what would be the final draft, I realised that they were familiar in that sense of, well, things are terrible but what I’m going to do is put structures in place to make sure that it doesn’t affect me directly. One of the things that the ending—not the final ending, the ending of the narration in the nineties—sort of signals, the same way Akin has to leave the hotel with the baby, is that there are going to be moments when there’s going to be a rupture in this wall you’ve built. There’s going to be a hole one day, and it’s the society that you’ve built that is going to impact you one day, somehow. And that’s probably something I’ll explore more. But it was sort of one of my own discoveries, when I was working on the book. Thinking about middle class Nigerians and how sometimes we’re just complacent.

The JRB: And then of course the sickle-cell disease is another thing. If you were cynical, you could argue that middle class Nigerians should have seen it coming when society crumbles, or should have done more to prevent it, but with sickle-cell disease there’s nothing you can do. It’s like fate. Which is a very powerful thread in the book, I think. This unstoppable force.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes. And, of course I’m interested in questions of power and who has it, and how we interact with it. And it was the one force that everybody was powerless in the face of. You couldn’t out-scheme it, you couldn’t manipulate the situation, it was what it was. And because I’d had friends who lived with the disease, since I was a teenager, I started thinking about what it must be like pretty early. And for a very long time there were really very few options, if any at all, in terms of a cure. My mum’s a doctor, so I grew up around medical professionals, and I grew up with this idea that science could fix almost anything. So to think, especially when I was researching this book, and to read about the disease and realise that sometimes even when the patient is in a crisis the doctor really can’t do anything but wait? It was just astonishing to me. And how frail human beings are. And it’s not just about sickle-cell disease, in the face of so much about nature.

The JRB: Is there a lot of funding going into studying the disease in Nigeria?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Not enough. Sadly not enough. It was one of the things that I had to take out of the book, because I went on and on about that for a while [laughs] because the more you read about it the more you realise, my goodness, there’s so much that could be done that isn’t being done. Not enough funding, not enough in terms of care for people who live with the disease, just not enough at any level, as far as I’m concerned.

The JRB: Before I read your book, I hadn’t realised it was such a prevalent disease in Nigeria.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: It is, oh it is. I mean, the last thing that I read, if I remember correctly, was that about 100,000 are born with it every year, and of those 100,000 only twenty per cent of them will live up to age ten. And there’s so much that can be done. People of Arab descent have a similar variation of sickle-cell—it’s not called sickle-cell, I’ve forgotten the name now, but I read about that, and in Egypt what they did was in the nineteen-eighties they developed a programme for bone marrow transplants for children who are born with the disease, so since the nineteen-eighties Egypt has had a programme. Because the only way right now to cure sickle-cell is to have a bone marrow transplant, it’s not always effective, it doesn’t always work, and for some people who have it they have to stay on drugs for the rest of their lives, but it is an option, it’s basically the only option. But it’s extremely expensive, only the extremely rich people can afford it in Nigeria. But in Egypt they have a programme that subsidises that. I kept asking myself, why don’t we have this? Why?

The JRB: Well it’s clearly a topic that deserves awareness, and hopefully your book can make a difference, however small. On a lighter note, now that you are a professional reader, what are you reading at the moment?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I’ll pick three right now. I discovered Akhil Sharma this year, earlier in the year I read Family Life and then I started reading his short stories. I really loved Family Life. I’m going to read it again later this year. It is one of those books that you read and then you want to go back and read as a writer, because you’re trying to figure out, how does this work? So that’s been my major discovery this year in terms of an author I’d never read before whose work has astonished me. Naomi Alderman’s The Power is so good. I finished reading it around 3 a.m. and I just wanted to call my sister and say, ‘you have to read this book!’ It’s that kind of book. And then I read recently Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, and her short stories are so good. They’re so good, and I was particularly impressed by the range in terms of the tone, in terms of the type of stories.

I read about two to three books at a time. At the moment I’m reading Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout, because I really love her work and I just like the title. And I’m reading Evening Primrose, which I think was published in South Africa as Period Pain, by Kopano Matlwa. And a collection of essays called Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith. I’m reading one essay every week or so.

The JRB: Her essay on Nabokov is really great. It makes you never want to write essays or reviews ever again …

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes. There are people who write like that, and you think ‘why do I bother?’

The JRB: Apart from Kopano Matlwa, have you read any other South African authors?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Is Yewande [Omotoso] South African?

The JRB: We claim her, yes.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Do you now? [laughs]

The JRB: But I think she considers herself partly South African, and both of her novels have been set here, so …

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Well I guess you can claim her then. It’s interesting, I remember yesterday when we were driving around Cape Town and I was just looking around and The Woman Next Door sort of clicked, and I said, oh yes, now I understand this book more, this is the kind of place where this would happen.

The JRB: And she captures that echelon of Cape Town so vividly.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: I’ve also read Zakes Mda, that’s one South African writer that I read pretty early, because one of my lecturers in school really, really liked him so we had to read his books. Apart from that there are the required South African texts that we have to read in Nigeria.

The JRB: Let me guess … JM Coetzee?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes! So of course I’ve read him.

The JRB: Nadine Gordimer?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes. And Peter Abrahams and … a playwright.

The JRB: Athol Fugard?

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Yes. Fugard, yes.

The JRB: When I was at school, apart from Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, I don’t think we did much Nigerian literature …

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Well, we didn’t do South African literature, we did apartheid literature. I think it probably got onto the curriculum during apartheid. You needed to know what was happening in South Africa. I’m almost sure that that’s when they put it on curriculum, because it’s interesting, we don’t read any other African country like that. We don’t do, say, Ghanaian literature separately.

The JRB: But I think it is important to read local authors at school level. When you’re twelve, thirteen, you may be looking for something you can relate to, and that’s how you get them hooked.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: To be able to recognise yourself or something about your life, that’s important.

Author image: Michael Lionstar

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