The seed of a story starts with the glimpse of a shadow, writes Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀.
‘This was a place I thought I knew. How had I been so blind?’
The impulse to write often strikes when I’m observing someone else. Something in their face or their manner grabs my attention and refuses to let go. It is rare for me to write about it immediately because I can tell that I’m only glimpsing a shadow. The thing itself might stay hidden for days or even a few years. This is a fanciful way to say that ideas, especially the ones that become novels, tend to come to me before I am ready for them. The wait before I write the first sentence is twofold. I wait for the figure casting the shadow I’ve glimpsed to come into view. Then, I wait for my skill as a writer to match up to the demands I feel a story has placed on me.
A Spell of Good Things began with a detour. I was on the bus on my way home from work and there was traffic on my usual route. The bus driver turned off the thoroughfare. He drove from side street to side street until we burst into a neighbourhood I’d never been in and found almost unrecognisable. This was in the town my family had lived in since I was eight. The town where I’d gone to secondary school and university. A place I thought I knew. How had I been so blind?
Yet, there I was in a neighbourhood more decrepit than I would have believed existed close to mine. As I studied the houses, so dilapidated they seemed about to tilt over, my gaze lit on a young boy in front of one such house. He was in his school uniform, pale blue trousers and a matching striped shirt. He leaned against a wall; his head was tilted back to watch the sky. I was struck by how restless he seemed, even though he was standing still. How his bearing reminded me of the teenage boys I’d known when I was his age. For the next few weeks, I thought about him and his neighbourhood every day. What was his school like as funding for public education dwindled? What had he been looking at as he gazed at the wide sky?
Another year would pass before I began writing about a teenaged boy who lived in a similar neighbourhood. Eight years before I was ready to share with anyone the novel that story had unfurled into.
A Spell of Good Things is out in now.
This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine from Penguin Random House South Africa.