couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure to meet with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ after the Wellcome 5×15 Event, during which the shortlisted authors for the coveted Wellcome Book Prize presented their work. Ayọ̀bámi was one of six shortlisted writers, of which she was the only African author. I was nervous, giddy, and excited at the same time, since Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ wrote one of my absolute favourite fiction books ‘Stay With Me’, and I was about to sit down and have a chat with her about it! My nervousness, however, was eclipsed by Ayọ̀bámi’s charisma. We decided to go for a coffee at the cafeteria, and before actually talking about her book we were gisting about Nigeria and how it would have been great to meet up in Lagos – which couldn’t happen due to our busy schedules. To make up for that, though, we agreed that next time she’s in London, she’ll drop by my house for some Afang soup and fufu. Before making ourselves unnecessarily hungry though, we decided to start chatting about her book, so I started by asking her about the reception of her novel outside of Nigeria:
A: First of all, thank you for agreeing to talk to me about your book. ‘Stay With Me’ is your debut novel. It is extremely rich in depth and perspectives, it has sold a lot of copies, has been translated into many languages and has been nominated for several awards – has this book outperformed your expectations, especially outside of Nigeria?
AA: I think so, absolutely. I think the way I saw my career going, what I was hoping for, was that I’d publish a first book and maybe a thousand people would read it – because that is really what literary fiction is. This [‘Stay With Me’] is really an exceptional case! So I was hoping that maybe a thousand people would read it and maybe out of those, nine hundred people would really love it. So that when I wrote the next book, they would buy it, and then maybe two thousand people would read it. Then maybe by the fifth book I would have the kind of attention that this first book is getting.
So it has absolutely exceeded my expectations in terms of the attention that it has gotten. In terms of the way people seem to have connected to it so deeply, in terms of sales as well. When you’re working on a novel, I mean I worked on this one for five years, you hope that you are doing something meaningful that people appreciate and that resonates with them, but I think that with a first book – or even with any book – you don’t dare hope that this kind of thing would happen. So, it has knocked my expectations out of the park. I’m like: ‘Okay, I need a new career plan!’ [Laughs].
A: What were the reactions to your novel within Nigeria? Especially considering that it takes a very critical look at Nigerian politics and social settings.
AA: In Nigeria, largely, it has been very well received, and this is a shoutout to all the Nigerians everywhere I go. I can be in Sweden and there’s a Nigerian woman in the audience supporting me. Nigerians have been so incredibly supportive of this book and it’s been massively well-received. I’ve been surprised by the amount of people who have contacted me about this book. There’s a lawyer, who is in her sixties, and one of the top lawyers in Lagos, and when a lady contacted me and told me that this lawyer gave her my book and recommended it, I was like: ‘ehn’? [grimaces in surprise]. Almost every day on Twitter, particularly in Nigeria, people are messaging me and sending me thoughts about the book and what it has meant to them. Of course, there are also people that have their issues with it. It’s almost like ‘How dare you write about this? Or how dare you talk about this?’ [chuckles] I had an encounter with someone in Lagos who came to me and said: ‘I’m very angry with you. You should not talk about things like this…’. So I was like: ‘Well, I’ve written the book. I really don’t care that much about what you think…’ [chuckles and shrugs unapologetically]. But other than that, the reception has been largely positive, and I suppose it’s because it articulates things that people have known, and have seen around them, and I feel like from the women who have spoken to me, it validated their own experiences in a certain way.
“This is a shoutout to all the Nigerians everywhere I go.”
A: I’m happy to hear that the reception was largely positive, because even for me, as a non-Nigerian, but as a woman, I could still relate to a lot of the struggle, even though I don’t have children yet and have not tried to have them. There is still this fear inside, wondering if I’ll actually be able to get pregnant, or what if the baby is sick and so on. And I feel like your book is so relatable on so many levels. I was very interested in knowing what the Nigerians said, because when I read it, I was like : ‘Oh…okay, that’s quite forward and critical…’ [Ayọ̀bámi smiles and nods]
AA: I must say that I’m most nervous with Nigerian audiences, maybe because I feel a sense of responsibility, that I’ve written a book that was used somewhere in an article titled ‘When a Book Recommends a People’. My book was used in it, and I thought: ‘Oh my God. This one book cannot represent all of us, please’ [chuckles]. So there is that sense of responsibility that I’ve written a narrative about us Nigerians that has travelled so far and wide. Nigeria is the place that gave birth to this book, and it’s important for me that it resonates there first and foremost. That is very important to me, and so I’m quite happy that it seems to have been well-received in Nigeria.
A: Your book does not just talk about childbearing, infertility, or infidelity. It also has a close look at the political backdrop of the 1980s in Nigeria. How important is the historical context to the novel itself and would the story be different if it was set in 2017, for example?
AA: I think it would be very different, for a number of reasons. Something like Google, for example, which you can ask anything would have made a difference.. But also, politically, there is a connection between the country and its people. The country itself is unravelling as their marriage unravels, too. The country, at this time, is getting to know who their leader is, a man who, when he got into power – and I’m talking about IBB [Ibrahim Babangida] – people were happy. As time went on things started to go bad and he started to show his true colours. And I think that in the marriage between Yejide and Akin, as the years go by, they see who they really are and things start to unravel. For that reason, I found that moment very interesting and I thought it would be important to have and make that connection between the country’s and the couple’s problems.
A: Personally, I sometimes missed out on the political backdrop, maybe because I’m not Nigerian, or because the love story was so relatable and drew me in so much, that I lost sight of the context of Yejide and Akin’s relationship. Like you said, there is an importance to it, and like you said, a sort of responsibility toward the representation of your country to the wider world, making them understand what was happening in your country and why.
AA: I think that there are definitely layers to the novel, and I think it should be read at least two times, because that is how I wrote it. I hope people enjoy it the first time around, but when you read it again, it has much more meaning. If you read the first chapter of the book, everything is there, and I find that enriching – going back to books I love, particularly the ones with plot twists, and seeing that everything was there from the beginning. I find that sometimes that is what life is like, everything is just there but you don’t see it until later on when you look back.
“Nigeria is the place that gave birth to this book, and it’s important for me that it resonates there first and foremost.”
A: Childbearing is arguably one of the most discussed themes of the novel. Throughout roughly the first half of the book we are made to believe that Yejide is the one who is barren – she is the one who goes through all the treatments, prayers on the mountain, breastfeeding a goat – when really, it is Akin who is impotent. What was your aim in making it look like Yejide was barren, when really the problem lay with the man and nobody even stopped to think about that?
AA: I find that oftentimes that is what really happens. You know, we are quite religious in Nigeria. So you sit in a church and people want to pray – which is fine – and then they say that if you are waiting on God for a child, please come forward. It’s always the women that have to come forward! Why? I mean, there are two people in this relationship. Why is she the one that people need to pray for? When I was about halfway through this book, I spoke to my mum, who is a doctor, and she said to me that: ‘You know, if I have 10 patients, and I ask for the husbands to also come in for tests, out of 10, only 1 man will show up.’ Most men are convinced that they are not the problem. I suspect that a lot of what happened in Yejide and Akin’s marriage happens in many people’s lives….
A: Who do you sympathise with more – Yejide or Akin? I’m asking, because in a sense, both are victims of society in their own ways.
AA: I’ll give you two answers to that. First of all, between Yejide and Akin, it would be Yejide. If I’m to pick in the book, I would say Akin’s brother. He is perhaps the most innocent person in all of this. His brother brings him in thinking that Yejide knows about it and then he is the one who gets blamed and gets estranged from both of them. I suppose sometimes it’s easy to blame a third party when you love someone so much. It’s difficult to look at them and say that ‘You are the problem. Or I am the problem.’ Instead, it’s easier to pin it on somebody, and in this case, it’s Akin’s brother they all pin it on. Between Akin and Yejide, it would definitely be Yejide, even though I also feel for Akin. That is why I wrote him the way I did, and that is why he has a voice in the book. It would be a very different book if he did not have a voice.
A: I couldn’t agree more. In most cases, stories like these tend to be very one-sided, but you had the grace to still give him [Akin] a voice. That is one of the many reasons why I love the book.
AA: Thank you [smiles]
A: One of my favourite parts of the novel is the love… Considering the fact that the novel ended in such an open way, is there a potential for a sequel to this novel, and if so, what would happen to Akin and Yejide’s relationship?
AA: Hmm…You know I usually throw this back and ask the person what they think. Because [pauses] I think I have a clear sense of what might be possible, and I think that Akin would definitely want to get back together, in a sense, he has been waiting for her, and I think he would for as long as he might have to. [Sighs] I think they will always be in each other’s lives, and what might happen, I don’t want to say [Laughs]. The thing is that, if I ever write a sequel, which is very VERY unlikely, I’m actually more interested in Rotimi’s story. At a point in this novel, Rotimi also had a voice, but then I took her out, because I wanted to concentrate on this relationship [between Yejide and Akin], and also because I felt like she needed a whole book. I’m not sure it’s a book that I will write, but if I ever come back to these characters, she is the one I’ll be interested in. So what do you think?
A: Well, I think they would come back together, because I love them so much [Ayọ̀bámi chuckles and smiles]. Essentially what happened is that their love fell apart once outsiders started having a stake in it. And I think that their story is a warning to other couples to keep their relationship private and out of reach for outsiders and society with all its norms and ideals. I think that there is potential for healing between them, but only if Akin steps up, as a man, and puts an end to the unwarranted intrusions of family, friends and society. Yejide would probably like to do that herself, but the patriarchal system of oppression won’t let her, so it will have to be Akin. If he steps up as a man and starts protecting what is his, I would think that there is a chance of reconciliation.
AA: Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.
A: Yeah, maybe you can put that in the sequel if you decide to write one.
After that, I thanked her for her time and she signed my copy of the book, giving me a major fangirl moment, before we said our goodbyes.
To Ayọ̀bámi, thank you for writing ‘Stay With Me’. This book has touched me in a way no other book has, and thank you for the chat. Till we meet again – hopefully soon – thank you.