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Ayobami Adebayo talks Nigerian Motherhood and Literary Inspirations

Ayobami Adebayo’s first novel, Stay With Me, was recently shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  This stunning debut explores motherhood, marriage, and the pain of sickle-cell disease through the eyes of Yejide and Akin, a young couple living in 1980s’ Nigeria.  We spoke with Ayobami to delve deeper into the social pressures of motherhood in Nigeria and the political tensions at play during the novel, as well as to pick her brains on literary inspiration.

Adiba: Stay With Me sees Yejide’s struggles against the social pressures of motherhood. Do you think this is a pressure that many Nigerian women feel?

Ayobami: I think so. This was set in the eighties but I think that even now many of those expectations remain the same. Not only as a woman you have to be a mother, but as a mother you have to be perfect. And I think that is probably even universal, the expectation of becoming a mom makes you something above woman.

“Not only as a woman you have to be a mother, but as a mother you have to be perfect.”

In the book when she is depressed and has trouble in herself, she gets no sympathy, especially from her mother-in-law. “You just need to get on with it. You are mother now – you can’t be any of these things.” So yeah, I would say yes, but it is still something that is a reality for many women here and I imagine elsewhere in the world too, because we do idealise motherhood.

Adiba: Do you think there are any experiences of the struggle of motherhood that are specific to Nigerian women that Yejide faces? For example, when her first child passes away, her mother-in-law says to her that it could have been possessed by an evil spirit.  She said the same when her second child died.  Do you think those would be specific experiences to Nigerian mothers?

Ayobami: The first child – we don’t know why she passes on, but the second one we knew had sickle-cell disease, and sickle-cell disease is something that happens to people of African descent. It is genetic and it’s been in our genes for centuries. And you then have the stories of a spirit child called Abiku, which is something that people believed hundreds of years ago.  What would basically happen was that a woman would keep having children, and these children would keep dying.

I think that was an explanation that people came up with because they couldn’t understand what was going on. I think that was probably sickle-cell anemia that nobody had yet diagnosed. The strain of it is something that many Nigerian mothers face and perhaps mothers who are Africans and who have children with African descent. It is a challenge that is very specific to people with African descent.

Amanda: Why did you decide to write a book that is so focused on the idea of motherhood?

Ayobami: There was this story by Taiye Selasi, The Sex Lives of African Girls, it’s in Granta, and there’s this quotation from one of the characters where she says: “In the hierarchy of the African homes, the lowest person is the childless mother and the only person lower than that is the motherless child.” And in a sense, at the beginning of the novel, Yejide is both. She was a child that grew up without a mother. And because she grows up in a polygamous family, it has a greater impact. Because without a mother, no one can speak up for you.

“In the hierarchy of the African homes, the lowest person is the childless mother and the only person lower than that is the motherless child.”

In a sense, Yejide has very fantastic ideas of what it means to have a mother and what it means to be a mother. She ends up growing up very much alone and has this yearning to have somebody she can think of as someone who will always be in her corner. When she gets married, she thinks that her husband will be that person, but after getting married she realises that he is never going to be that person for her. And I think she becomes more desperate to be a mother because of that. She felt that if she had a child she will never be alone again. I really wanted to examine all of that.

Another thing that inspired the novel was that I lost a couple of friends to the disease and I kept running into their mothers. And I just could not imagine how they went on with life and how painful and difficult it would have been while the children were alive, because these children were ill over and over again. I just wondered, do they wonder if it’s the last time every single time?  Then they leave the hospital and they’d be back in two years’ time, and then they leave and then they are back. Sometimes the child is in their 20s and they think they will make it and suddenly it is over. It is a very specific dilemma.

Adiba: There is actually a lot of political tension in the book as well.  But a lot of it feels very distant from the story and the characters.  Why did you choose to write a book that is more focused on these domestic affairs of Yejide and Akin, as opposed to the political tension going on in Nigeria?

Ayobami: The initial drafts were very politics-heavy. At points, I went [really] into politics and was involved in all of the things that were going on, but then I realized that at this point in these characters’ lives, they really couldn’t care about these things.

“Nigerians withdrew from the political environment, withdrew from government, created a distance between themselves and what was going on, and did everything to cushion themselves against the effects”

I think when something is functioning well you never take note of it. But when there is upheavals, you sort of have to pay attention, even with so much going on in your life. I started to think and look at that.  The eighties and nineties were the longest period when Nigeria was under military ruling. We didn’t have a period like that before then. I think that, slowly but surely, Nigerians withdrew from the political environment, withdrew from government, created a distance between themselves and what was going on, and did everything to cushion themselves against the effects of what was happening, because you couldn’t put the military regime out!  I think there is a sense of powerlessness that came at that point.  And one of the ways that people dealt with it was to distance themselves.

Amanda: What motivated you to become a writer?

Ayobami: I wouldn’t say I was motivated. It was just something I started doing when I was very young.  I can’t remember when I started writing, but I can remember that by the time I was nine, I was writing almost everyday. That was what I was doing.  I was writing poetry and then I started writing plays and then short stories. It was just something I started doing and I kept on doing.

I think I realised that this was what I really wanted to do when I was nineteen, when I was selected to do workshops at my uni at the same time that I had to write exams. The smartest thing to have done would have been to tell them “oh, I’m sorry, I’m writing exams”, but what I did instead was to commute from one place to the other. I think that was the moment I realised that I would give up anything else to do it.

Amanda: How did doing an MFA help you with your writing career?

Ayobami: I think just having that time to think about my writing and not having any sense of guilt about it was very important. Before I left I’d be writing while I was at work because I knew that by the time I got home from work I would be very tired. There was also a sense of guilt that I was been paid to do something else as opposed to what I was doing.  

“I think just having that time to think about my writing and not having any sense of guilt about it was very important.”

So it was very important to have the time to think about my work and why I was doing the practical things I was doing, and to ask myself practical questions about the books I was working on. And to be around people who were as passionate about it as I was!

At the end of the program, once a week for a month, an agent or maybe people in the publishing [industry] would come in to talk to us about what we would do after finishing our novel, and about the other side of being an author, because it is a completely different thing from being a writer.

It was useful to me as an artist in terms of developing my craft, and it was useful in a very practical sense in terms of the professional side of the work. It was a really good year.

Adiba: You worked with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Margaret Atwood. We were wondering what that was like?

Ayobami: It was magical. I think both times I was absolutely star struck. So the workshop that I mentioned before was with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I remember that at that time I had read her first novel, The Purple Hibiscus. I applied when I saw the advert and was over the moon when I was told I’d been selected, then I realised there was the writing of exams.  And I was like: “No, I [would] rather fail this year than miss this!”  So I went to Lagos and it was really good. I was quite young, I was 19.

Looking back, it was quite important to have that kind of experience at that time. It was the first time I would sit with a real writer and she would take my work seriously. I felt like I was not a fraud anymore. I was like: “Yes, I can write. I can do this if I want to.” So, I definitely felt validated and learned very useful things from the workshop.

“It was the first time I would sit with a real writer and she would take my work seriously. I felt like I was not a fraud anymore.”

Margaret Atwood teaches at the University of East Anglia and while I was there she held classes with us discussing ‘first chapters’. She was very generous with her time and very forthright with what she thought of what we’d written. So that was quite an experience.

I remember that at the beginning of that class she sent us reading material before she arrived. She also told us to bring a book that we loved that had a great first chapter. So you are talking about a class of 15 people bringing all kinds of books. So we started the class by having everyone talking about why they loved the first chapter of a book. She had read every single novel except for one! And she could really talk about them! The novel she hadn’t read, she had read other things by that writer. I think the book had just come out. How is that even possible? That made quite an impression on me. I can never forget that experience. I read even more after that!

Amanda: On that note, who were some authors who influenced your own writing

Ayobami: I think that is always a difficult question for me to answer, I am not sure if I can tell. I can tell who I really like and wish I could write like them. So I’ll just talk about writers I keep going back to over and over again: Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, Wole Swoyinka, Margaret  Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m just discovering Elizabeth Straut, I am coming quite late to her, I think she is someone I will be reading a lot. Junot Diaz I read very often. He seems to write a lot in second person and because of him the first two drafts of Stay With Me were in second person.  It was awful.  That was how much I admire with how much ease he does that. There is also Sefi Atta, who is a Nigerian novelist, her writing is very good and very bold in many ways.

Amanda: Stay With Me is shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize 2017. Why do you think a prize highlighting women in literature is necessary?

Ayobami: I think it is necessary and important even now. I was reading an article about how the concept of what is universal in literature is flawed in many ways. What we think of as a universal experience and how we ascribe it to everything. So for instance, you have a short story about a man walking down the street and maybe he had trouble in his marriage. You are going to review it as about loneliness, and humanity. It is about every man and everybody. I am not too sure if that happens very often in a story about a woman, by a woman, who is doing the same thing exactly. You are going to talk about [that] as something very specific.

I think because of that and a lot of other reasons, the Bailey’s Prize was established. Work by women was not getting attention, particularly the attention that it deserved. I think it remains necessary that a prize like this draws more attention to novels by women, whatever they are about, and holds them up as important, as something that people should pay attention to.

Adiba: Following on from that, do you think that there are obstacles that women face within the literary industry that perhaps their male counterparts don’t?

Ayobami: Yes, I think so.  I think that people have a problem taking women seriously with whatever it is that they are doing. Whether they are writing or they are working as doctors or anything else. There are people whose first instinct is to trivialise whatever it is you’ve done just because you are a woman. And yes I have experienced that, but not as a writer. I remember doing an MA in literature and being the only woman in the class.  I think the first couple of classes, there were certain people who participated more; they didn’t really know me at all but they were very surprised that I made a distinction. I can remember checking one of my results and having a chat with one of them. And they were looking at me as if thinking: “I didn’t think you could do that”. And I kept wondering: why would you think that? You don’t know me. You don’t know me as an undergrad student at all. You don’t know what I am capable of. Why would you just assume that I must be the weakest in the class?

“I think that people have a problem taking women seriously with whatever it is that they are doing.”

So I think that this basic thing you have to push against and sort of have to prove yourself before you are taken seriously, whereas, I don’t think that men essentially have to do that. And there are studies that have shown, instead of me talking, that when a woman says something everyone sorts of ignores it, but when a man says it back they all think it is a brilliant idea.

Adiba: What do you hope that people will take away after reading Stay With Me?

Ayobami: The answer to this changes every time someone asks me that! I feel that Yejide makes a journey on the novel from feeling very inadequate and not enough, to making peace with herself at the end of the book. She might want people in her life but she is not desperate to have them; she doesn’t need them but for a very long time, she felt that if she is not a mother, her existence is invalid.  I think Yejide comes to that point where she is self-sufficient. So I hope that the readers take away that, and come away with the sense that they are enough. I think that is it. I want the readers to feel confident in thinking: “you know what? I’m okay”.

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