Nigerian writer Ayòbámi Adébáyò: “I don’t want to read for some kind of anthropology” | books

Ayòbámi Adébáyò She was in her early twenties when the bus she was riding from her job at an engineering institute took a detour to avoid rush hour traffic in the Nigerian city of Ife. “We walked around this neighborhood that was really poor, where I’d never been before. I remember being amazed that it was there. This was a town I’d lived in since I was eight years old and knew absolutely nothing about,” she says. She took the memory with her when, shortly thereafter, she traveled to the United Kingdom to start a new life as a writer.

The dilapidated area, so different from the one in which she grew up as the daughter of a hospital doctor, gave her place to one part of the second novel that fans of her best-selling debut stay with me Six long years waiting. Well, it’s been a busy time, she says via Zoom, from her home in Lagos. Not only did she have to manage the demands touring the globe to become the new star of Nigerian literature, was honored in The New York Times, and was interviewed in both the Paris Review and Vogue, but she also got married and gave birth.

It’s 10am in Lagos when we speak, and she breaks into a sly smile as her son, now nine months old, tries his best to get her attention from the sidelines. She delivered the final copy of A Spell of Good Things less than a week before he was born. “It was right up to the wire. I think everyone was a little surprised that I finished it,” she says. Started before Stay With Me was published, while still attending her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, It’s a completely different kind of novel. “Where Do You Stay With Me” told a closely focused story about the impact of childlessness and sickle cell disease on the lives of a young couple trapped in the husband’s traditional household, The Spell of Good Things deals with political corruption, social injustice, and domestic violence. It has a large cast of characters, and is charged with explosive satirical energy as it juxtaposes personal and political breakdowns together.

Stay with me: Ayubame Adebayo

A Spell of Good Things is also set in a different period of Nigerian history – not the military dictatorship of the early 1980s in which the turbulent marriage between Yejide and Akin plays out in Stay With Me, but the chaos of the newly restored democracy in the early years of the new millennium. In one aspect, the family of a young boy named Eniola struggles to survive after his history teacher father loses his livelihood and mental health due to devastating cost-cutting layoffs at schools. In another film – based on Adebayo’s sister’s experiences as an overworked junior doctor – Wúraolá, the daughter of a wealthy family, tries to align her parents’ traditional expectations with the life of a modern working woman. Their paths cross at a tailor’s shop where Eniola sweeps floors and Wúraolá’s glamorous mother sweeps around to arrange dresses for her daughter’s engagement party.

Mantra of Good Things by Ayubame Adebayo, Canongate

From early childhood, Adébáyò, born in 1988, became involved with the family’s interest in politics. “We’d go to church on Sundays and pick up four papers and spend the rest of the day reading them and talking about what was going on.” She recalls the excitement before the election: “I remember becoming more aware of the power structures in Nigeria, and being excited myself about voting for the first time. Then I thought, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ For her family, some things improved in the new democracy, because her mother was working As a doctor, she has only two children to feed. But it was a very different story for those who were directly affected when layoffs took place across Osun State, where the family lives. The new state government does not believe humanities subjects are necessary,” she explains, explaining a generation of teachers in The public school system was laid off overnight. I had a friend whose mother was one of them, and she struggled with depression for a long time afterwards. There were families with two schoolteacher parents who killed themselves,” she says. In a spell of good things, Eniola’s resourceful mother is reduced to begging from her more successful siblings, who despise her “idle” husband. As the family’s poverty worsens, Eniola loses his place at his private school resulting in Disastrous results.

Adébáyò began her private secondary education at one of the public schools Eniolá attended, because—although most families could afford to send their children to paid schools—the university circles to which her parents moved had social principles. Her mother had taught her in one. But the frustration of the early 2000s was so bad that even those teachers who survived didn’t bother to show up for classes, so after two semesters, Adébáyò was transferred to a private school. “There were injuries that occurred in that window of time that I wanted to sit down with on this novel,” she says. “I think sometimes, with regard to Nigeria, there are just too many small tragedies that the collective consciousness can’t handle all of them, and they just keep happening and back off.”

Each focus on difficulties
Everyday life in the West African country, the novel confidently resonates with a literary culture that has dominated the world stage for decades now. Each of its four sections is presented with engravings of works by writers I admire: Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Chika Onigwe and Sefi Ata. By her early teens, Adébáyò had already read most of the classics in the Heinemann African Writers series, which her mother had been buying from the university bookstore. She told me, “If you’re going to be a writer, you need to read all of this.” But Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe were from a different generation. “I remember the first time I walked into an Ife supermarket, and saw that [Atta’s] Everything good will come. It was the first contemporary Nigerian novel I ever encountered,” she says.

“I had the privilege of growing up on a diet of literature from Nigeria and other parts of the continent, along with classics from the British Council library my mother used to take me to. I didn’t know what ‘winter’ was when I was six or seven Of my age, but I’ve read all these books put in. I had no idea what ginger beer was for a long time.” This mixed literary heritage means that in her telling she is not afraid to leave food names, fashion styles, or common phrases in the Yoruba dialect of Ijessa, unexplained. “I feel like it’s possible for all of these things to exist together, because that’s the world I was in as a reader.”

Adébáyò at his home in Lagos.
Adébáyò at his home in Lagos. Photo: Tomiowa Ajayi/The Guardian

At Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ife, an inspiring professor introduced her to business Tsitsi Dangarimpgaand gave her a semi-autobiographical account of the Zimbabwean writer, Neurological conditionsOn Growing Up in Postcolonial Rhodesia. “It’s still so precious to me. I think it’s upstairs,” she says. “It’s one of those books that made me think, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to be able to do.'” She is reluctant to talk about African literature. “I think what many writers find limiting is the way it is then read in a limited way, in terms of imagining what the work can do, what it does, and all the levels on which it operates. You worry that you might only be read for some kind of anthropology, and that’s not necessarily what you’re trying to do.”

At university she met fellow aspiring writer Emmanuel Idoma, and bonded, exchanging books and ideas. They kept in touch when I moved to the UK to study at the University of East Anglia. When, after 14 years of friendship, the couple finally got married in 2020, they had played it so cool that many of their friends were unaware they were romantically involved. The pandemic banished traditional marriage (“we had less than a hundred people, which is a small number by Nigerian standards”), and they decided to share their news in a sweet exchange of love notes and photos on Instagram. Bart and the soundtrack to their first wedding dance (Sit by Me Patrick Watson) were cited by Roland, while James Salter and C.B. Cavafy quoted: “And to me, you all turned into a sensation.”

Novelists aren’t usually the most popular of people, so was it any surprise that they were picked up on in the press? “We’re both relatively private people — I think I’m probably too personal to be secretive,” she admits, “but it was such an outpouring of joy. Our birthdays are within days of each other, and this was the first Christmas we’d both shared as a couple, so we just decided we were going to celebrate.” to each other that way. And I’m glad we did. It was a great moment for both of us.” She adds that they continued to hold a large family celebration when restrictions were lifted. Though, since her father’s death in the 1990s, her immediate family circle has been small—just herself, her mother, and her younger sister—there are plenty of distant relatives on either side: “I didn’t know half the people there.”

In A Spell of Good Things, the build-up to the traditional engagement ceremony is the speech that brings everything—and everyone—together, illuminating a powerful understanding of the role of older women in family life. As in Stay With Me, the mothers rule their families with bars of iron, even while submitting to the men. She says: “My mother is a very strong influence in my life, and when I watch over my family NigeriaIn particular, I think mothers are incredibly strong. The question is how is that power allowed to assert itself and what are the ways in which it is camouflaged as a form of performance. I wanted to write about Nigerian women of that generation, who were born at some point in the 1960s, because I was fascinated by the contradictions in the way they had to navigate through the world. They attached great importance to marriage because you had to be married to survive in society.”

Her marriage is a mixed marriage: Idoma is Igbo and they raise their son to be trilingual in Yoruba, Igbo and English. In a country that still bears the bitter scars of civil war, this is still a major problem in some quarters, as he explains to Idoma a few days before Christmas while waiting to pick up his sister-in-law from the airport. “There was this strange interaction with someone who was saying to my husband, ‘How can you marry a Yoruba woman, when it’s not your language?'” So people still comment on it.”

Her sister followed her mother into medicine, working in a hospital in Norwich and providing a convenient foothold in the UK for Adebayo. Now that she has a baby, it’s not easy to move around, living the life of a free-spirited literary star, so the family plans to move to East Anglia to get the novel published. The Mantra of Good Things paints such a bleak picture of the violence and inequality in her homeland that I wonder if she was tempted to emigrate like her sister. But, she says, “I think Nigeria will always be my home. It’s frustrating and complicated but I feel kind of obligated to the country.” It also has the distinction of being a land without winter, thousands of miles of imaginary snowy landscape that dominated her early reading, despite the winds of Harmattan covering the landscape with dust. “I went out this morning, and it was really cool,” she says. “Actually, I think it’s my favorite season.”

Mantra of Good Things by Aybámi Adébáyò Published by Canongate (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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