Nigerian author Ayòbámi Adébáyò: ‘I don’t want to be read for some kind of anthropology’ | Books

Ayòbámi Adébáyò was in her early 20s when the bus she was traveling on from her job to an engineering college took a detour to avoid rush hour traffic in the Nigerian city of Ife. “We went through this really poor neighborhood, where I’ve never been before. I remember being amazed that it was there. This was a city I had lived in since I was about eight years old and I knew absolutely nothing about it,” he says. She carried the memory of her with her when she flew to the UK shortly thereafter to embark on a new life as a writer.

The ramshackle neighborhood, so different from the one in which she had grown up as a hospital doctor’s daughter, provided the setting for a strand of her second novel that fans of her bestselling debut Stay With Me have been waiting for six long years. Well, it’s been a busy time, she says on Zoom, from her home in Lagos. Not only has she had to handle the globetrotting demands of becoming the new star of Nigerian literature, feted in the New York Times and interviewed in both the Paris Review and Vogue, but she’s also married and given birth.

It’s 10 in Lagos when we speak, and she smiles warmly as her son, now nine months old, does his best to get her attention from the sidelines. She delivered the final version of A Spell of Good Things less than a week before her birth. “It was up to the limit. I think everyone was a little surprised that I had finished it,” he says. Started before the publication of Stay With Me, while he was still doing his masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, it is a type of novel very different.Where Stay With Me told a story narrowly focused on the impact of childlessness and sickle cell disease on the life of a young couple trapped in her husband’s traditional family, A 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 combines personal and political confrontation.

Stay with me: Ayobami Adebayo

A Spell of Good Things is also set in a different period of Nigerian history: not the early 1980s military dictatorship in which Yejide and Akin’s troubled marriage takes place in Stay With Me, but in the chaos of a newly restored democracy in the first years of the new millennium. On the one hand, the family of a boy named Eniolá struggles to survive after his father, a history teacher, loses his livelihood and his mental health due to devastating school layoffs. In another—informed by Adébáyò’s sister’s experiences as an overworked young doctor—Wúraolá, the daughter of a wealthy family, attempts to square the traditional expectations of her parents with the life of a modern career woman. Their paths cross at a tailor shop where Eniolá sweeps the floors and Wúraolá’s glamorous mother enters to arrange the dresses for her daughter’s engagement ceremony.

A Spell of Good Things by Ayobami Adebayo, Canongate

From early childhood Adébáyò, born in 1988, absorbed the family interest in politics. “On Sundays we went to church, got four newspapers and spent the rest of the day reading them and talking about what was going on.” He recalls the excitement leading up to the election: “I remember becoming more aware of the power structures in Nigeria and being excited for myself to vote for the first time. Then she thought, ‘Well, what did that mean?’” For her own family, some things had improved in the new democracy, because her mother had a job, as a doctor, and she had only two children to feed. But it was a very different story for those directly affected when the layoffs were carried out in Osun state, where the family lived. The new state government didn’t think humanities were necessary, he explains. “A generation of teachers in the public school system was reduced overnight. I had a friend whose mother was one of them, and since then she has suffered from depression for a long time. There were families with two teacher parents who both committed suicide,” she says. In A Spell of Good Things, Eniolá’s enterprising mother is reduced to begging from her more successful brothers, who look down on their “idle” husband As the family’s poverty deepens, Eniolá loses his place at his private school with disastrous results.

Adébáyò began his secondary schooling in one of the public schools that Eniolá is entrusted to, because – although most of the families who could afford to send their children to paid schools – the university environments to which his parents moved had social principles. Her mother had been educated in one of hers. But the demoralization of the early 2000s was so severe that even those surviving teachers didn’t always bother to show up for classes, so after two terms Adébáyò was transferred to a private school. “There were casualties that happened in that window of time that I wanted to sit with in this novel,” he says. “I sometimes think, in relation to Nigeria, that there are so many small tragedies that the collective consciousness cannot process them all, and they keep happening and vanishing.”

For all his concentration on the difficulties of
daily life in the West African country, the novel resonates with the assurance of a literary culture that has dominated the world stage for decades now. Each of its four sections is introduced with epigraphs from the work of writers he admires: Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe and Sefi Atta. In his early teens Adébáyò had already read most of the classics in the Heinemann African Writers series, which his mother bought from the university bookstore. “She told me: ‘If you want to be a writer, you have to read all of this.’” But Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe belonged to a different generation. “I remember the first time I went into a supermarket in Ife and saw [Atta’s] All good will come. It was the first contemporary Nigerian fiction I ever came across,” she says.

“I was privileged to grow up on a diet of literature from Nigeria and other parts of the continent, alongside the classics from the British Council library where my mother took me. I didn’t know what “winter” was when I was six or seven, but I had read all these books set in it. I had no idea what ginger beer was for a long time. This mixed literary heritage means that in her novel she is not afraid to leave food names, fashion styles or common phrases in Ijesa’s Yoruba dialect unexplained. “I feel like it’s possible for all of these things to exist together, because that was the world I existed in as a reader.”

Adébáyò at home in Lagos.
Adébáyò at home in Lagos. Photography: Tomiwa Ajayi/The Guardian

At Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, an inspiring professor introduced her to the work of Tsitsi Dangarembga, gifting her with the Zimbabwean writer’s semi-autobiographical novel, Nervous Conditions, about growing up in postcolonial Rhodesia. “It is still very valuable 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 an African literature. “I think what a lot of writers find binding is the way it’s read in a limited way, in terms of imagining what the work can do, and is doing, and all the levels it’s working at. You’re concerned that you might only be read for some kind of anthropology, which isn’t necessarily what you’re trying to do.

At university he met fellow aspiring writer Emmanuel Iduma, and they bonded over exchanging books and ideas. They kept in touch when she moved to the UK to study at UEA. When, after 14 years of friendship, the couple finally tied the knot in 2020, they were on such good terms that many of their friends didn’t even know they were romantically involved. Denied a traditional wedding by the pandemic (“we had less than a hundred people, which is tiny by Nigerian standards”), they agreed to share their news in a sweet exchange of love notes and Instagram photographs. She quoted Roland Barthes and their first wedding dance soundtrack (Patrick Watson’s Sit Down Beside Me), while she quoted James Salter and CP Cavafy: “And, to me, all of you have been transformed into feeling.”

Novelists aren’t usually the most gregarious of people, so was it a shock to find this picked up in the press? “We’re both relatively private people — I think I’m probably to the point of being private,” she admits, “but it was this brimming over with joy. Our birthdays are within days of each other and it was the first birthday we shared as a married couple so we just decided we would celebrate each other this way. And I’m quite glad we did. It was such a wonderful moment for both of us.” They continued to make one big extended family celebration when restrictions were lifted, he adds. However, since her father’s death in the 1990s, her immediate family circle has been small—just her, her mother and her younger sister—there are many other distant relatives on both sides: “I didn’t know half the people there.”

In A Spell of Good Things the beginning of a traditional engagement ceremony is the storyline that brings everything – and everyone – together, illuminating a strong undercurrent on the role of older women in family life. As in Stay With Me, mothers rule their families with rods of iron, even as they bow down to the men. “My mother is a very strong influence in my life,” she says, “and when I look at my family in Nigeria especially, I think mothers are incredibly powerful. The question is how that power is allowed to assert itself and how it is camouflaged as a kind of performance. I wanted to write about the Nigerian women of that generation, born sometime in the 1960s, because I’m fascinated by the contradictions in how they had to move in the world. They put a lot of emphasis on marriage because you had to be married to exist in society.”

His marriage is mixed: Iduma is Igbo and they are raising their son to be trilingual in Yoruba, Igbo and English. In a country still bearing the scars of a bitter civil war, this remains a major problem in some circles, as was made clear to Iduma just days before Christmas as he waited to pick up his sister-in-law at the airport. “There was this strange interaction with someone saying to my husband, ‘How can you be married to a Yoruba woman if that’s not your language?’ So people keep commenting on it.

His sister followed their mother into medicine, working in a Norwich hospital and providing a comfortable foothold in the UK for Adébáyò. Now that she has a child it’s not so easy to float around, living the life of a footless literary star, so the family are planning to move to East Anglia for the publication of the novel. A Spell of Good Things paints such a bleak picture of the violence and inequality of her homeland that I wonder if she’s ever tempted to emigrate like her sister. But she says: “I think Nigeria will always be at home. It’s frustrating and complex, but I feel a kind of commitment to the country.” She also has the advantage of being a land without winter, a thousand fanciful miles from the snowy landscapes that dominated early readings of her, albeit with harmattan winds blanketing the landscape in dust. “I went out this morning and it was really good,” she says. “Actually, I think it’s my favorite season.”

A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò is published by Canongate (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Watcher, purchase a copy at Shipping costs may apply.

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