Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ on Capturing What it Means to Live in Contemporary Nigeria
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On capturing what it means to live in Nigeria:
MK: One of the big themes in this book is for your characters to not take anything for granted, to always have a backup plan. Contingencies are incredibly important.
AA: Absolutely, that’s something that I wanted to weave into the novel. It’s very much a novel about Nigeria and what it means to live in Nigeria. I mean, we’re recording a little late right now because there was a power outage like 10 minutes before we were supposed to start!
So, that’s what it means for many Nigerians, or at least for me: that you need to have a backup to your backup plan. Because you can’t really rely on public infrastructure. You can’t really rely on systems. There’s awareness that things don’t go seamlessly. There’s power right now, but somewhere in the back of my mind I’m thinking, what am I gonna do if it goes off right now? Do I have a plan? So, yes. I also wanted to capture that in the book.
MK: We see Wurola at work in the hospital and how overwhelmed she is, not only because it’s a hard job but because the hospital can’t provide basic PPE for her. She’s meant to bring her own. And on the opposite side, we see the schools that are so clearly important to Eniola’s entire family and how they just constantly let that family down. Can you tell me what was happening in the early aughts in Nigeria and why these institutions in particular feel like they’re really coming apart?
AA: Nigeria was just coming out of decades of military dictatorship. There had been elections in 1999 for the first time in years. And the last election before then had been annulled and the military just continued in power. So it was a very hopeful time.
Initially, I think that people came to it with a lot of hope, thinking that, finally, the country’s going to get on course because now we can vote. Now we can have a say in who gets into power, and now there’s going to be some form of accountability. But I feel in retrospect the disillusionment started to set in within the first few years for many people, and particularly for people who were not middle class or upper middle class, that the institutions that had been falling apart before the military gave over power to civilians.
That is what the book is also trying to reflect: that moment, that mix of both hope and disappointment. Because so many of these people have waited so long for democracy and it’s not as magical as they thought it would be. I also think that after so many years of military rule, the expectations of how fast things could change could have been a bit exaggerated, really. And the letdown that follows after a few years, and there’s no dramatic change in the day-to-day lives of many people is what I think we see going on in Eniola’s family.
On the cultural pressure for young women to marry:
MK: Motara is an interesting case because is she spoiled? Yes. Does she wear tube tops whenever and not address her elders properly? And yet she really does seem to have a lot of good points, especially when she counts the number of times that her elders refer to the time when she will be married, as if that is the only goal.
AA: Yes, absolutely. I remember the moment that Motara’s counting sort of came to me. My first novel had been published and I was doing an event in Lagos. I don’t think it was the first event, but I’d been away for a while and I’d come back and there was this event.
And when the event finished, this gentleman who I did not know just walked up to me and said congratulations and everything. And I’m like, thank you. And he said but are you married? And I said, I’m not married. And he said, you know, you need to do that. This random guy.
I think my initial reaction, I’m not sure if I laughed in his face, but I must have been laughing in my head. After all this, this is the question you have for me? I’d already started writing this book then, and later in the week, I came back to that and was pissed off. Like, who are you to tell me this?
But I had that delayed reaction where initially I just thought, this is funny. And then I became quite angry about it and I really started thinking about how this thing builds up over time, and for someone like Wurola, she probably doesn’t even remember, in terms of numbers, how many times in a week as a teenager she was hearing people say this to her. And I wanted the younger sister who’s now going through that to be the one to notice. Why is this the only thing that you are saying to me all the time as a measure of my character? As a measure of my accomplishments?
So that was the experience that gave birth to I’m gonna have somebody actually count how many times people say this to them. And with Wurola it was closer, for me, to what I experienced. I was at the point in my life where I felt quite happy with my life. I felt quite satisfied. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was teenager, and I finally had a book. I thought my life was great, and then this event comes up. Yeah. Married. And I really wanted to capture what that’s like for many young Nigerian women.
MK: It’s especially ironic that this was after an event for your first novel, Stay with Me. Which…
AA: That’s not an advertisement for marriage.
AYỌ̀BÁMI ADÉBÁYỌ̀ was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her debut novel, Stay with Me, has been translated into twenty languages. Longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award, Stay with Me was a New York Times, Guardian, Chicago Tribune, and NPR Best Book of the Year. Her new novel is called A Spell of Good Things.