Ayobami Adebayo was waiting at the Ouida House, GRA Ikeja in Lagos for the interview session. But the wait was not as long as the one which she endured for over a year after her debut novel, Stay with Me was selected among the announced longlist and later, the shortlist for the 9Mobile Prize for Literature in January 2018. Due to logistics reasons, the winner was not announced until August 8, 2019. Of course, Adebayo had to seek other interests, shoving aside the prospect of winning after that protracted period of waiting. The book had been reviewed in foreign media such as Financial Times and New York Times in 2017 and also critically assessed by respected literary critics and writers from Nigeria such as Molara Wood and Ikhide Ikheloa. Eventually, Stay with Me becomes the winning work.
The unassuming writer, in a carefully measured tone of excitement expressed her gratitude for this literary honour before recounting the circumstances that led to the writing.
“The 9Mobile Prize for literature is very unique and special because it recognises the first novel by African authors and it means something that a panel of judges have literary luminaries from Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda would read all these books and then pick my novel among a long list of nine and when they whittled it down to three, it was in the shortlist of three and eventually, it won. It is a very particular story. I think in some aspects of it, it could only have happened in the South West of Nigeria.
That were aspects of it that are universal and can speak to anybody from anywhere. There are things in it that I even believe that somebody who doesn’t understand Yoruba won’t even notice. It is very special that there is an award meant for African writers that recognises that,” she narates.
Born in Lagos, Adebayo grew up in Ilesa and then Ile-Ife in her formative years. She started writing Stay with Me in 2010 with a final draft in 2015. The thought of writing it came to her in 2008 as soon as she graduated from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife where she had studied literature in English. But she waited for two years afterwards to decide that it was time to write. Deeply moved by the loss of a friend to sickle cell anaemia, she situated the plot of her debut novel around the disease and how it affected a couple, who had a child with sickle cell disease.
“I did some research about it and observed how my late friend’s family was coping with it and I decided to write a story about a couple whose marriage was broken because they had a child who was living with the sickle cell disease,” she explained. “They didn’t know how to deal with it. When I finished that story, I remember I was thinking that there is more to this. I kept looking to fill in more details. For another two years, I kept taking notes and other ideas would come but I decided that I wanted to write a novel. It was a question of something that was bothering me that I had thought through and working on a short story that was bigger than just 2500 words that it initially was. All I was able to think about were the characters in the novel. It felt like a book that insisted that it had to be written after a certain point.”
Stay with Me is a reflection of the bi-lingual nature of post-colonial African literature, that is a mixture of the language of the coloniser and the colonised. Drawing upon her rich Ijesha dialect, Adebayo developed every day characters that resonated with the Yoruba community, Ilesa where the work is set.
“I think my knowledge of the Yoruba language is above average,” she said in reaction to a critic’s claim that her use of the language in the novel was poor. “I write and speak it very well. It is my first language and my dialect Ijesha was the first one I picked up. Ilesha is home and it is a place I will like to see more in literature. That means a lot to me.’’
In 2014, she studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia and now as the 2018 winner of the 9Mobile prize, she will return to East Anglia for a writing fellowship as part of the perks to winning.
“I am looking forward to it. It’s one of the most exciting part of the prize because it allows me to be away and do some work. I had been mentored by Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Adichie. Last week, I had such opportunity with Teju Cole and I facilitated a workshop. Any piece of writing that is going to have any form of impact would cost the writer something in terms of pushing yourself to do it. That takes time, effort and research. For two sentences, you can spend two weeks doing research just to get the details right. That’s part of the job.”
Adebayo described writing the book as ‘harrowing’ because of the depth of emotion invested in the characters and characterisations. She recalled being told by some readers that the book actually moved them to tears. In creating these characters, Adebayo had to empathise with them to portray vividly their emotional realities. The 31-year old author is also an avid reader of the works of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ousmane Sembene and Elizabeth Strout, the American writer who set most of her work in an unpopular district, Maine where she grew up.
On a lighter note, Adebayo was asked what she does for fun as most times, writers are seen as nerds, with uninteresting lifestyles.
“I read,” she responded, bursting into laughter. Of course, she fell in love with books at an early age and the love runs deep. Still, she finds baking calming and does not mind trying her hands on new food and expectedly, a new book.