It is refreshing to behold a bright new voice in contemporary literature. Ayòbámi Adébáyò calls on the courage of her convictions to tackle infertility, the premature deaths of children and the genetic group of red blood cell disorders known as sickle-cell disease.
In an interview with The Guardian, the 29-year-old Nigerian author of a 296-page debut novel, Stay with Me — set in Ilesa, a town near the university city of Ile-Ife, reveals: “I’m very, quite heavily influenced, I think, by the Nigerian literary tradition because my first language is Yoruba and it’s a very metaphorical language.
“I say this very often that everyday speech is almost literature; it’s so rich and it feels very often like a gift to me every time I’m writing in English because I already have this resource that I can pull from. So I believe that that influence is very much there, and while I believe that the novel translates to anybody, I feel that someone who speaks Yoruba would connect and see some things that they would be able to identify the way I felt when I was growing up and I was reading Wole Soyinka and I could say ‘oh yeah, that feels like it’s a gift just for me’.”
Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before her, Adébáyò does indeed engage with the canon of Nigerian literature in English right from the start. Consider the opening lines of Stay with Me: “I must leave this city today and come to you. My bags are packed and the empty rooms remind me that I should have left a week ago. Musa, my driver, has slept at the security guard’s post every night since last Friday, waiting for me to wake him up at dawn so we can set out on time. But my bags still sit in the living room, gathering dust.”
They evoke the opening lines of not only the first (Traveller, you must set out/ At dawn) and penultimate (Traveller you must set forth/ At dawn) stanzas of Soyinka’s Death in the Dawn from his debut collection of poetry Idanre and Other Poems (1967) but also the title of Soyinka’s memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006).
The first line of Adichie’s debut novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) — “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère” — evokes Things Fall Apart (1958), Chinua Achebe’s first novel, whose title is itself taken from the poem The Second Coming by the Irish poet and playwright WB Yeats (Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …).
Stay with Me is set in Nigeria during the eventful 1980s and 1990s, the period that paralleled the military dictatorship of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida — the Nigerian army general who demanded to be called president. Indeed, there are references in the novel to the bloodless coup d’état that brought Babangida to power on August 27 1985, and to the failed attempt to overthrow him. For this, the soldier-poet Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa was executed for treason on March 5 the next year — despite Soyinka, Achebe and the poet and playwright JP Clark visiting Babangida to plead with him to spare Vatsa’s life.
There are also references to the fate of Dele Giwa, founding editor-in-chief of Nigeria’s premier weekly news magazine Newswatch, who was killed by a mystery parcel bomb at his Lagos residence in 1986. And to the Babangida regime’s annulment of the 1993 presidential elections, widely considered to be the freest and fairest in the nation’s history.
But it is against the tragic backdrop of an earlier event, the scheduled June 1981 student march on the palace of the Ooni of Ife to protest the decapitation of Bukola Arogundade — a student at what was then the University of Ife — that a romance develops between the novel’s main protagonists Yejide Makinde and Akinyele Ajayi.
Theirs is love at first sight, but their marriage starts to go awry when Yejide doesn’t conceive. Their families suggest that Akin take another wife, so that he can have children. They recommend Funmi, a beautiful younger woman and Akin reluctantly plays along.
Unsurprisingly, the plan arouses feelings of jealousy, resentment and betrayal in Yejide, who goes to great lengths to become pregnant.
For example, she undertakes the strenuous, stamina-sapping task of climbing the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, with an unblemished white goat in tow, as demanded by this cult of deceit. On the mountain, she is surrounded by men, commanded to cradle the goat and dance, and every time she blinks, she sees “flashes of light and colour, like shards of a broken rainbow”.
Prophet Josiah, the cult’s fornicating leader, asks her to “feed the child”, that is, to breastfeed the goat; and, before she departs, he gives her false hope. “I could still feel the wetness on my breast and my heart thudded with desperate faith,” says Yejide.
So desperate is that faith that she suffers from pseudocyesis or phantom pregnancy. Yejide, the proprietress of a hairdressing salon, eventually becomes pregnant because of another act of desperation, this time deceptively orchestrated by Akin.
Her first child, a daughter called Olamide, at only five months old, suffers from a mysterious affliction. Her second, a son named Sesan, is diagnosed with sickle-cell disease, prompting Moomi — Yejide’s mother-in-law — to claim that he is an Abiku, advocating traditional remedies over modern medicine. In Yoruba mythology, Abiku is the child born to die, explored in poetry by Soyinka and JP Clark.
Because of Sesan’s sad fate, Moomi calls for incisions to be made on his body, for the body to be lashed, so that if the marks appear on the body of her next child then it will be proof that Abiku has returned to (haunt or torment) its mother.
Yejide conceives yet again, giving birth to a girl whom Moomi names Rotimi — literally meaning “stay with me” — even though the baby’s body bears “no lacerations, no scars, not one single lash mark from a previous life”. And yet the name is suggestive of a cry of despair, a plaintive plea for life’s shield against death.
In spite of the assumptions of relatives and acquaintances, it is Akin who appears to hold the key to the couple’s reproductive concerns.
Stay with Me is a cleverly constructed novel and its prose is as clear as spring water. Each of the four parts into which it is divided begins with a prologue set in the now of December 2008 (the time of Akin’s father’s funeral) and narrated in simple present tense, whereas the first-person narratives — in the voices of Yejide and Akin — that follow each prologue are, with the exception of Part IV, set in the then of 1985-1993.
Adébáyò incorporates into her novel the epistolary form, as in the letters addressed to Akin that Dotun sends from Australia; and the ones armed robbers, who may be the police, send to Ilesa residents, openly declaring their criminal intentions.
She also weaves in Yoruba folktales, such as the story of Oluronbi and the Iroko tree. When Yejide tells the story, she says of Oluronbi: “She was like water; she had no enemies in her family”, one is reminded of the title of Fela Kuti’s Water No Get Enemy. There is also the story of Ijapa the tortoise and his wife Iyannibo, which Moomi used to tell Akin and his siblings Dotun and Arinola.
As a result of Akin’s deception about his reproductive issues and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Yejide’s three pregnancies, Yejide abandons her marriage to Akin — leaving Rotimi in his care, as she fears that her daughter may die.
She travels to Bauchi to attend the wedding of the niece of her friend and fellow hairdresser Iya Bolu, but boards a bus to Jos, “the most beautiful city in Nigeria”, presumably for a fresh start. Eventually, she accepts Akin’s invitation to his father’s funeral in Ilesa and is subsequently reconciled with her teenage daughter Rotimi, who now wishes to be known as Timi.
Ayòbámi Adébáyò is a writer of great promise and potential; hers is a rich and resonant voice.
Idowu Omoyele is a student of the graduate school in humanities at the University of Cape Town