It has been quite a year for Ayobami Adebayo (pictured). She is in London for International Women’s Day, as she was last year when it was announced that her first novel had been longlisted for the Baileys prize.
Stay with Mewent on to make the shortlist and is now up for the Welcome prize, the winner of which will be announced later this month.
The novel was glowingly reviewed, not least by the New York Times’s high press Michiko Kakutani (iest”stunning”, “powerfully magnetic and heartbreaking”,); Sarah Jessica Parkerchose it for the American Library’s book club; and the author, who has just turned 30, has been interviewed in both the Paris Review and Vogue.
When we meet, she has come from the BBC, where she had been discussing the #Meetoo movement in Nigeria.
“Its complex and very different across regions, across class, maybe even across class, maybe even across religious,” Adebayo says, describing what it means to be a young person, whether you are a man or woman: you are supposed to go to university, you get master’s degree, maybe two, particularly if you come from the middle class.
“And somehow, when it gets to a certain point, there’s a separation in how far you can go because a woman is to subsume all of her ambition to some would say the ultimate goal of marriage.
To be fair, men are also pressured into getting married. But I don’t think men are expected to make the sacrifices that are routinely expected of a woman.”
The intense pressure on women to become wives and mothers is at the heart of Stay with Me, in which the story of a marriage unraveling is set against the turbulent backdrop of Nigeria in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Told in turn from the perspective of wife and husband, Yejide and Akin, the novel shows what happens when romantic love comes up against social expectations, as Yejide’s failure to conceive becomes a family matter in a culture where a second wife is seen as the obvious solution.
Folktales, gossip at the hair salon Yejide owns, mother-in-law Moomi’s bossy superstitions and bulletins of military takeovers stay with me captures a country and a couple in a conflict, pulled between tradition and modernity.
One scene, which would be comic were it not so grotesque, records poor Yejide’s pilgrimage to the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, culminating in her breastfeeding a goat. When she finally has a baby, Yejide discovers that she has passed on sickle cell disease.
Infertility and loss of children might seem audaciously challenging subjects for a first novel, let alone one by writer then in their 20’s, but they are issues which Adebayo has been thinking about for some time.
She was at University when she discovered that she was among Nigeria’s one in four healthy people who carriers of the sickle cell gene, making it the country most affected by the disease in the world.
The depiction of the devastating impact of SCD on families earned the novel its place on the Wellcome list, a prize for fiction or non-fiction that engages with medicine or illness.
“I was thinking of dating someone…” she says with a big, ready laugh when I ask her about why she decided to take the test then. “It makes for awkward conversations.
But it’s better to know as early as possible. Because if you become emotionally involved with somebody it’s more difficult to say to yourself: ‘I’m going to walk away from this because I don’t want to make a decision that could have an impact on somebody who’s not here.'”
It is possible, she continues, “that you could have a child that would not have the disease. But it is also possible that you have a baby who does. And it is also possible that you have five children and they all have the disease.
It is a complicated thing on the level of personal ethics.” Of all those she knows who live with the illness, Adebayo told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last year, “every single one of them said to me they wish their parents never married”.
The deaths of two of her close friends in their teens and the effect on their families were the tragic inspiration for the novel. Each crisis is harrowing.
“I just could not stop thinking about what is meant for the mother,” she says, recalling how she would still bump into mother of one friend occasionally. “Not just to experience that kind of loss, but to somehow get up the next day.”
And so the central character of Yejide a beguiling combination of vulnerability and strength “just came to me”. The idea started as a short story, which she “sat on for a couple of years, maybe longer’, but there “was just something very vivid about the character that I had to pay attention to”.
Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange prize-winning epic Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran war, Stay with Me records a period of modern Nigerian history, beginning with 1985 military coup, a few years before the author was born. Why did she choose to return to the political landscape of her parents and grandparents?
“I was very young when the 1993 election annulled,” she says. “All I remember about it was that I did not have to go to school and I was very excited about that,
I did remember my parents were sorely disappointed … The level of Frustration that many people felt, the disillusionment of thinking that any moment now we were going to go back to democracy and having that hope to dashed and postponed and then eventually dashed totally. I think it had quite an impact on us as children.”