Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Ayobami Adebayo has been surrounded by stories waiting to be told all her life. Writing comes naturally and her stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. With BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia saw her being introduced to renowned author, Margaret Atwood. Her novel, Stay with Me is the only work from a debut novelist on the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist of six. It has been published in Nigeria by Ouida Books and the UK by Canongate Books. The US edition is out in August and the Swedish translation is out in October. It is all set to be translated to six additional languages. Ayobami Adebayo discusses her new book with NMADIUTO UCHE in this interview.
Congratulations on being longlisted and now shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Did you envisage any literary prizes for “Stay With Me”, when you started out writing the story?
Thank you so much. Stay with Me is my first novel and though I’d been writing short stories for several years before I started working on it, I knew very little about writing a novel. When I started writing Stay with Me, I was preoccupied with figuring out how to write a novel, prizes and even publication seemed very distant. Then in 2013, an early draft was shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize. After that, I spent two more years working on the book before it was ready for publication and during that time I was shortlisted for the Miles Morland scholarship twice. Although those nods got me thinking about prizes while I was getting the novel into shape, I didn’t see the Baileys nomination coming.
The novel is set in Ilesa, what does the town mean to you?
Both of my parents are Ijesa. My father worked in Ilesa in the late 80s/early 90s, so we lived there at the time and I picked up the Ijesa dialect from spending a lot of time with my grandparents. After we moved to Ile-Ife, my family continued to visit the town once or twice every month because my grandparents lived there. When I began writing Stay with Me, instinctively, I set it in an environment I was very familiar with. Then a couple of years after began writing the novel, I took a job in Ilesa and worked there for about three years. This was quite auspicious because sometimes, when I got stuck, I would go to some of the places I was writing about and walk around until I saw or heard something that stimulated my imagination. Ilesa is one of the cities I call home and of all such cities, it’s probably the closest to my heart.
I listened to a podcast where you mentioned your mother asking if you had had a happy childhood as your stories leaned towards dark endings, do you set out to end on that note or do your stories just take you there?
No, I don’t set out to write stories with dark endings, the stories just head in that direction. That tendency might be changing, I think. Stay with Me is an exception because though there’s definitely darkness, ultimately there’s some hope. Writing is a process of discovery for me, the first couple of drafts are about following my characters wherever they wanted to go, listening to them, learning to understand them and sometimes talking out loud to them. Once I’ve done that work, I become committed to following the psyche of a character to what I believe to be an honest conclusion. Now and again, that conclusion is grim but then that’s how life is sometimes.
You have been mentored by Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Adichie, could you tell us more about those experiences?
I read Surfacing when I was a teenager and was incredibly moved by it. When Ms Atwood was appointed UNESCO professor of literature at the University of East Anglia, I was excited and terrified at the prospect of having her read my work. I was so star-struck I could barely speak during the classes we had with her. It’s been amazing to have her support Stay with Me so vocally and I’m very grateful for her generosity. I attended what would later become the Farafina Trust workshop when I was nineteen. I’d read and loved Purple Hibiscus, therefore, when I learnt that Ms Adichie was inviting entries for a workshop that would be held in Lagos, I applied immediately. I was in my third year of university at the time and we were writing exams while the workshop was going on but I wasn’t about to give up such a great opportunity. So, I kept travelling back and forth between Ile-Ife and Lagos during those ten days. My grades dropped slightly that semester but it was worth it and I would definitely do it all over again
There has been a recent trend of preparing contemporary African literature for the movie screens, who will be your ideal cast for Stay with Me’s characters if this happens?
Either Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje or David Oyelowo would be brilliant as Akin. For Yejide, I’d go with Funlola Aofiyebi-Raimi or Bimbo Akintola.
In recent years, publishing in Nigeria has seen the rise of companies such as Ouida Books and Cassava Republic Press, what are the prospects for books sales in Nigeria if it develops rapidly?
Imagine the implications in terms of sales and job creation if the book trade in Nigeria becomes as developed as it is a number of other countries. In a place like the United Kingdom, book sales amounted to over 4 billion pounds last year alone. The lack of stable power supply, which is a problem that every industry in Nigeria faces is a major problem for publishers too. Publishing has survived this long in Nigeria because Nigerians are entrepreneurial and many individuals just go on setting up and running their publishing houses in spite of the challenges. I think there’s tremendous potential for this sector to generate revenue if the right systems are in place.