By Lauren Devine
Stay With Me. Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. Canongate Books, 2017. Pp304. ISBN 978-1782119463. (hb) £11.24.
His words were like a blow to my head – they made me dizzy and disoriented. I mumbled them to myself, trying to piece his sentences together again. […] The past flipped itself open like a spooky family album, revealing one familiar picture after the other, highlighting the things standing in plain view, which I had never seen. Things I had refused to see.
- Excerpt from Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
I owe my enduring love for African and world literature to classes I took with some exceptionally involved professors at the University of Leeds. It wasn’t that I wanted to deliberately avoid classes in canonical ‘English’ literature. (Evading Great Expectations throughout my degree was a happy coincidence, honest.) Their classes introduced me to amazing writers from some of the most beautiful and troubled places in the world, and being immersed in the literature of cultures previously unknown to me was enthralling and addictive.
This lasting influence led me to Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Baileys-shortlisted debut novel. Set against the political chaos of 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me is a powerful, plot-driven exposition of a marital struggle that manages to strike a chord with women all over the world.
In riveting yet simple prose, Adébáyọ̀ keenly demonstrates her character’s fears, dreams and deceptions, as well as their impassioned frustrations over the militarised state of Nigerian politics. Characters evolve soundly throughout the narrative: Yejide is an instinctive judge of character with a razor-sharp tongue and dry sense of humour to match; her husband Akin desperately in love, outwardly self-assured and privately proud beyond common sense. Their trials explore the cultural complexities and pressures of a Nigeria still in the grip of a largely patriarchal system.
Hats off must absolutely be extended to Adébáyọ̀ for her pointed and unabashed exploration of a subject so topical in Nigeria. The onus on women to bear children is explored as an oppressive bind, characteristic of marital struggle, which holds true for many women in twenty-first century Nigeria and all over the world. The pressure placed on Yejide to bear a child is suffocating and relentless. Subjected to an interminable stream of medical examinations, prophets and fertility-inducing rituals that all fail to produce a child, she is eventually presented with a new second wife for Akin. That Yejide steadfastly opposes polygamy is of no consequence – she is expected to make room so that they can both bear the children that Akin – and more importantly his mother, Moomi – longs for.
Following an intense ritual ordeal atop the ‘Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles’ at the hands of the comically rendered Prophet Josiah, the pressure to become pregnant plunges Yejide into an extended psychotic break. Through the emotional clarity of Adébáyọ̀’s writing we accompany Yejide through the unspooling of her psychological state; through her imagined and actual pregnancies; and the transition from the stigma of childlessness to the trauma of child loss, culminating in the emotional shut-down that leads her to abandon her broken life with Akin altogether.
Akin’s inability to face his truth and what this costs Yejide is aptly summarised by Diana Evans as ‘the damage done by the boundlessness of male pride’. The steps Akin takes to project his childlessness as Yejide’s burden led to an acute disdain and detestation of this character as I read. Yejide’s heart-breaking realisation of what Akin’s deceptions have cost her speaks to the patriarchal bind in which women in Nigeria are held in terms of oppression of individuality and absolute deference to their husbands.
In the vein of some of her predecessors including Chinua Achebe and Chimimanda Adichie, Adébáyọ̀ explores the fractious relationship between tradition and modernity and pressurised expressions of masculinity and femininity in 1980s Nigeria. Episodes of Nigeria’s political tumult are seamlessly woven into the narrative with a depth of understanding that belies Adébáyọ̀’s age and experience. Political coups and revolving dictatorships provide a tangible backdrop for the diurnal routines of Yejide and Akin, from their studies and courtship at university to raising terminally ill children amid political uncertainty and interminable violence.
Emotional and compelling, Adébáyọ̀’s novel is a brave contemporary exposition of the Nigerian female experience. Stay With Me will leave you pondering the deceptions and fates of Yejide and Akin long after you have turned the final pages.
This story made me revisit the universality of the female experience for myself, and reminded me of the importance of reading writing beyond that which reflects our own cultural experiences. Of reading outside of your own, tiny geopolitical bubble. Do this where you can. It’s important.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 79 (Winter 2017/18), pp. 159-160]