Great Expectations: An Interview with Ayobami Adebayo

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I wanted to write about extended family systems. If you’re a woman, like Yejide, there’s the expectation that you marry into a family and after a couple of years you have children, and you have a measure of power. But what if you don’t fit into what is expected of you? Despite suspicious in-laws, scheming second wives, and secretive spouses, Yejide and Akin try to break from their obstinate middle-class neighbors’ outdated views on matrimony. Who are other writers that influenced you? ADEBAYO
Buchi Emecheta, who passed on last year. But it just wasn’t working. ADEBAYO
Stay with Me came out in March in England, and about a week after, it got long-listed for the Baileys Prize. ADEBAYO
I was going back and forth between first person and second person. My mother has a lot of sisters. It’s a long list, and I’m sure that once I stop talking I’ll remember other people. While writing, I also started thinking about the middle class in Nigeria. I wanted to explore expectations we have of people—what a woman should be, what a man should be. Akin is the first son, and there are very specific expectations for   a first child—and not just the first child   but especially the first son. It was so universal, but at the same time it was so rooted in a particular place and a particular people. So there are all these assumptions about who she is and what she’s going to become. I created them, but I felt like there were things I discovered that, throughout the process, felt very real. ADEBAYO
I got to know her over five to seven years. A lot of it didn’t make it into the book, but … it’s bizarre, but she felt fully formed. And that’s it. There was something about the language that I recognized. I wanted to look at what would happen if you could choose to be what you’re supposed to be, and how the community, in trying to help you become what you think you should be, turns on you. But it’s not that simple, is it? I wanted the reader, even if they didn’t like him, to understand him. She’s going to always be this child’s mother, and she’s going to always have somebody in her life. How did you find her? I wanted to bring that to this book because it would be miserable if there was no humor. I remember the chapter—it’s about halfway through the book, and it starts with, “I’m digging my father’s grave.” When I wrote that chapter, I knew, Oh, I have his voice now. Akin, an accountant and the eldest son in an influential family, initially rejects the notion of polygamy; Yejide takes pride in her successful beauty salon and her forward-thinking views on life and motherhood. It’s not always wonderful, but it’s familiar territory. This is the way he would talk about all the things that have happened. It was to distance him from this narrative, in that he has very high expectations for   himself, he’s disappointed in himself, and he hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact that this is who he is. When Yejide visits her mother-in-law, there’s a very low fence in front of their house. It’s not something we often want to discuss, but that book goes at it head on. INTERVIEWER
Did you draw on any personal reflections? ADEBAYO
My life couldn’t be further from Yejide’s. That’s just it. ADEBAYO
I wanted to look at the subtle ways that Nigerians interacted with the Nigerian state. I was living with them, and Yejide in particular, for about seven years, talking to her and trying to see everything that happened around me through her perspective. INTERVIEWER
So do her various in-laws and other folks who become her kin. Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, Junot Diaz—who I think was partly responsible for me trying to write through that half of the book in second person, because I was enchanted by the way he did it in his own books. It’s quite a burden. When   Yejide and Akin build their own house in the early nineties, they erect a fence that’s higher than the house. I basically talked to myself and talked to this person and asked her about things. INTERVIEWER
You studied with Chimamanda Adichie and Margaret Atwood. I’ve been writing for a while, but being an author is new. That was something I observed about architecture in Nigeria—that at some point, probably in the eighties and nineties, when things became quite turbulent and there was all of this insecurity, one of the ways the people who could afford to insulate themselves against what was going on did was to build higher fences, to use money as a shield in a sense. For Yejide, the gold standard for her is to become a mother and then have a child. They’d think, We’re not ready to listen to whatever he has to say. Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman is a play I go back to and I read often. ADEBAYO
One of the first things I did was to sort of take it apart. It’s a good place for me when I’m writing. INTERVIEWER
You’re not yet thirty and already your debut novel has become one of the most talked about books of the year. She internalizes some of those things and comes to interpret her own self in the light of much of what she’s received, such that by the time she gets married, it’s something she has to cope with while negotiating with the new challenges that come with a marriage. I think I developed a curiosity about the life of other people from that, and an interest in looking at what was lying beneath the layer of what people present in public. And then I tried the first person, and I remember when I found his voice. I wanted that political turbulence to play in the background. INTERVIEWER
Without giving anything away for the reader, I was thinking that, with Yejide, a blessing can sometimes become a curse, and a curse can sometimes be a blessing. She wrote The Joys of Motherhood, which is not a very joyful book. He’s trying to justify the choices he’s made. INTERVIEWER
How did you solve that problem? The second half of the book would be Akin’s story. ADEBAYO
Yes. It’s barely a fence.  
Patrik Henry Bass is books editor at Essence magazine and the author of a children’s book and several nonfiction titles, including a forthcoming study of the postwar African American working class. That wasn’t my vision for this book. ADEBAYO
Yejide grows up without her mother, and because of that, she comes against judgment from the start. One of my concerns was to make sure that I stayed faithful to these characters because it’s almost like I was writing something that wasn’t quite fiction, that I had an ethical responsibility—as if I was writing about people who might read the book and then say, No, actually, that didn’t happen, or, I would never do that. And if they don’t meet our own interpretation of who they should be because of their gender, their background, their ethnic group, we then come to conclusions about them that are not accurate. Then there was the second person—for about three years, I wrote Akin in second person. It got me thinking more about the sacrifices that are expected of mothers—the expectations, the demands, and how a person might disappear under all of that. I tried the third person for him, too, and the problem of empathy came up again, that distance that I didn’t want there. And it’s something that I always wanted to look at. It’s something I’m starting to understand. I knew that I would need to have the narratives going on side by side throughout the book. I started thinking about the book two years before writing it. It’s been one of the ways I’ve coped myself. How did you settle on that narrative structure? In her last review for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani described Stay with Me   as being   “at once, a gothic parable about pride and betrayal; a thoroughly contemporary—and deeply moving—portrait of a marriage; and a novel, in the lineage of great works by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.”  
In a nearly hour-long telephone conversation from Brooklyn to Nigeria (with a three-second delay and an interviewer just discovering voice recording via cell phone), Adebayo reflected on the characters she had a difficult time getting to know and whom she subsequently couldn’t let go. It’s not just something you do because you feel like laughing. Initially we would get Yejide’s perspective for the first half of the book. There’s a safety in the work for me that I really don’t find in anything else. I wanted to look at what might happen if you have a first son who can’t be all these things—the standard bearer of the family, the dignity of the family resting on this one person. They had very, very interesting conversations. And it just doesn’t make sense. It’s not a luxury. What I’d always found peculiar is that, when I heard about such things, the judgment would more often than not be that there was something the woman wasn’t doing or that there was something she had done that somehow created the situation. I definitely wanted to look at that, and this might sound a little bleak, but the sheer loneliness that accompanies being human and how we try to mitigate that and all the wonderful connections and relationships we get into, to connect with other people. I don’t think anybody expects that much attention for a first book, you know? You have people you can fall back on, and it’s good. INTERVIEWER
You deal with Nigeria’s political turmoil in the eighties as rather matter of fact, and you also balance the ensuing darkness of that time with humor. And I felt also that anybody anywhere could connect with this, and it was like magic to me. If you’re a man, there’s support. One of the ways we survive darkness—and there’s a lot of darkness in this book—is to find reasons to laugh. What was peculiar about her—and even her husband—was they felt very real. While it never got as tragic as it does here, I could observe the living up to these expectations and the demand it placed on them as individuals, the idea that they were, for instance, responsible for their siblings in different ways. Because I was a quiet child, I would sit in the room and listen to these stories. Both of my parents are first children. I worked on that for a couple of years and then realized that by the time the reader got to Akin, they just hated him. She feels that this relationship cannot be changed. INTERVIEWER
You tell the story from both Yejide and her husband’s point of view. Yejide’s inability to get pregnant, however, tests the couple’s values, and their   future. One of the ways I got to know her better and to start writing her was that sometimes I would sit down in my room and have all these conversations, which is weird now that I think about it. Yejide’s been married for about four years and doesn’t have any children. The way I’ve handled it is to focus on what I’m working on right now. That’s how I felt about these people. INTERVIEWER
Yejide will join a pantheon of unforgettable literary heroines. INTERVIEWER
One of the themes that looms large in the novel is judgment—not only the ways we judge others but the way we use our judgment to make life-altering decisions. Stay with Me, the debut novel by Nigerian Ayobami Adebayo, explores a contemporary marriage in a Yoruba community stubbornly tied to tradition. Laughter in those kinds of situations becomes essential. You can’t see inside. It’s not just that her mother has passed away—her mother is from another ethnic community, and Yejide doesn’t really know who her mother’s people are. How are you handling the attention? And for a very long time, I felt that the second person would capture that. When I didn’t understand what was going on or I didn’t know what would happen next, I felt that I needed to just wait and listen to Yejide and understand things about her. It did have quite an impact on me. Was that deliberate?