It’s been two years since writer Ayobami Abedayo’s debut novel, “Stay With Me” was published, winning her awards, accolades and fans, yet she still can’t quite believe that people read her book.
“To me, it’s still astonishing when I get to meet people who have read it,” said Abedayo, who was in Jerusalem last week for the seventh International Writers Festival. “The truth is, with most books, you’re just doing this thing alone, you don’t know if anyone will publish it or read it, and having people respond to it so publicly, to something that you worked on in a private way, is just remarkable.”
“Stay With Me,” Abedayo’s fictional work, revolves around the marriage of a young Nigerian couple. Yejide and Akin are deeply in love, but can’t get pregnant despite years of fertility treatments.
While they agreed never to practice polygamy, Akin’s parents interfere and bring him a second wife, and a furious Yejide becomes desperate to save her marriage — by getting pregnant by any means. She does, finally, but unleashes a torrent of lies, trickery and losses. It’s a story that examines the shape and sacrifices of a marriage.
The novel, published by Penguin Random House, was a New York Times Notable Book, was shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Wellcome Book Prize and the 9mobile Prize for Literature, longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Chicago Tribune, BuzzFeed, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Post, Southern Living, The Skimm.
What’s surprising, however, about “Stay With Me,” is that Abedayo, now 29, was only 20 when she first began imagining these characters.
During her final year at university, she ran into the mother of a friend, a contemporary of Abedayo’s, who had died of sickle cell anemia. Abedayo was shaken by how her friend’s mother had been transformed by the death of her child, and couldn’t stop thinking about what it must mean to have survived a child.
“I was thinking about what it must mean to love a child that you could could fall ill and leave suddenly that way,” said Abedayo, referring to her friend’s death.
She ended up writing a short story about those thoughts, which eventually became the basis of the novel, although that particular scene didn’t make it into the book. Instead, Abedayo kept reading the scene over and over again, wondering what it was that these two characters weren’t saying to one another.
“I kept thinking they’re not talking about something very important, there’s no soul here,” said Abedayo. “At some point I realized that what they’re not talking about, is what became the crux of the book. I realized it was a novel when I thought to myself, ‘What if they can’t talk about this even when they’re alone,’ and then thought, ‘I need to be older to write about this. I’m not mature enough to write about this.'”
Abedayo waited two or three more years before diving in, but couldn’t stay away from Yejide and Akin. She says she didn’t have enough life experience at 22 to write the novel, and she’s not sure she would tackle this now even at 29, but at the time she didn’t have such qualms.
The book, set in Nigeria of the 1980s, is part of Abedayo’s efforts to understand her country and its recent past. She wanted to gain a more nuanced understanding of Nigeria’s political and social structures that existed then, and which inform its society now.
“I feel that the 80s were pivotal in a very fundamental sense for the country,” said Abedayo. “The language of the government was different in the 80s. It had quite an impact on how people were living their lives.”
During the 1980s Nigeria was under military rule, with plans to return to civilian rule in the 1990s. The period of time covered in Abedayo’s novel includes a series of university riots, as students and civilians protested the government’s economic measures, including price hikes.
Even the architecture changed, said Abedayo. During her grandparent’s years, fences were lower. By the time her parents had their own home, one couldn’t see the house over the fence, she said.
She probed her mother, a doctor, for stories about life in the 1980s in her hometown of Ilesa. She wanted to discover people’s anxieties and their need to govern themselves, said Abedayo.
Polygamy, for example, was practiced by her paternal grandparents, but not by her maternal grandparents, and not by Abedayo’s own parents. The Nigeria of her parents’ time was greatly influenced by the influx of Christianity and colonialism, but was still striving for more equality for women, and in society.
“I try to bring that on the page,” she said. “It’s sort of like social dynamics that would inform the present way people negotiate personal relationships.”
The book, in many ways, is Abedayo’s treatise of hope for Nigeria, an expression of her wish that in this generation “things change for the better,” she said.
“I made a presumption that I would be understood,” she said.
Abedayo is currently living in Nigeria, after a brief stint in London, and she’s thankful that her formative, teenage years were spent in Nigeria, where she, Abedayo, was part of the norm, where she read the books written by her people, and was immersed in her culture.
“My imagination could position itself in that place,” she said.