Donna Seaman, Booklist Adult Books Editor and co-chair of the SJP Picks selection committee, interviewed Nigerian writer Ayobami Adebayo about her debut novel, Stay with Me, a complex and suspenseful portrait of a besieged marriage—and Sarah Jessica Parker’s third selection for SJP Picks.
Donna Seaman: Stay with Me is such an accomplished first novel, and given your dedications to your parents in which you allude to a house full of books, can we safely assume that you were a book-enthralled girl?
Ayobami Adebayo: Absolutely; I fell in love with books as soon as I could read.
Seaman: When did your ardor for reading first inspire you to write?
Adebayo: I think I began writing when I was about nine, but I’d been making up stories before then. When I was five, my classroom was next to the school library, and I spent a lot of time there in between classes. I would often read some of the books in one seating, and sometimes, if I didn’t like a story’s conclusion, I would sit alone and make up an alternative ending.
Seaman: The telling of stories, especially folktales about marriage and family, is a key element in the novel, a way to illuminate how husband and wife Akin and Yejide struggle with conventional gender roles and other social expectations. What is the source of these tales, and what led you to include them?
Adebayo: Whenever I went to visit her when I was a child, my grandmother would tell me several enchanting stories in the evenings, before we went to bed. I loved the stories so much that I began to pester her into telling them during the day while she was busy running her business. I knew, while I was working on Stay with Me, that Akin and Yejide, who had also grown up with this storytelling tradition, would be passing on some of the stories to their own children at some point and I had to figure which each would choose to share with a child and why.
Seaman: Your portrait of a marriage grapples with many psychological, social, and cultural issues, but two dominate: the stigmatizing of a married woman without children and polygamy. What drew you to these highly charged themes?
Adebayo: For me, the characters always seem to come before the themes and that was the case with this novel. Yejide and Akin arrived first and the themes emerged as I continued to write about their marriage. However, I’d always been upset by how often I’d heard of women being treated as less than human because they didn’t have children, and I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I gravitated towards that issue when I sat down to write my first novel.
Seaman: Dualities abound, including your extraordinarily powerful use of dual narrative, in which Akin and Yejide alternate in telling his and her side of the story, an approach that gradually reveals startling secrets. Was this the plan right from the start, or did the characters somehow dictate it?
Adebayo: Before I began writing Stay with Me, I knew that Yejide and Akin would give voice to the story, but I didn’t alternate their perspectives initially. When I was working on the first few drafts, the novel was sectioned into two, with the first half written in Yejide’s voice while the concluding half was in Akin’s. However, once I knew and understood the characters intimately, it became clear to me that their narratives needed to be alternated.
Seaman: Akin and Yejide are complicated characters. What are their origins? What was it like to live with them as you worked on the novel?
Adebayo: Yejide’s character was inspired by two women I knew who had lost their children to sickle-cell anemia. Some of my encounters with them compelled me to think about what it must have been like to care for the children they lost, and how the awareness that they could lose those children must have complicated motherhood for them in all sorts of ways. Akin’s character came to me while I was working on the short story that would evolve into the novel years later. They are very interesting people, so it was fun to get to know them, but they do go through a lot and it was depressing to write the darker sections of their lives.
Seaman: The complexities of Akin and Yejide’s intimate conflicts embody larger social struggles playing out in Nigeria during the 1980s and 1990s. What did you hope to convey with this symbiosis between the private and the public?
Adebayo: I think it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to separate the private from the public; they intersect in ways that cause both spheres to continuously impact each other. Akin and Yejide try to insulate themselves from the political realities of their time, but it becomes clear towards the end of the novel that this is virtually impossible.
Seaman: Stay with Me is a powerful novel about loss and fear, but for all the tragedy and terrors you address, there is humor here, too. How did you strike that balance?
Adebayo: I suspect that one of the reasons why many people who survive the sort of tragedies that are in this book manage to do so is because they somehow find a way to laugh in spite of it all. And that’s the case with Yejide; she has an eye for the ironic, the absurd, even the outrightly hilarious, and that’s a key part of how she survives.
Seaman: Now that Sarah Jessica Parker has selected Stay with Me for Book Club Central, library book clubs all across the U.S. and beyond will be discussing your novel. How do you feel about this? And what affect do you hope your novel will have on readers?
Adebayo: I’m absolutely delighted. Amongst other things, I hope Stay with Me generates discussions about love, loneliness, and motherhood. I also hope readers enjoy going on this journey with Yejide and Akin.
Learn more about Stay with Me, Sarah Jessica Parker's newest pick for Book Club Central.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.
Ayobami Adebayo's stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth short story competition. She holds BA and MA degrees in literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, and has worked as an editor for Saraba Magazine since 2009. She also has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has received fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Sinthian Cultural Centre, Hedgebrook, Ox-Bow School of Art, Ebedi Hills and the Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria.