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Ayobami Adebayo: I mustn’t live in Nigeria to write a Nigerian story

By Olamide Babatunde

Ayobami Adebayo, 28, is the author of Stay with Me, a novel set in 1980s Nigeria, just published in the UK. It’s also due for publication in the United States, Nigeria and Kenya later this year. Publishing houses in Italy and Sweden have acquired the rights to translate the novel into Italian and Swedish respectively. Already, rave reviews have already been coming from early readers in the UK.

Described as a moving novel by the Bookseller Magazine, Stay with Me has been selected as one of the best books to look forward to in 2017 by Stylist Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Phoenix magazine, amongs others. Ayobami holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife.

She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in the UK, where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ledig House, Hedgebrook and Ox-bow School of Arts, all in the United States, Ebedi Residency here in Nigeria, Sinthian Cultural Centre in Senegal and Siena Art Institute in Italy.

Although her stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, Stay with Me is her first novel. She has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bailey’s prize, joining the likes of Chimamada Ngozi Adichie, who was nominated in 2004 for Purple Hibiscus in 2007 when she won for Half of a Yellow Sun and 2014 for Americanah. She is the fourth African to be named since the twenty-one-year- existence of the prize.

The writer in her blossomed while in secondary school. “I started writing fiction when I was in SS1. Shortly after I left secondary school, one of my short stories was accepted for publication in The Weaverbird Anthology that was published by Farafina,” she reveals.

Having gained so much exposure, international affiliations and privileges, she allays any doubts that her writing may tilt towards international audience which may affect her local followers. She maintains her influences are very much Nigerian and doesn’t think that international affiliations have much impact on the art that one produces. “I find it curious that in Nigerian and even African literary circles there is this tendency to question the ‘authenticity’ of work produced by any writer who has not spent all of their career in Nigeria or on the continent.

“We should keep in mind that many literary greats world over produced some of their best works about their countries while away from it. For instance, James Joyce spent two decades of life in Paris, and I’ve not read of the Irish questioning whether Ulysses, which he completed while in Paris, spoke to and of Ireland,” she remarks. Stay with Me is her debut without any unusualness or peculiarity to it save for the location which is set mostly in Ilesa, a small town in the southwestern part of Nigeria, According to her it is “a city I don’t see featuring very often in Nigerian fiction other than T.M Aluko’s One Man, One Wife, which was published in 1959. I don’t think I’ve read any other novel set in Ilesa or any other part of Ijeshaland.”

Do you aim to win a prize someday for your narratives? This question creases Adebayo’s brow for a bit. When she finally responds, it becomes clear she is work oriented and loves it that way. “I’m primarily focused on being conscientious and working hard to hone my skills until I can use them on a level that is as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Achieving this goal with each project is enough satisfaction for me but if I do win a prize, that would definitely bring extra gratification. However, that is not my primary goal,” she confesses.

Not one to put off reading a book for any genuine reason like a boorish start off for instance, she keeps at it hoping it will get better and indeed she claims to have read a number of books that did become brilliant halfway through even, though the beginning wasn’t so promising. “Once halfway and it is still lacking I tell myself I might as well finish it since I’ve already invested so much time in it. More often than not, I finish every book I start,’’ she says.

There are no extreme rituals or routine binding on her enterprise or any other bizarre habits. All that does it for her under any condition are snacks which she keeps close while working. She loves Plantain chips, chocolate and cake and, sometimes, some music, preferably instrumental pieces to liven the atmosphere. Perhaps this is how she spends her leisurely hours, bingeing on Music?

Far from it. The light skinned author has a reading appetite so voracious that all of her spare time is never enough. Apart from fiction, she enjoys reading about politics and history, while baking comes next. For some reason, she finds the process calming and relaxing. “If I feel stressed and I have access to an oven and all the ingredients at the time, I would bake a red velvet cake.” Hopefully, her next novel is a lot more worth waiting for than a velvety cake.

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