This celebrated, unforgettable first novel (“A bright, big-hearted demonstration of female spirit.” –The Guardian), shortlisted for the prestigious Bailey’s Prize and set in Nigeria, gives voice to both husband and wife as they tell the story of their marriage–and the forces that threaten to tear it apart. Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. Though many expected Akin to take several wives, he and Yejide have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage–after consulting fertility doctors and healers, trying strange teas and unlikely cures–Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time–until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife. Furious, shocked, and livid with jealousy, Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant. Which, finally, she does–but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine. An electrifying novel of enormous emotional power, Stay With Me asks how much we can sacrifice for the sake of family.
Q: Was there a particular incident that inspired this novel?
A: When I was in my late teens, a couple of friends passed away suddenly. This was quite distressing but after a while, as tends to happen when one is once or twice removed from grief, I stopped thinking about them all the time. Still, whenever I saw their mothers, I was moved by how they’d become physically transformed by what had happened to their children. I wondered how they found the strength to get out of bed every day after such a devastating loss, and questioned why these women were expected, after a period of mourning, to continue life as normal. In 2008, a few days after an encounter with one of them, I wrote a short story that would later morph into Stay with Me. Q: Yejide and Akin have a fascinating marriage, filled with tragedy and resilience. Is their story based on any real events?
A: Taiye Selasi’s short story ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ ends with this sentence -‘In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother.’ That sentence has stayed with me since I read the story, perhaps because Yejide is a motherless child and a childless mother at the beginning of Stay with Me. Her response to the things that happen in her marriage is often rooted in her desire to escape the loneliness of that last rung of the hierarchy which Taiye Selasi refers to. To state the obvious, Yejide is central to Stay with Me and writing about her felt like getting to know a real person. So, though it sounds weird, getting to know Yejide intimately was the real event from which this novel emerged. Q: Why was it important for you to tell this story from two perspectives?
A: There’s a Yoruba proverb which roughly translates into “what turns its face to one person has turned its back on the other.” It’s always made me think about how deeply subjective our experience of the world can be. With this novel, I felt that while I discovered what happened in this marriage through Yejide’s perspective, I needed to get both voices in there if I wanted to really understand how things unravelled. I think that embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is often essential to closing the gap between knowledge and understanding. Q: One of the struggles they face as a couple is that Nigerian society expects a man to have multiple wives, while Yejide is vehemently opposed to polygamy. Is this a reality for many Nigerian couples today?
A: Polygamy isn’t as fashionable or as commonplace as it used to be, but while many men don’t marry a second wife, there’s the sense that a man is well within his rights if he has a mistress or two. You often hear women being told to be grateful because though their husband is cheating, at least he hasn’t taken another wife. The threat of polygamy, the possibility of it, still hangs over a lot of marriages and continues to have an impact on the power dynamics between couples. Q: Sickle cell disease plays a prominent role in the story, and without giving away too much, can you explain why you included this thread in Stay with Me? A: The friends I mentioned earlier, whose mothers would sort of haunt me for a while, both died after suffering from sickle cell disease all their lives. I began to research the disease because I wanted to understand this thing that had been such a big part of their lives before it eventually killed them. I also happen to carry the sickle cell gene although I don’t have the disease. The implication is that if I have children with someone who also has the gene, our children could have sickle cell disease. So, I read a lot about the disease while I was in my early twenties and that seeped into a number of projects I was working on at the time including Stay with Me. Q: Throughout the book, you drop hints about Nigeria’s political unrest. As someone who lives there, how did you decide what elements of Nigeria’s past to include in your novel?
A: Stay with Me started out being very political, largely because I’m a little obsessed with politics. But as I worked on the novel over the years, I realized that one of the reasons why it wasn’t coming together was because I’d forced the characters to become directly involved in politics. Eventually, I deleted most of the political threads in the novel and asked myself about what Akin and Yejide would notice and care about. That’s what informed what made it into the novel and what didn’t. Like many middle-class Nigerians, Yejide and Akin can’t ignore the fact that it’s a tumultuous period but they respond by insulating themselves against the turmoil. As burglaries and robberies became the norm, those who could afford it built higher fences, hired guards and bought ferocious dogs. Though this novel is mostly set under military rule in the eighties, this response is still a common one for many middle-class Nigerians. I think that ultimately, there will be moments of rupture when it’s impossible to hold oneself apart from the political realities, and that’s what happens towards the end of the novel. Q: The book is a lot about what is “unsaid” in a relationship. Why did you want to explore this?
A: I come from a part of Nigeria where a lot of value is placed on implicit communication. The ‘well brought up’ child is the one who can pick up nonverbal cues from adults and interpret them correct- ly. I think this primed me to be particularly interested in what is left unsaid, to always be conscious of the layers that lie beneath social interactions. With Stay with Me, it was interesting to explore the impact and implications of Yejide and Akin’s inability to confront certain issues because they are both afraid, though for very different reasons. Q: You’ve been mentored by some serious literary heavyweights – including Chimamanda Adichie and Margaret Atwood. Can you talk about your experiences working with them and what you learned?
A: When Margaret Atwood was appointed UNESCO professor of literature at the University of East Anglia, I was so star-struck I could barely speak during the classes we had with her. Here was some- one whose work I’d discovered in my mother’s library reading my work and saying she liked it! It’s been amazing to have her support Stay with Me so vocally and I’m very grateful for her generosity. I attended the workshop with Chimamanda Adichie when I was nineteen and it was a pivotal period for me. Amongst other things, I learnt essential lessons about self-editing during the workshop sessions, I feel very fortunate to have had that kind of opportunity so early on.