We began with an oral conversation, recorded with my phone, in her sitting room, since we happened to be in Ile-Ife together at the moment. A conversation that cannot be made public, at least for now, for the simple fact that we were so self-aware, so within the cocoon of our ‘literary ties.’ When I used those words—literary ties—Ayobami had a good laugh; earlier I had mentioned that I couldn’t extricate our friendship from our creative comradeship. This friendship, which has now spanned close to five years, began simply, when I asked her if she writes. It’s definitely impossible to speak of our friendship aside the successes and failures we have experienced as persons for whom the primary calling is, as Pamuk put it, to an empty room with only a table and a chair.
So, in conversation, we spoke of her forthcoming residency in Ledig House, the Colloquium of New Writing we had organized in 2007 and 2008, the kind of spouses we wished to have, what was important about our work with Saraba—and these points were, of course, aside the several laughs we shared, the tangential references to our individual lives, and even once the differentness that plagued us as writers.
Once, I heard in a movie that meeting someone could divide one’s life into halves – the moment before the meeting, and the moment after. I think this is true about the exchanges I have had since I met Ayobami—the freedom to sound my ubiquitous ideas with her, the experience of having a writer who happens to be a dear friend.
It seems to me, and I believe Ayobami will agree, that what’s ahead of us is a choice part in the country of imagination. Which was why I listened to our oral conversation—close to 80 minutes long—with my eyes closed, as in a vision.
Ayobami was born and raised in Nigeria. Her stories have been published in Saraba Magazine, Farafina Magazine and African Writing Online. She holds a BA degree in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife where she is currently pursuing her MA degree in the same field. She is working on her first novel.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: You said reading A God of Small Things changed your writing. Why? Are there other books that have had the same affect?
AYOBAMI ADEBAYO: That book changed the way I think about the possibilities of language and imagination in fiction. It removed some limits as to what one could do or not do in fiction. Before I read Arundhati Roy’s novel, Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman also affected the way I thought about language. I am particularly fascinated by the final section; the language of the exchanges between the Iyaloja and Elesin is exquisite. What both works have in common for me is that whenever I read them, I get the feeling that although I’m reading English, it isn’t quite English. Even though Roy isn’t African, both books are for me practical examples that what Achebe writes about in “The African Writer and the English Language” can be done. He concludes that the English of the African writer “will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”
Death and the King’s Horseman was so much more impactful for me because I could read the Yoruba in the English. When I read books that have such beautiful language, sometimes I feel the writer doesn’t have to tell me a story, she or he should just keep turning phrases like that. A God of Small Things also tells a powerful story; it is just brilliant. Some of the other books that I keep going back to include Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Edwidge Danticat’s Krik Krak.
EI: Do you find that as you mature as a writer, there’s a tendency for you to commit more time to a work?
AA: Yes, there is that tendency. I’m not sure why it happens, but if I have to give a reason, I would say I am more aware now that the work could be better if I just work a little harder at it.
EI: What did you think about Occupy Nigeria, especially within the threshold of your artistic viewpoint? Perhaps as a recompense for loss? You know, we come from a context of protest, having attended in Obafemi Awolowo University. And there I believe you stayed aloof to student unionism, which could suffice as activism on a micro-level.
AA: The last part of your question makes me laugh. Why do you assume I was aloof? I suppose you are right, my level of involvement in student unionism didn’t go past attending a few congresses and voting in the elections. I do think there is, shall I say, an attitude of protest you almost cannot escape if you attend school in Ife; it is in the water you drink and the air you breathe.
Occupy Nigeria was, among other things, an opportunity for us to articulate the latent anger we feel as Nigerians about the unnecessary breakdown in virtually every sector in this country. It was Nigerians standing up and saying we were tired of paying for the failure in leadership at many levels. From any viewpoint, I stand in awe of the protests. I don’t think I have ever been more proud of being a Nigerian or more hopeful about the possibilities for change in this country.
EI: Once you gave the impression that anything was possible within the human mind, the kind of minds that are replicated in your stories. Take your story “Angels of Peace Villa,” for instance, and the moment when those daughters leave their father in a room to burn to death. How did this play in your head?
AA: In that particular story, it was about those girls realizing that they could in fact walk away and let this terrible thing happen to their father. Not just that; they could stand there and imagine that the man was not burning, that he did not even exist. They could believe that their father along with all the pain they had experienced—because they were his daughters—did not exist. They stood on the threshold of that possibility in their minds as they watched the house burn. It played out in my mind as these girls discovered that they could, in their minds, get their lives back.
EI: I find that the realm of the political always plays into your writing. Sometimes it’s an election (more than once it was an election) or ethnic-related violence. In sum, it’s the manner in which the public takes residence in our private spaces. Why do socio-political tendencies fascinate you? Or do they?
AA: Yes, such tendencies do fascinate me. The public (by this I mean government: federal, state, and local) often has little input into our lives in terms of social infrastructure. Most Nigerian families run like miniature local governments. You generate your own power with your “I pass my neighbor” or a Mikano generator. You provide your water with your well or borehole. Yet the public still manages to have a strong impact on our lives, perhaps more so because the public systems have collapsed. It is as though they collapse and having nowhere to crash into, descend upon what you have called “private spaces.”
EI: Are we obliged to tell how the public collapses into private spaces?
AA: No, I don’t think any writer has an obligation to engage such incursions. It just interests me as a person.
EI: Considering your work as fiction editor of Saraba Magazine, and the colloquiums and workshops you have facilitated, how do you perceive the business of creating structures for emerging writers?
AA: For me it is this simple: I love to read good stories and good books. Anytime I come across someone whose work I would love to continue reading, I want to make sure that they have access to information and opportunities that would help them fully realize their talents. From there on, the rest is their responsibility. Perhaps, it is really a selfish endeavor that boils down to me thinking, “This person has the ability to write a novel that I would really enjoy reading one day.”
EI: Does writing with the pseudonym Ayobami Adebayo make you feel halved, the one who writes and the one who lives?
AA: No. I always think of myself as Ayobami Adebayo. There is only Ayobami Adebayo, the one who writes and the one who lives.
EI: Would you consider the fiction you write as imagined reality? We often take so much from the real, the tangible, enmeshing such details into our characters. Simply, where does fiction and reality intersect for you, considering that even to make that classification is to be beguiled by illusion?
AA: It really is reality for me. These people do exist; I talk to them, sometimes out loud, thankfully only when I’m alone. I think my job is to make them as real to whoever is reading my work as they are to me.
EI: You and I have often discussed your aloofness to new technology. I am eager to put this into a broader frame. Once we talked about how print books have an aesthetic value, how an e-book cannot line a shelf. Anna Quindlen says, “I would be most content if my children grew to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” The critic Dwight Garner responded by taking her side, but suggesting that it’s the mental furniture that matters. What is your response?
AA: We are told that eventually books will disappear and everyone will go about with iPads and such. I guess it makes sense to say it is the mental furniture that matters. My stubbornness is perhaps just sentimental. I cannot imagine a world without hard covers; I do not want to. I hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime. I just love the smell of new books and think the whole world should too. I imagine one must get used to these things. Books themselves have not existed since the beginning of time. At some point, they were “new technology.”
EI: And extending “mental furniture” to a different terrain—supposing the chief intent of writing is to build lasting furniture in the memory of readers—what ways can we consider what’s called non-literary fiction? Could genre fiction—romance, thriller, sci-fi, etc.—climb into the critical space reserved for literary fiction?
AA: Who makes these reservations for literary fiction? How many rooms are available in this hotel called “critical space” anyway? Such delineations cannot be so rigid or shouldn’t be. I have read sci-fi that has built not just lasting furniture but duplexes in my mind. I have also read “literary fiction” that didn’t leave even a stool in my mind. If you know the good people who own this hotel called “critical space,” do tell them to build an extension so they can accommodate more books.
EI: Once, in a conversation on publishing and reading culture, you emphasized that, for want of a better expression, Nigerians “read.” And you drew strength from seeing Sidney Sheldon titles in homes while growing up. Our friend, Adebiyi Olusolape, counter-argued that you were speaking literarily, from a privileged position, as your group of Nigerian readers was situated within a particular social class, an academic environment. I cannot remember what your answer was. Could you remind me?
AA: I do believe that Nigerians who can read, do read. It is a question of what we read. Some of the most popular spots in communities are newspaper stands, and I’ve observed this almost anywhere I’ve gone, not just in the academic environment where I grew up. Nigerians read newspapers like The Punch, Alaroye, City People, Hints. People read a lot of religious literature too, and self-help books.
EI: You might also recall in that same conversation, we equally spoke about publicizing books. Your position was that writers are equally responsible for ensuring their books are sold. How do we balance this responsibility with the disease of completion (that sigh of “oh, I'm through”) that follows the publishing of a book? To tell you the truth, I would love to conserve that energy for the next project!
AA: I really do not know how to balance these things because I have not gotten to that stage. The ultimate responsibility for a writer’s career lies with the writer. Fortunately, social media now provides relatively cheap ways for writers to put their names out there. Let me add that the best contribution you can make toward ensuring your books are sold is to put your best into writing the book. After all the marketing is done, it is the quality of your work that will determine whether I would buy your next book or recommend the current one to other people.
EI: Have you ever written poetry? Very few writers achieve success in both genres.
AA: I write poetry when I’m depressed, really horrible poetry. It is so bad that I delete it from my system by the next day so it won’t crash the poor laptop.
EI: Are you comfortable in any other genre?
AA: I have only been interested in writing fiction. I have written a play and what you might call nonfiction, but I’m just not interested in them enough to work at them. Perhaps in the future.
EI: So plays in the future?
AA: I’m actually thinking more of nonfiction, but maybe plays too.
EI: I think a lot about digital nativity. Lately, I'm wondering what affect Instant Messaging culture—especially that awful BlackBerry—will have on literature. Should we propose a dictionary of abbreviations? Like it or not, we have been visited by alien smileys! What do you say?
AA: We should have the dictionary for people like me who read comments on their Facebook wall and wonder for the next week, “What does that mean?” But we thank God for smileys, they enable one to mask ignorance or indifference.
EI: Perhaps because of you, Ile-Ife's literary flag might be hoisted on a global stage. I say this to ask if you assume any responsibility to the community that has mentored you.
AA: The question sounds so grand. Perhaps we should wait for that to happen?
EI: You have taught me patience, to keep a watchful gaze for right timing. Is this a necessary strategy for the prolific emerging writer?
AA: I don’t think of myself as prolific, but I guess I will always see myself as emerging. Sometimes I think I’m just slow, not patient. But I do think that there are times when the best thing you can do is watch, wait, and keep writing.
EI: But, really, what are we waiting for?
AA: The right opportunity or a series of opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, by “wait” I don’t mean wait for some fairy godmother to visit your laptop and discover all the wonderful things you have written. Keep writing, apply for everything you are eligible for, submit to every journal or competition. Hopefully pushing yourself this way will help you get much better at your craft. So you are waiting for your efforts to meet with the right opportunity for you.
EI: To what would you attribute the increase of literary platforms on social media? Could it be ease of formation, a cultural awakening, or a sense that things could be lost if not engaged with?
AA: You know me—I never keep up with these things on Facebook. I’m hoping I can get more involved at some point down the road, be a more sociable person.
EI: How often do you write longhand?
AA: Every time I’m stuck in a lecture and I really need to be completing a story. I hope my lecturers never read this.
EI: Could you describe the period before the first sentence of a new story?
AA: It is never the same each time. Sometimes it is beautiful because there is this stupid line in my head that I think is wonderful at the time, but which I will delete with my eyes closed the next morning because I’m too embarrassed to even read it. Other times I keep rewriting that first sentence over and over again. Those are the ones that usually stay. Most times, I write something that I know is rubbish, but I write it, highlight it in red, and move on to the good stuff. It is always exciting to start something new.
EI: And how do you begin the end of a story? Does the end occur to you as an “end”?
AA: I don’t think of it as the end, just as the point where that particular story stops. Those people keep on living their lives when I’m not looking.
April 16, 2012
A Family Affair, in African Writing, Issue 6
Durosinmi, in Word Pulse
Shadow of Eclipse, in Weaverbird Collection by Farafina
Counting Beans, in Saraba Magazine Issue 3
Angels of Peace Villa, in Saraba Magazine Issue 4
Awards & Recognitions
Highly Recommended Story, Commonwealth Short Story Competition, 2009
Winner, Naija Stories Website Launch Story Competition 2010
Writer in Residence, Ledig House, Spring 2012
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
Africa, Ayobami Adebayo, Gambit, Nigeria