Like it happens with all the books I have read and loved with a dizzying fierceness, I knew I wanted to read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me the second I heard about it. I read everything I could find online about the author, and every review of the book I could find. Imagine my joy when I discovered it was also out on Audible! I listened to this book from start to finish in two days alternating between time on the floor with the narration sped up to times two and running errands in town completely oblivious to the world at narration speed almost doubled.
This is what Stay With Me does to you: it commands your entire world to a stop. Set in 80’s Nigeria - predominantly in Ilesa, Osun State - the novel tells a story of a young couple - Yejide and her husband Akin. These two protagonists, married for four years, are accustomed to familial interference on account of Yejide’s ‘childlessness.’ On this one visit, however, the couple’s fate is thrown into a whirlwind, and their marriage is left at the bay of despair.
In what was a norm in preceding centuries, Moomi, Akin’s mother, procures a new wife for her first son; one they believe will bear Akin a child - a child they think will “call another one into the world”, be it for Yejide or the good of the (extended) family. What initially was a mother’s attempt to save face and a much-sought after proof of femininity, this becomes the beginning of Yejide’s undoing: “like a hastily tied scarf coming loose, on the ground before the owner is aware of it.”
THE INADEQUACIES OF LOVE
Love, growing up, has presented itself as all powerful, all forgiving, all encompassing — and then there is the story of Akin and Yejide. Some parts of the story are told from Akin’s perspective, including his meeting and falling in love with Yejide; knowing from the first moment he saw her that he wanted to marry her. It is obvious that Akin does love his wife, in his own twisted way. He wants her to be happy, so much so that he goes extra lengths to reaffirm his love and respect for her, even after giving into his family’s request of a second wife.
Akin and Yejide’s love story is enviable at the start. Akin ends his relationship with his current lover just hours after setting his eyes on Yejide and then they are married before the year ends. Four years after marriage, their love is however stumped not just by their childlessness, but also by his initial reticence about her longing for offspring, secrets Akin keeps, and the ensuing deception he perpetrates.
The slow and heartbreaking transformation in their marriage testifies to the truth that love cannot fix certain things. It shows how love can become a burden; how this burden, if it stays too long, will see that “love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.” Notwithstanding, as Adébáyò writes in insightful prose, Akin and Yejide’s complex relationship shows that “even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.”
Although he tries to hold Yejide up in the dark times, Akin is not without reproach and as such, in the earlier parts of the book, the reader is more than likely to judge him. However, as the story progresses, it is plain to see that Akin’s character is compelling and human. One becomes privy to the pressures he faces and the intentions behind his decisions. Despite the weight of Yejide’s pain, one is forced to understand that Akin has his own demons to contend.
The complexity of his choices caused me anger, heartache, sorrow and confusion.
Still, I am moved to ask, what are we all if not flawed?
AIN’T I WOMAN ENOUGH
The reader discovers that Yejide is motherless; having lost her mother only minutes after her birth. The absence of a mother is life-changing for Yejide, as it should be. She is unable to call anyone else Moomi, finding the “very thought sacrilegious, a betrayal of the woman who had given up her life” for her. That is until she meets Akin’s mother - a woman whose embrace makes her heart sing the very word she never thought she would use again.
Moomi’s warmth is replaced by hostility, and it soon becomes clear that Moomi’s affection is largely dependent on Yejide’s ability to “manufacture” grandchildren. One is forced to wonder: isn't the true essence of motherhood pure, unconditional love? How much choice does a motherless child have in picking the kind of love they deserve?
Yejide’s motherlessness and subsequent childlessness bring to mind the powerful concluding sentence of Taiye Selasi’s short story:
In Stay With Me, Yejide has the misfortune of being both. Each page flipped is an affirmation that she truly is alone in the world. I am also really drawn to the way Adébáyò explores the notion that a woman is only ‘woman enough’ when she has children and no scene screams this better than when Moomi tells Yejide that “women manufacture children and if [one] can’t, [one’s] just a man. Nobody should call [one] a woman.”
It is interesting that although this story is predominantly set in 1985, childbearing is still revered in the Nigerian society as the supreme validation of womanhood; a sort of prestigious ‘accomplishment’. Also discomforting is the idea that mothering must be legitimised by suffering and toiling. Again, Moomi tells Yejide that before asking God for a child she must ask for the grace to be able to suffer for that child. I appreciate that preparation for a degree of self sacrifice should precede childbearing, but does motherhood equal suffering? Should it?
THE BURDEN OF AFRICAN ‘MANHOOD’
In telling a part of the story from Akin’s perspective, Ayòbámi Adébáyò highlights the psychological impact of societal pressures on men. As the story unfolds, it becomes easier to side with Yejide, to understand her frustrations and resentment where Akin is concerned, but by including Akin as a narrator, Adébáyò gives him a chance to tell his side. This allows the reader to step into Akin’s shoes and see things from his perspective. Thus, his actions, though unjustifiable, can be ‘understood’.
It is impossible to avoid a key reason for Akin’s deception: the insufferable fragility of African masculinity propagated by our society. Just like in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo’s manliness is proved by the number of wives he possesses and his inability to confront his emotions about Ikemefuna capably, Akin’s manhood is contingent on his ability to facilitate the ‘manufacturing of children’. It is from such emotional and mental chokeholds that Adébáyò hopes for men to “liberate themselves.”
Similarly, in a TEDx talk, Ghanaian, Sangu Delle addresses this issue of being an ‘African man’ and suffering in silence. He says:
While Delle’s talk hinges more on mental illness in relation to the African man, the same thread runs through the issues faced by men like Akin. African men need not feel like they need society’s permission to express emotional turmoil or to seek help. It is important for men - and boys, alike - to understand this, as it will help to bridge the gap of double standards, and allow African men and women the freedom to be who they want to be.
From Adébáyò’s use of indigenous language to the retelling of two Yoruba folktales, this book is peppered with reminders of its origin on every (other) page. The author’s value for (her) indigenous language by the use of intonations on her name on the book cover, and Ijesa Yoruba - not just ‘mainstream’ Yoruba - through the novel also emphasises the value placed on culture, heritage and language.
The intertwining of history and prose, as the author does, I found simply enjoyable! I believe that this the easiest way to teach history - a subject that had been scrapped from the Nigerian curriculum. The story is casually and yet intently built around a constantly evolving nation from coups to democracy. It is a reminder that whether or not a country falls, life goes on; people fall in love in the midst of riots, marriages crumble as dictatorships fail, and love bends as a nation finds its feet.
Almost unmissable is the culture of polygamy - which was very popular in the setting on the novel - that hovers around the story. Though this journal notes the most popular reasons for becoming a second wife, - to include wanting a financially secure environment and parental pressures - Yejide is convinced that “women who never back down, who come with strategies under their wrappers and were never as stupid or as agreeable as they seem” become second wives. The book showed how the culture of polygamy, most of all, creates enmities among women, and no such animosity for the man who marries them all.
Above all, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me is a story of desperate longing that will leave you turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. Yejide’s story is compelling but also, most characters in this book feel complete, full and rounded. I only wish one knew more about Dotun - Akin’s brother - but perhaps the story just was not his to occupy. Hands down, one of the most engaging books I have read this year!