Ayòbámi Adébáyò was was in her early 20s when the bus she was travelling on from her job in an engineering institute took a detour to avoid rush-hour traffic in the Nigerian city of Ife. “We cruised through this neighbourhood that was really impoverished, where I hadn’t been before. I remember being astonished that it was there. This was a city I’d been living in since I was about eight and I didn’t know anything about it at all,” she says. She took the memory with her when, shortly afterwards, she flew out to the UK to embark on a new life as a writer.
The ramshackle district, so different from the one in which she had grown up as the daughter of a hospital doctor, gave her a setting for one strand of the second novel that fans of her bestselling debut Stay With Me have spent six long years waiting for. Well, it’s been a busy time, she says over Zoom, from her home in Lagos. Not only did she have to manage the globe-trotting demands of becoming the new star of Nigerian literature, feted in the New York Times, and interviewed in both the Paris Review and Vogue, but she also got married and gave birth.
It’s 10am in Lagos when we speak, and she breaks into a doting smile as her son, now nine months old, tries his best to attract her attention from the sidelines. She delivered the final version of A Spell of Good Things less than a week before he was born. “It was right up to the wire. I think everyone was a bit surprised that I finished it,” she says. Begun before the publication of Stay With Me, while she was still doing her MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, it is a very different sort of novel. Where Stay With Me told a closely focused story about the impact of childlessness and sickle-cell disease on the life of a young couple trapped in the husband’s traditional family, A Spell of Good Things deals with political corruption, social injustice and domestic violence. It has a big cast of characters, and is charged with an explosive satirical energy as it brings the personal and the political crashing together.
A Spell of Good Things is also set in a different period of Nigerian history – not the military dictatorship of the early 1980s under which the troubled marriage of Yejide and Akin plays out in Stay With Me, but in the chaos of a newly restored democracy in the early years of the new millennium. In one strand, the family of a young boy called Eniolá struggle to survive after his history teacher father loses his livelihood, and his mental health, to devastating cost-cutting layoffs in schools. In another – informed by the experiences of Adébáyò’s own sister as an overworked junior doctor – Wúraolá, the daughter of a wealthy family, attempts to square her parents’ traditional expectations with the life of a modern career woman. Their paths cross in a tailor’s shop where Eniolá sweeps the floors and Wúraolá’s glamorous mother sweeps in to arrange the dresses for her daughter’s betrothal ceremony.
From early childhood Adébáyò, who was born in 1988, absorbed a family interest in politics. “We would go to church on Sundays and pick up four papers and spend the rest of the day reading them and talking about what was going on.” She recalls the excitement leading up to elections: “I remember becoming more aware of the structures of power in Nigeria, and being excited for myself about voting for the first time. Then thinking: ‘Well, what did that mean?’” For her own family, some things had improved in the new democracy, because her mother had a job, as a doctor, and had only two children to feed. But it was a very different story for those directly affected when the redundancies were made across Osun State, where the family lived. The new state government didn’t think humanities subjects were necessary, she explains. “A generation of teachers in the public school system were just retrenched overnight. I had a friend whose mum was one of them, and she suffered with depression for a long time after that. There were families with two teacher parents who both killed themselves,” she says. In A Spell of Good Things, Eniolá’s resourceful mother is reduced to begging from her more successful siblings, who are contemptuous of her “idle” husband. As the family’s poverty deepens, Eniolá loses his place at his private school with disastrous results.
Adébáyò started her own secondary schooling at one of the public schools to which Eniolá is consigned, because – though most families who could afford to sent their children to fee-paying schools – the university circles in which her parents moved had social principles. Her mother had been educated in one. But the demoralisation of the early 2000s was so bad that even those teachers who survived wouldn’t always bother to turn up for classes, so after two terms Adébáyò was moved to a private school. “There were casualties that happened in that window of time that I wanted to sit with in this novel,” she says. “Sometimes I think, in relation to Nigeria, that there are so many small tragedies that the collective consciousness can’t process all of them, and they just keep happening and falling away.”
There are so many small tragedies in Nigeria that the collective consciousness can’t process all of them
For all its concentration on the difficulties of
day-to-day life in the west African country, the novel rings with the confidence of a literary culture that has commanded the world stage for decades now. Each of its four sections is introduced with epigraphs from the work of writers she admires: Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe and Sefi Atta. By her early teens Adébáyò had already read most of the classics in the Heinemann African Writers Series, which her mother would buy from the university bookshop. “She said to me: ‘If you’re going to be a writer, you need to read all this.’” But Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe were of a different generation. “I remember the first time I walked into a supermarket in Ife, and I saw [Atta’s] Everything Good Will Come. It was the first contemporary Nigerian fiction I had ever come across,” she says.
“I had the privilege of growing up on a diet of literature from Nigeria and from other parts of the continent, alongside classics from the British Council library which my mother used to take me to. I didn’t know what ‘winter’ was when I was six or seven, but I had read all these books set in it. I had no idea what ginger beer was for a long time.” This mixed literary heritage means that in her own novel she is unafraid to leave food names, fashion styles, or commonplace phrases in the Yoruba dialect of Ijesa, without explanation. “I feel that it’s possible for all these things to exist together, because that was the world in which I existed as a reader.”
At Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ife, an inspirational professor introduced her to the work of Tsitsi Dangarembga, giving her the Zimbabwean writer’s semi-autobiographical novel, Nervous Conditions, about growing up in postcolonial Rhodesia. “It’s still very precious to me. I think it’s upstairs,” she says. “It’s one of those books that made me think: ‘Oh my god, this is what I want to be able to do.’” She’s reluctant to talk about an African literature. “I think that what many writers find constraining is the way it is then read in a limited way, in terms of imagining what the work can do, and is doing, and all the levels at which it is working. You are worried that you might only be read for some kind of anthropology, which is not necessarily what you’re trying to do.”
At university she met a fellow aspiring writer Emmanuel Iduma, and they bonded over the exchange of books and ideas. They kept in contact when she moved to the UK to study at UEA. When, after 14 years of friendship, the couple finally married in 2020, they had played it so cool that many of their friends were unaware that they were even romantically involved. Denied a traditional wedding by the pandemic (“we had less than a hundred people, which is tiny by Nigerian standards”), they decided to share their news in a sweet exchange of love notes and photographs on Instagram. He cited Roland Barthes and the soundtrack to their first wedding dance (Patrick Watson’s Sit Down Beside Me), while she quoted James Salter and CP Cavafy: “And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.”
Novelists are not usually the most clubbable of people, so was it a shock to find it picked up in the press? “We’re both relatively private people – I think I’m probably private to the point of being secretive,” she admits, “but it was this overflow of joy. Our birthdays are within days of each other, and it was the first birthday we were sharing as a married couple, so we just decided we would celebrate each other in this way. And I’m quite glad that we did. It was such a wonderful moment for both of us.” They did go on to have a big extended family celebration when restrictions were lifted, she adds. Though, since her father’s death back in the 1990s, her immediate family circle has been small – just herself, her mother and her younger sister – there are plenty of more distant relatives on both sides: “I didn’t know half the people there.”
In A Spell of Good Things the buildup to a traditional betrothal ceremony is the plotline that brings everything – and everyone – together, illuminating a strong understory about the role of older women in family life. As in Stay With Me, mothers rule their households with rods of iron, even while kowtowing to the men. “My mother is a very strong influence in my life,” she says, “and when I observe my family in Nigeria, in particular, I think the mothers are incredibly powerful. The question is how that power is allowed to assert itself and what ways it is camouflaged as a sort of performance. I wanted to write about Nigerian women of that generation, born at some point in the 60s, because I am fascinated by the contradictions in the way they had to move through the world. They placed a lot of importance on marriage because you had to be married to exist in society.”
Her own marriage is a mixed one: Iduma is Igbo and they are raising their son to be trilingual in Yoruba, Igbo and English. In a country that still bears the scars of a bitter civil war, this remains a big deal in some quarters, as was made clear to Iduma a few days before Christmas while he waited to pick up his sister-in-law from the airport. “There was this weird interaction with someone who was saying to my husband: ‘How can you be married to a Yoruba woman, when it is not your language?’ So people do still remark on it.”
Her sister has followed their mother into medicine, working at a hospital in Norwich and providing a convenient foothold in the UK for Adébáyò . Now that she has a child it’s not so easy to flit around, living the life of a footloose literary star, so the family are planning to decamp to East Anglia for the novel’s publication. A Spell of Good Things paints such a bleak picture of the violence and inequality of her homeland that I wonder if she is ever tempted to emigrate like her sister. But, she says: “I think that Nigeria will always be home. It’s frustrating and complex but I do feel some sort of commitment to the country.” It also has the advantage of being a land without winter, thousands of imaginative miles from the snowy landscapes that dominated her early reading, though with harmattan winds that coat the landscape in dust. “I stepped out this morning, and it was really nice,” she says. “Actually, I think it’s my favourite season.”