Monique Kwachou, a Cameroonian Writer, Youth Worker & Development Scholar shares her thoughts on what it means to come from a country where a poignant story exposing family love and secrets, cultural and traditional riches, political revolution and societal evolution is set.
It is often said that a book can recommend a person. This typically suggests that one reader may earn the respect and admiration of another based on their tastes in literature. I thought of this saying this past week as I read Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me and felt a bit envious of my younger brother being the one with one Nigerian parent rather than I. I thought to myself that a book can also recommend a people.
In my opinion, the potential of marketing one’s own country and culture through writing are enormous— reading Nora Roberts’ through my teens had me listing Ireland as one of the places I could settle other than my country, because she’d made Irish people seem so personable, so affable. This is what Adebayo’s book had me feeling and thinking;
I can definitely take up Nigerian nationality, sha.
I get these people. I can understand, empathise, break bread with them because they’re wonderfully complex, exceedingly rich in love for self, customs, language and history that one can get, if not always accept.
Stay With Me introduces us to the world of Yejide and Akin and allows them to tell their respective parts of a heart-rendering story of how seeking what they could not have in marriage – children – ruined them, first as individuals and as a couple. The novel meanders through time beautifully. Starting with the couples’ present separation and tracing the root of it all. The pressure— social and emotional from without and within which would lead a childless woman to go ‘crazy’. And foundation of lies a man who loves his wife as much as he does his reputation would lay, resulting in the fall of anything built atop it.
In Stay With Me, Adebayo presents painfully realistic characters—not one can be considered good or bad, smart or foolish. Each has their moment of praise and shame, ensuring that by the end of the tale, the only main character left unblemished is the plot twist unexpected. It is the authors ability to present such whole people, people we could empathise with in turn and shake our heads at which makes the work powerful. Be it a ‘home-wrecker’ we’d all like to hate or the ‘Momsie’ who falls short of deserving the endearment her daughter-in-law held with such reserved honour.
“Only the witty would allow fiction to resurrect memory of the fall of the first Buhari presidency at a time when people are wishing for the end of his second.”
Stay With Me is an illustrative lesson on the inability of love to sustain a marriage, particularly given the burden of individual emotional needs carried into marriage. Through various characters we see childhood inspired needs for a family of one’s own, need to finally meet up with competition as first-born son, need to prove worthiness of one’s wife/as one’s wife and more. All these needs echoed and emphasized by society, friends and family with everything from childhood fables to careless words to outright interference. The tale makes it clear that we are often set up to fail as individuals with vacuums within us going into unions that need whole people to hold.
What makes Stay With Me a recommender of Nigerians isn’t necessarily the tale which in itself shows tragedy resulting from the social norms of the people; no, the recommendation is in the telling, the setting of the stage. Characters who hoist the people up for the world to see, these are a people who tell their kids bedtime stories—rich didactic fables unique to them. These are a people with names that shape their lives and morph with their living. These are a people with women who discuss everything from politics to sex at the salon, a people who may have thieving policemen and religious charlatans but also have men who fall in love with their wives at first sight, men who are active fathers as well as those who are absentee sperm donors. These are people who are traditional, superstitious yes, but also believe and utilize psychiatric help, even as far back as 1987. If anything, Stay with Me dispels all notions of there being ‘a single story’ for Nigerian people.
A book can equally recommend its writer. This one needs no explanation. Adebayo’s recommendation is found in her artful mixing of parables and imagery in language. Employing parables is a staple in African writing in general and Nigerian writing particularly, which this author pulled off truly well, for if as Achebe is oft quoted for “parables are the oil with which we swallow words”, Adebayo knew to put in just the right amount of “oil” to make the meal light and smooth. The tale is equally a referral of the author’s perceptiveness, wit and humour. Only the perceptive would draw attention to the unique pain of the first wife, Iyale— of a polygamous home despite the notion of power in that position. Only the witty would allow fiction to resurrect memory of the fall of the first Buhari presidency at a time when people are wishing for the end of his second. As for humour, there’s a wide range, from laugh aloud to biting irony. From the image of a haughty new wife barely missing the bushes with diarrhoea induced by deliberate food poisoning, to the irony of finally confronting your marital dilemma at a salon as an abrasive woman talks about hard and soft pestles, the joy in the ‘pounding’ and the uselessness of a soft thing.
In reviews, some have called Stay with Me a tragedy; others see the wealth of satire. For me this is ultimately a love story, a beautifully sensual one, and a rare occurrence for African fiction. The most profound love lessons are found ironically in the midst of adultery scenes which make a subtle argument for emotional intimacy reaching orgasmic heights ‘hard things’ can’t near. It is like a quote from the early parts of the story states:
If the burden is too much and stays too long even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.
This is what stayed with me.
Monique Kwachou wrote in from Cameroon. Want to react to this piece? Drop a comment below or write us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monique Kwachou is a Cameroonian writer, youth worker and scholar of Gender Studies and Education for Development. She published her first book, a poetry collection entitled Writing Therapy: A Collection of Poems, with Langaa RPCIG in 2010. She has since published poems, short stories and articles in various international magazines and anthologies including To See the Mountain and Other Stories (2011), Summoning of the Rain (2012), It Wasn’t Exactly Love (2015) and more. She has been national Public Relations Officer for the Anglophone Cameroon Writers Association.
*All thoughts expressed in this piece are those of the author.
©Featured image culled from Women’s Prize for Fiction