Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me (2017) has gotten lots of positive press. It was a New York Times Notable Book, The New York Times’ Critics’ Top Books of the Year, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, National Public Radio, The Economist, Buzzfeed, Paste Magazine, Southern Living, HelloGiggles, and Shelf Awareness. Huffington Post named it one of the Best Feminist Books of the Year, The New York Post called it one of the most thrilling and fascinating books of the year, and it’s on The New York Public Library’s Ten Best Books of the Year.
Usually such accolades will send me running in the opposite direction; not because I have an aversion to good literature that has been recognized as such. It’s because, through much experience, I have come to understand that usually when something is widely praised there are reasons for the praise that have little to do with the work’s inherent merit. I have many books on my shelves that have been widely praised and made it onto “important” book club reading lists. I have abandoned many of them because they made me a little ill with the realization that they would be, for me, a waste of time (I’m trying to figure out how to sell them–more on that in a few weeks).
Stay With Me was not a waste of time. It was engaging, and for the most part, well-conceived.
For much of my reading I found myself thinking a lot about the Senegalese writer, Mariama Ba’s seminal novel from way back in the day, So Long a Letter, an epistolary tale about a first wife who is utterly abandoned by her husband and his family, left to single motherhood and fending for herself after he takes a second wife.
While the issue of polygamy is part of the plot of Stay With Me, Adebayo’s debut novel centers on the struggles of a young couple, Yejide and Akin, to conceive and the desperate lengths that both go to to fulfill their obligation to bring children into the world for the sake of their families as reflections of traditional Nigerian society.
The novel left me with a sadness similar to that that I felt while reading So Long a Letter. The sadness stemmed from the fact that while fiction, the story represents the fate of way too many women in the world—to be baby producers, often at the expense of being and expressing the full human beings that they are. The toll that such a charge takes on women is immeasurable, exemplified by the ghost pregnancy that Yejide suffers.
One criticism that I have of the novel is that Adebayo tries really hard to portray the husband, Akin, sympathetically—so much so that it makes for the only real hole that I found in the narrative: his impotence. The explanation around it and Yejide’s inability to conceive just don’t make sense, especially as it is sex that drives much of the plot.
Contrary to Huffington Post’s pronouncement, I wouldn’t call Stay With Me a feminist novel, mostly for the way that it ends, seeming to redeem Akin and skip over Yejide’s years of suffering as a result of the pressures that were placed upon her to not only conceive, but keep alive children who was fated to die because of unilateral decisions that her husband made about her body. While we get some of her suffering in the action of the novel when the couple are together, the interiority of it is missing. And there are at least ten years missing in the plot in which Yejide is left to alone to deal with her trauma from the marriage and its aftermath.
All seems forgiven in the end when what she had been left/abandoned to believe had happened is shown not to have come to pass–can’t get on board with that.
The other issue that I have with the novel is the author’s pushing for bringing the political into the narrative. Don’t get me wrong—I believe that, as the feminist saying goes, “The personal is political.” Black women have always known this. If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all you also know this to be true. My objection is to the way that the intersections are integrated (or rather not) into the novel, in such a way that they feel forced.
There are countless examples from Caribbean, Latin American, and African literature where the personal and the political are seamlessly woven together. An example from one of my most recent readings is a short piece by Faith Adiele in the anthology, Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity (1996). Adiele’s reflective piece, “Locating Biafra: The Words We Wouldn’t Say” is about growing up in the US without her Nigerian father as a consequence of the Biafran War that breaks out shortly after he returns home. We find similar mastery in fictional works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Edwidge Danticat, Merle Hodges, and Maryse Conde (left to right) to name a few.
In one interview that I watched with Adebayo, she makes an important point; one that bears repeating: that in order to be a good writer one must read. I recently heard this sentiment echoed by the incomparable James McBride in his interview with Levar Burton. It’s one that Adichie has expressed many times. I believe that Adebayo has taken this very important advice to heart and I look forward to witnessing her further growth into her unique voice.
In the end, Stay With Me is a good read–great for the beach if you make it there this Summer. It kept me interested and had some titillating twists. The novel would be an excellent choice for an undergraduate literature course or a women’s and gender studies course. It is certainly meant for reading group consumption with its book club questions appended at the end.
Check out this interview with the author in which she makes another important point: that is that prior to colonialism Yoruba women regularly occupied positions of power. British imperialism brought with it disempowering notions of femininity that have stuck, dragging everyone down with it.