One of the recent mind-blowing developments in Nigeria which constitute a firm rebuke to the deliberate elite indifference to and mismanagement of the country’s powerhouses of knowledge is Ayobami Adebayo (Famurewa)’s win of the 2018 edition of the notable 9mobileng Prize for Literature with her debut novel, the readable ‘Stay With Me.’ Ayo’s journey to this stage where she gets her stable shoulders garlanded is indeed a testimony to the uncommon power of her focus, clear vision, perseverance, consistency, and passion. Deeply aware of the avoidable confounding and asphyxiating rot and decay favoured in the land of her birth, Ayo made a clear determination to promote and project a different narrative of possibility and progress. Thus, in garlanding her shoulders with the fitting literary prize worth £15,000, the judges acknowledged and affirmed Ayo’s writerly capacity to sculpt an engagingly different narrative.
I have no modicum of doubt that many there are who agree that this award to Ayo for her first full-length novel is a fitting garland. It will encourage her as much as it will increase the amperage of her writerly craft. I congratulate Ayo on this big win.
As I noted, since this rising novelist put her feet on the path of writing, she has remained unwavering. I recall the many writing retreats she gave herself to at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Anyone who paid attention to her then would admit that she cut the picture of one who knew what she wanted and was ready to give it all it would require to get it. While many of us would be working our minds silly over given assignments, Ayo flowed on as if she did not have those exercises. Yet, she never performed poorly! Let’s say her schooling never interfered with her interest in creative writing. In the different writing workshops happening on campus then and elsewhere, she was a fervent presence. She has a vision to be a writer of note and she stays true to translating that viable vision into reality.
I can confidently report that I am one of those who took and still take Ayo seriously and believe in the practicality of her ambition. When I joined the Arts Desk of The Nation newspapers after graduation, one of the first sets of imaginative works I reviewed was Ayo’s (the title eludes me now) story published in a collection of short stories. Thereafter I did a features story on what I then considered emerging student authors. Ayo, in addition to Femi Morgan, Ife Adeniyi, Rez, and two other OAU students, was a prominent part of that story. It is interesting to note that Morgan and Ife (whose first novel, ‘On the Bank of the River’ made the shortlist of the Etisalat Prize for Literature – rechristened 9mobile Prize for Literature) are still unrelenting in their crafts. They are writers we need to watch out for. Their works will yet enrich the corpus of not only Nigerian but also world literature.
Another demonstration of my believe in Ayo’s writing mission occurred after the publication of her award-winning ‘Stay With Me.’ In 2017 when I was a lecturer in the Department of English and Literary Studies of King’s University, Odeomu, Osun State, Nigeria, I proposed a programme to the university management in which Ayo was to be invited for a talk and a reading of her novel. The proposal made meaning to the management and they swung into action with money and every necessary requirement for the success of the programme. With a crop of well-motivated students, we planned the programme and invited Ayo on June 21 to what was a memorable outing, for both herself and the entire university community. Indeed, if I remember correctly, we were the first university in Nigeria to invite her to read her book after her travels to a few countries for reading. Most of the students still share with me the good that Ayo’s talk has done to their lives. I also remember the VC in a meeting with Ayo before the start of the programme offered to hire her to teach and be an ambassador for the school. Wisely, Ayo replied that she would give the offer the desired reflection. Without exaggeration, the well-attended programme stood out as one of the best in the university at the time.
While planning the King’s outing, I was also talking with OAU to host Ayo to a reading – more so that it was her alma mater. The National Association of Students of English and Literary Studies (NASELS) executive of the time enthusiastically embraced the idea. Forever interested in the progress and success of his students, Prof. Chima Anyadike (our remarkable lecturer) also generously supported the plan for the programme. In July 2017 we had the programme with quality attendance. I am sure Ayo will remember the many probing questions and inspiring engagements she had with members of the audience. The Nigerian publisher of the novel contributed to that reading event by making copies of the work available at a reduced price.
Those readings were organized to promote the novel for its sterling quality. Another reading of the novel organized by Dr. Arthur Anyaduba in Canada could not hold due to some changes in the busy schedule of the author (hopefully later this year this will happen). Those who keep tab on news in the area of arts will remember that in 2017 ‘Stay With Me’ made the shortlist of the highly prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction – an appearance it made alongside five other compelling works from a long list of 16 novels. As one of the judges of that prize noted, what they read in Ayo’s novel – like the other five – stayed with them ‘beyond the final page.’
As the 9mobile judges have confirmed, ‘Stay With Me’ is one novel that has the capacity to stay with its readers beyond the final page. Set in the Nigeria of the 80s, the novel provides a gripping recreation of the puzzling tenuousness of marital love, the imponderable mystery that is the human – all masterly positioned against the backdrop of a convulsing sociopolitical system. I encourage you – if you have not – to buy the novel, read it, and gift it.
In closing this celebratory piece, I wish to note that the Ayo story I know signposts one of the problems with many a Nigerian politician – lack foresight and vision. They invest in ephemeral things – not people. The Nigerian politicians are so barren that they do not appreciate the need to improve human capacity for a better tomorrow. They are only ridiculously gifted at taking power without a structured understanding of the end to put. I remember that when Ayo got admission with a partial scholarship to a university in the UK to study creative writing, I was working with a state government at a reasonably high level. Ayo needed some support from the government – in her state of origin at that – to make the journey. We processed the papers; even reworked it as requested. But instead of providing that legitimate support, the government/governor chose to send some people to Cuba. Today, those needlessly sent to Cuba have no proof of how they have improved either themselves or the state/country. But here we are celebrating a person who was unwisely given a short shrift by her state government. If a state/country wants to be taken seriously, its managers must learn to take the citizens very seriously and invest consistently abundantly in their human capacity. That is how to capacitize a country for efficient functioning. There are many young persons in Nigeria who can bring glory to the land and be of use to humankind generally. Government at different levels in Nigeria must be intentional about creating the right atmosphere for their emergence.
Here is to Ayo more success. May the space for quality writers from Nigeria continue to enlarge.
Ademola Adesola wrote this piece from the University of Manitoba, Canada.