Literary Musings: Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

His words were like a blow to my head – they made me dizzy and disoriented. I mumbled them to myself, trying to piece his sentences together again. […] The past flipped itself open like a spooky family album, revealing one familiar picture after the other, highlighting the things standing in plain view, which I had never seen. Things I had refused to see.

 

I owe my enduring love for African and world literature to classes I took with some exceptionally involved professors at Leeds University. It wasn’t that I wanted to deliberately avoid classes in canonical ‘English’ literature. (Evading Great Expectations throughout my degree was entirely a happy coincidence, honest.) Their classes introduced me to writers from some of the most beautiful and troubled places in the world, and being immersed in the literature of cultures previously unknown to me was enthralling and addictive.

This lasting influence led me to Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Baileys-shortlisted debut novel. Set against the political chaos of 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me is a powerful, plot-driven exposition of a marital struggle able to strike a chord with women all over the world.

In riveting yet simple prose, Adébáyọ̀ keenly demonstrates her character’s fears, dreams and deceptions, and their impassioned frustration at the militarised state of Nigerian politics. Characters evolve soundly: Yejide is an instinctive judge of character with a razor-sharp tongue and dry sense of humour to match; her husband Akin desperately in love, outwardly self-assured and privately proud beyond common sense. Adébáyọ̀’s writing explores the cultural complexities and pressures of a Nigeria still in the grip of a largely patriarchal system.

Hats off must absolutely be extended to Adébáyọ̀ for her pointed and unabashed exploration of a topical subject so specific to Nigeria. The onus on women to bear children (often by any means, as Adébáyọ̀ explores) is represented as an oppressive bind, characteristic of a marital struggle which holds true for many women in twenty-first century Nigeria and all over the world. The pressure placed on Yejide to bear a child is suffocating and relentless. Subjected to an interminable stream of medical examinations, prophets and fertility-inducing rituals that all fail to produce a child, she is eventually presented with a new second wife for Akin. That Yejide steadfastly opposes polygamy is of no consequence. She is expected to make room so that they can both bear the children that Akin – and more importantly his mother, Moomi – longs for.

Following an intense ritual ordeal atop the ‘Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles’ at the hands of the comically rendered Prophet Josiah, the pressure to become pregnant plunges Yejide into an extended psychotic break. Through the emotional clarity of Adébáyọ̀’s writing we accompany Yejide through the unspooling of her psychological state: through her imagined and actual pregnancies, and in the transition from the stigma of childlessness to the trauma of child loss, culminating in the emotional shut-down that leads her to abandon her broken life with Akin altogether.

Akin’s inability to face his truth and what this costs Yejide is aptly summarised by Diana Evans as ‘the damage done by the boundlessness of male pride’. The steps Akin takes to project his childlessness as Yejide’s burden led to an acute disdain and detestation of this character as I read. Yejide’s heart-breaking realisation of what Akin’s deceptions have cost her speaks to the patriarchal bind in which women in Nigeria are held in terms of oppression of individuality and absolute deference to their husbands.

In the vein of some of her predecessors including Chinua Achebe and Chimimanda Adichie, Adébáyọ̀ explores the fractious relationship between tradition and modernity and pressurised expressions of masculinity and femininity in 1980s Nigeria. Episodes of Nigeria’s political tumult are seamlessly woven into the narrative with a depth of understanding that belies Adébáyọ̀’s age and experience. Political coups and revolving dictatorships provide a tangible backdrop for the diurnal routines of Yejide and Akin, from their days of protest and courtship at university to raising terminally ill children amid political uncertainty and an interminable undercurrent of state violence.

Emotional and compelling, Adébáyọ̀’s novel is a brave contemporary exposition of the Nigerian female experience. Stay With Me will leave you pondering the deceptions and fates of Yejide and Akin long after you have turned the final pages.

 

This story made me revisit the universality of the female experience for myself, and reminded me of the importance of reading writing beyond reflections of our own cultural experiences. Of reading outside of your own, tiny geopolitical bubble.

Do this where you can. It’s important.

#MeToo

 

Having stumbled across it quite by chance myself, I’m unsure how many people would have tuned in to Channel 5’s Raped: My Story on Wednesday. When I settled in to flick through what the banality of weeknight TV had to offer I had envisioned settling on something entertaining and not at all serious. Or catching up on Louis Theroux.

Instead I found myself glued to my seat and entirely struck by the strength and pain of the women looking back at me, into the camera, sharing their stories about what it cost them to speak out about being raped.

‘Rape’ is a word a lot of us find difficult to use in popular discourse. In private or in public, for men and women, it is a universally unsettling and stigmatised term in everything from journalism and social media to politics and the judicial system.

Watching these women recount their harrowing and intensely personal violations caught me completely off-guard. I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t ready for the loss, for the lack of justice, for the transformations these women were forced to undergo as they developed a skin thick enough to deflect the misconceptions, doubt and counter-accusations being heaped upon them at every turn.

These women suffered rape or some other [NOT LESSER] form of heinous sexual abuse; were violated; had the courage to come forward and attempt to press charges; and were serially let down by an interminable string of individuals and governing bodies, from the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to the juries that served on the fraction of cases that made it to court.

These women were barred from seeking justice, denied closure, and advised not to pursue their cases by people in positions of power. Their ordeals were characterised as nothing out of the ordinary: ‘sometimes these things happen.’ Best to let it lie. Don’t make a scene, whatever you do, don’t make a scene. How unbecoming. You’re alright now, aren’t you? No harm done.

The statistics quoted in the documentary speak to the appalling way that sexual assault cases are dealt with in legal and political terms.

There isn’t enough [FORENSIC] evidence [HER TESTIMONY IS EVIDENCE]. Had you been drinking. What on earth were you wearing? But you had sex with them the week before. Did you actually say ‘no’? Why didn’t you run? Why are you only coming forward NOW?

Such are the myriad prejudices and assumptions that discredit and place blame on survivors. On Channel 5’s debate program Petronella Wyatt let us all in on a secret: the length of your skirt predicates your desire for unsolicited sexual advances. Her blithe sweeping statements cited alcohol consumption and wardrobe choices as reason enough to expect sexual advances and/ or violence. Miniskirts in parliament are open season. ‘What do you expect?’

We do not expect someone else’s hands in our back pockets. On our waists. In our hair. Between our legs. Around our wrists.

Our skirts are not inadvertently soliciting sexual comments or advances on our behalf.

The debate scrutinised the power of the #MeToo hashtag in the court of public opinion, and the ‘mob’ mentality apparently surrounding Tweets about sexual harassment and violence.

There is a reason survivors feel more confident Tweeting than walking into a police station. Why the Twitter mob is addressed in lieu of a jury.

It has taken a hashtag to give victims and survivors the confidence to speak out – and they are, finally, in droves. Is this cause to celebrate the unifying power of the digital age in which we live? Can we finally address the failings of our judicial systems that systematically prevent victims from accessing a more concrete justice in the legal sense?

To the Harvey Weinsteins and Michael Fallons who continue exist outside of the scrutiny of public opinion: your behaviour has never been acceptable. It has merely been accepted.

No longer.

Our answer to the rape question needs to change. The mantra needs to be

DON’T RAPE. Not DON’T GET RAPED.

 

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Rape and sexual violence are complex and upsetting topics. Channel 5 compiled a very helpful list of some places you can go and people you can call for guidance and support. It’s here.