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The Violence of Grief: A Review of ‘Stay With Me’ by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

In her debut novel, Stay With Me, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ explores the bonds broken in marriage and motherhood by polygamy, childlessness and physical illness. After initially failing to conceive a child, main character, Yejide, must endure the presence of a new, younger wife in the house. When a child is finally born, tragedy strikes after Yejide discovers that any baby she bears will suffer from sickle cell anaemia. Overall, this is a story of love, deceit and the violence of grief, taking place against the backdrop of politically-unstable Nigeria in the 1980s.

Stay With Me offers an honest glimpse into the trials of polygamy. For Yejide, accepting a new wife means accepting feelings of shame, inadequacy and powerlessness. However, as much as the entry of the second wife introduces a climate of harmful female competitiveness, there is also a strong undercurrent of sisterhood. For instance, Yejide and her friends bond over the negative consequences of forced polygamy, openly discussing the feelings of betrayal and jealousy that come with it. The women in the novel also sympathise over the fact that the blame for barrenness is often unevenly attributed to the woman in the partnership; society tends to suggest that the problem exists within her body and overlooks the possibility that the man is at fault.

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog

Adébáyọ̀ also breaks down the many familial pressures women experience in Africa. Firstly, the initial pressure to successfully conceive causes pregnancy to become a validation not only of one’s marriage, but also one’s own self-worth. This of course becomes problematic for Yejide when she realises that she will struggle to bear healthy children, jeopardising her self-image and mental stability. Secondly, Adébáyọ̀ shows how children are often viewed as a quick-fix for a broken marriage. For example, part of the reason Yejide desires a child is because it will remedy her feelings of helplessness in the relationship, acting as a substitute for fidelity. As Yejide states:

“A man is not something you can hoard to yourself; he can have many wives, but a child can have only one real mother”.

Furthermore, Adébáyọ̀ interestingly dissects the heartbreak of childlessness for men – a perspective which is not often discussed in great detail. For Yejide’s husband, Akin, the need to start a family is related to his relationship with his own masculinity. So great is this pressure, that Akin becomes violent, secretive and manipulative, instigating actions which threaten to burst his marriage at the seams.

At times there is a choppy feel to the novel which may give the reader whiplash, as the temporal shifts often desire smoother integration and key events warrant more elaboration. However, if one accepts Adébáyọ̀’s short-story background in writing, one may have an easier time with the stoppy-starty feel of the book, and view it instead as an uneven timeline into which we jump and zoom at different stages.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ will be discussing this novel in a panel entitled ‘Love and Sickle Cell in Stay With Me’ on Sunday the 7th of July at the British Library as part of the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Tickets are available: here.

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

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