Ayobami Adebayo - “It’s both a political and domestic book”
Longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, the Nigerian author’s second novel, A Spell of Good Things, looks at how politics can collapse into personal lives
A Spell of Good Things explores inequality through the contrasting lives of Wuraola, the perfect daughter of wealthy family, and Eniola, the distressed son of an impoverished family. You’ve said that the novel originated on a bus ride when you went past a neighbourhood close to yours that you had not, until then, known existed. But how did these two specific characters emerge?
Eniola came first and the novel began with him. For a while I thought that it would only be from his perspective. And then I wrote, I think it was the earliest chapter, about him going to Motara’s — who is the younger daughter from the other family — school for a competition. His friend Hakim, who’s there in the beginning, is representing their school in the competition and he just sort of tags along. I started with him just wandering through the classrooms while everybody else is in the hall, and just marvelling at how different it is from his own school. And he has this encounter with Motara and they have a conversation. As I wrote that interaction, I thought, oh, this is also about this girl’s family. So I switched to Motara’s point of view immediately... But very quickly, probably by the second chapter that I wrote about Motara, her older sister shows up as this figure of perfection that she’s expected to live up to and she’s resentful of, and… it was very clear to me that the story I wanted to tell from that family was really about Wuraola.
It all starts with Eniola’s father losing his job. He was a history teacher at a public school when the government decides to lay off 4,000 teachers of the arts and humanities, to focus on the sciences. And so the family plummets into poverty. Eniola’s father represents the worst fear of anybody who makes a career in these fields: financial ruin, loss of status, emotional breakdown. He could be read as a kind of cautionary tale. Growing up, you were also dissuaded by many including your teachers from choosing the humanities. But while your second novel has been longlisted for the Booker, his fate was pretty much sealed. Could you tell me about the circumstances which protected, even propelled, you but could do nothing for him?
With his character, I’m looking specifically, among other things, at the consequence of policy. He did something that he felt was fulfilling. He felt he was making a difference in the life of his students. And then the government policy comes down and he has to live with the reality that the state does not value what he’s doing.
In that instance, I was looking at a very particular occurrence in my home state [Osun] and the disparity of what was possible for me. My own arts’ teachers wasn’t sacked because I was going to private school. But another child like me, with the same talent, with the same interest in writing, would have seen all their teachers disappear. All the teachers who could have nurtured that talent, who could have guided them, would have disappeared from school overnight like that.
It was something that happened in the early 2000s when I was in secondary school. I just never forgot about it… A different government came in and brought in back teachers, but I can still see the impact of that messaging on not just people who choose a career in the arts but even people who choose a career in education. For instance, a friend of mine who’s mom was caught up in all of that, one of the things that she and her siblings were very clear about was that they were not going to become teachers. I couldn’t stop thinking about what a society saying to its young people when it doesn’t value people who serve the society.
I had structures around me that made my life possible, that made that aspiration — even though it was a bit counter to whatever many people expected — possible. Number one being my family’s support, financially and even in just allowing me to do what I really felt that I wanted to do.
And with Eniola’s father, I really wanted to capture what I imagine must have been the crushing disappointment of a generation of people who had committed themselves to serving their community in that way.
I believe you started writing him in 2013 when you were a young unpublished writer — what was it like embodying those same fears?
It was intense — because I tend to really get into my characters. It was depressing. It was… in some way walking through some of the anxieties that I definitely had earlier on because, at some point, I think if you choose a career in the arts, you ask yourself how am I going to pay my bills? And that that’s a question that this character is asking himself and cannot answer. So I think it was one way to walk through some subconscious or even conscious anxiety.
What were the political circumstances in which the novel is set?
The early 2000s were very crucial in that Nigeria had been under military rule for several years. And in 1999, just before the new millennium, we had a nationwide election.
In the beginning, people had high hopes for what democracy could bring, and I think very quickly, unfortunately, as it happened in this instance, many people started realizing that it was not going to solve everything. Quite a number of the inheritors of the fight for democracy, the people who had managed to get into power, were themselves not really there to prioritize the needs of their people. And that became quite apparent in some of the policy decisions that they would make, in the kind of funding that government institutions were still getting, or not getting, as time went on.
It was a pivotal time, it was a time of hope. It was also a time, I think, of the beginning of certain disappointment in the Nigerian project, and the thing with this novel is, you know it has perspectives of different generations. For a certain generation, someone like Eniola’s father who had experienced military rule and the repeated disappointment of the 1970s and of the ’80s to come into the new millennium and start having similar experiences, for some of them it was a breaking point. Or a breaking point in their relationship with the political system. And there were people who just gave up and said, you know, I’m not even going to participate in this anymore.
Did the weaving of the domestic and the political happen naturally when you were writing — or was it more deliberate?
Fundamentally I’m so interested in political systems and history, and the news — that the ideas that come to me tend to intersect with that quite a bit… So the ideas are there, but then you have to sort of make it work in fiction. And that’s where the work was with A Spell of Good Things — that I have all these things I want to write about, but I have to wait for the right characters whose lives intersect with this event and can really make a story a novel out of that.
It’s both, a political and domestic book, and in many ways, it’s thinking through how that external framework can collapse into people’s personal and intimate spaces and lives.
Your debut novel Stay With Me (2017) was about the unraveling of a marriage. This book is about the unraveling of two entire families. Is the unravelling an entry point into dissecting structure or a kind of political statement?
I think it’s a bit of both. With Stay With Me, I settled for having the political in the background and the marriage in the foreground, perhaps as a metaphor for what is going on in the country at that point, because the points of transition in the marriage are similar to points of transition in the country, in that book. But it’s very in the background in the final form that it has taken.
With A Spell of Good Things, I feel like I’ve been a little more direct in placing these two things side by side and in correspondence with each other. It still has symbolic figures and symbolic moments, but I think it’s a more direct conversation.
I believe you were writing A Spell of Good Things during your Master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) — years before Stay With Me was published. Were you, at some point, writing both the novels simultaneously?
I started writing Stay With Me around 2010, and I’d done a couple of drafts, I think. In 2013, it had been shortlisted for the Kwani Manuscript Prize [a literary award for unpublished fiction from African writers], so I was still working on it. The novel was mostly there, but I needed to rethink the structure. And then the idea for this novel came to me, and I started working on it on the side.
So I started writing the first draft of A Spell of Good Things while I was still editing Stay With Me. And then at some point, I had to stop working on A Spell of Good Things and just really finish Stay With Me because it was the most complete of the two at that point.
But by the time Stay with Me was published, I already had quite a few chapters of A Spell of Good Things.
You were workshopping A Spell of Good Things at UEA — did you have to finish a draft of the book there?
I didn’t have a finished draft of the book at UEA. By the time I got to UEA, I had the choice to workshop Stay With Me. But I felt that I wanted to finish Stay With Me on my own, because I was just afraid that if I didn’t finish any book on my own, once I left the program, I’d never be able to do that. So I decide to workshop A Spell of Good Things instead. So I was submitting chapters, and I must have workshopped maybe about six or eight chapters during then — quite a sizeable chunk of the book.
What is your writing routine?
It depends on where I am in the process. If I’m writing a first draft, I generally run from the beginning to the end as quickly as I can. I usually set a word count target and I meet that. And then, what I think of as the real work, starts: just going back to the beginning and figuring out what on earth I’m doing. It’s very slow and it takes as long as it takes. I don’t put a time or word limits to that. I go over things chapter by chapter. I try to think through things. I throw things out. I write again. And I do that for each book. I think I’ve done that at least seven times before I feel like this is something that I can then show to someone.
The most predictable part of it for me is the first draft, the only thing I’m trying to do is to get to the end — or get as close to the end as I can, and then I come back from the beginning and just start taking everything apart and putting it back together again.
How do you keep at it over the years?
It’s two things.
I have several ideas but when it comes to working on a novel, I only write the ones that feel compelling to me. I can’t stay with a novel that I don’t believe in. I have to really feel it’s in my heart, that it’s a story that needs to be told.
I also think I’ve learned to be patient with myself and to be patient with the work. Stay with Me taught me that. It was my first novel and up until it was published, I almost did not believe it would be. And then, when it was published, I was startled by how permanent a record it is. I’m a writer who edits a lot. And so I was suddenly like, I can’t change anything, I can’t fix this. But I think it made me really take my time with A Spell of Good Things because I was thinking once this is out, it is out.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.