Once upon a time, there lived Ijapa the tortoise and his wife Iyanibo. Though they loved each other to no end, she was barren and so cried everyday to Eledumare. Her husband, doing all that he could, eventually crossed mountains to meet a medicine man that could move mountains. When he got there, the man mixed a meal to be given to Iyanibo, warning only that Ijapa not taste the meal or open the calabash that contained it. But starving on the long journey home, Ijapa had only taken a taste before he couldn’t resist finishing the plate. He quickly fell into a deep sleep. On waking up three days later, his belly had become as big as a pregnant woman’s. In one version, the story of Ijapa invariably doesn’t end there—the time-honored bread sauce of the happyending, Henry James called it. So, Ijapa, with his big belly, returns to the medicine man to plead; the man makes Ijapa’s belly become flat again and makes Iyanibo, for the first time, become round, expectant with child.
The tale is as old as time and not at all a tall one: the married couple for whom, because they cannot conceive, happiness does not exist; and who must bring it forth themselves in the form of a child. The many Nigerian novels in which the childless woman plays either a central role or cameo, mirrors a reality that has existed from colonial to contemporary times (see two of the more famous examples: The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta—a book dedicated “to all mothers,”— and Efuru by Flora Nwapa).
The tale of Ijapa and his wife is one of many recounted in Ayọbámi Adébáyọ’s Stay With Me, though the charm of the tale of a childless woman in this contemporary Nigerian novel cannot be considered to be solely quaint. The characters here are not unfamiliar fixtures in both literature and life. The woman in Adébáyọ’s book who says that “Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man” is kin to, and naturally fits into, the gathered crowd of people in Emecheta’s book who think that “a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman.” There are also the recognizable relatives, who, at the beginning of Adébáyọ’s book, come calling at the house inhabited by the book’s central characters, the married couple—Akin, a banker, and Yejide, a hairstylist with a salon of her own that “held the warmth of several women.” The couple take irregular turns in the narration of the book, recounting the tale of a failing marriage—this time precipitated by childlessness—and the domestic drama which it makes, what Tolstoy once called “the tragedy of the bedroom.” But what shines forth the most in this book is the makings of a tale of love, for its many facts and facets are here. (That the makings of a tale of love should be intrinsic to a tale of marriage is not invariable, when one considers that love is not the common denominator of many married couples. Although admittedly, it is also possible that in cases such as this can be found a tale of love, in its talk about a lack of it—in the same way that an echo can emphasize emptiness).
“The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am one who waits,” Roland Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse. And, as in Stay With Me, when and where a great significance is given not only to the time she takes another’s name, but also the time she can give another a name, the lover who also yearns to be a mother is the one who wails—for her doubly fatal identity is precisely: the one who waits, and the one on whom the world waits. Though in this case, the lover is not only dependent on the whims of another human being, but also on the blessed caprices of biology. Barthes’ book delineates a few out of the innumerable details that lend themselves to the tale of love: its bumbling beginnings; the happiness which love, too, can conceive; its despairs and delights, their causes and consequence; the way in which much of romance revolves around routine; and the lengths that will be reached in order to keep love or the semblance of it alive, even if that length is lined with lies.
The beginning of love in this book, or at least what we have come to recognize as a beginning of love courtesy of the cliché, is as familiar as fire: love at first sight. When Akin sees Yejide for the first time, the words he had the impulse to—but, of course, could not—say were: “My name is Akin Ajayi. I am going to marry you.” The feeling of the moment had been mutual. For Yejide there was first the fascination (“My eyes were drawn to Akin like metal to a magnet”) and from there the feeling of the fatigue of language (“I was suddenly incapable of producing more than one word at a time.”) “To dazzle,” Barthes writes, “is ultimately to prevent sight, to prevent speech.” Yejide did not suffer the seeming misfortune of waiting for a husband; before the passage of a full year from the time she first met Akin, they had become married. But by the time her in-laws cross the threshold of her home, at the beginning of the book, her honeymoon is long over; and the visiting in-laws, concerned solely about extending one lineage into the next have brought in tow to Yejide’s home, another wife for Akin (Akin: “After four years, nobody else cared about love. My mother didn’t. She talked about my responsibility to her as a first son.”) Tradition is an indifferent god. Like love, that one does not see it, or see it whole, does not mean it ceases to exist; if it is not possible to see, like one’s soul, it is often hidden from view, like one’s sole. Akin, too, is all too aware of this:
I loved Yejide from the very first moment. No doubt about that. But there are things that love can’t do. Before I got married, I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough that it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.
If the beginnings of love can be retrospectively traced through a cliché, its end is less clear, even after one lover leaves the conjugal bed. There is no end of love in this book, perhaps for the major reason that both lovers are still speaking. If the stage from which they both speak has not been heightened by hope, there is still the pulse of promise in their words. (Barthes: “I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.”)
Yejide, like Ijapa, visits a mountain in search of a miracle in order to placate her waiting in-laws, this one aptly named “The Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles.” However, she returns from her visit with only a false pregnancy and she carries— as she would a child, and as Ijapa carried food in his belly but not a firstborn—a false hope for more than nine months. When her belly becomes flat again, no cry of a newborn has been heard in her home. In the end, after a period of happiness that is as fleeting as an afternoon, Yejide is still left with the sore and the sorrows of waiting. The desire for a child necessitates the couple going to lengths longer than climbing a mountain, with no thought for the cost and the numbers of rivers necessary to cross. When she finally conceives, Yejide has, as if for the first time, also brought forth happiness into her life—she admits that it is the happiest day of her life. (Yejide: “These thoughts filled me with so much happiness that I was gripped with fear. It seemed too much that any human being should be so happy and fortunate.”) As if the stage from which Akin and Yejide both speak can handle no more than the couple and their child at once—three is a crowd, we have been told—not long after the baby is pushed out into their world, Akin’s second wife is pushed out of it.
Once upon a time, when “human beings still understood the language of trees and animals,” there lived Oluronbi, a favored and favorite child. “She was like water; she had no enemies in her family.” One fateful day her family goes to till the farm but fail to return. Her search for them turns out fruitless after many days. One day, the king of trees, the Iroko, offers to help find her family in exchange for her firstborn child, a vow which she swears to fulfill once she gets married. Years later and after the birth of her first child, Oluronbi had still not fulfilled her vow. She warns her daughter, Aponbiepo, the most beautiful child in the village, never to go into the forest. One day, persuaded by her playmates, she disobeys. “Oluronbi never saw her child again and the trees stopped talking to human beings after that.” This story, Yejide tells her first child Olamide, who does not respond to her words, a response that would chagrin the lover, for whom silence can be tolerated only when it is shared. (Barthes: “The one who would accept the ‘injustices’ of communication, the one who would continue speaking lightly, tenderly, without being answered, would acquire a great mastery: the mastery of the Mother.”) The story is a modified version of the one that Yejide had once overheard. In that version, Oluronbi, a market woman, had given her daughter to the Iroko tree solely in order to be able to sell more goods, a reason that left Yejide incredulous. (“I hated this version because I did not believe that anyone would trade a child for anything else.”) She reflects at the end of telling the tale: “If there really was once an Oluronbi, I do not think she had any children after she lost Aponbiepo.”
Happiness can be as fleeting as the flu. One morning, Olamide, without being diagnosed with any disease, dies. In only five months, she has passed from the cot to the coffin. The message from mourners is the consolation that Yejide would soon have another child. (Yejide: “They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died.”) Even when Akin speaks of their loss, he talks of “the baby’s death” (Yejide: “Her name is Olamide.”) To what tree has promises been made that have not been kept? Soon enough, as predicted by the mourners, there is another baby for Yejide, a boy his parents name Sesan. But this child, not long after beginning kindergarten, is diagnosed with sickle-cell disease and dies not long after. There is another baby for Yejide—but another baby for her to bury. By the third child, Rotimi (whose name means “stay with me”) the scar the first and second have left keeps her a tad indifferent (Yejide: “I was not strong enough to love when I could lose again, so I held her loosely, with little hope, sure that somehow she too would manage to slip from my grasp.”)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. But it is also the perfect fodder for the fallibility of memories and motives. Around the time after her false pregnancy, another man joins the couple on their stage. From here, until the curtain comes down on their act, we have the wonted ways of the lover straying from his or her promised path: the secrecy that brings pleasure (Yejide: “I began to have reasons to head back home after dropping Sesan off at school.”); the comparisons (Yejide: “There was something different about being with him, something fuller.”); and after the truth is revealed, the jealousy, whence came rage (Akin: “I felt like hurting her.”); the self-loathing (Yejide: “I sat there until dawn…loathing the woman I had become.”) Meanings are constructed out of thin air (for like the medicine man or man of faith, the lover’s mind can quickly make a mountain out of a molehill, and is prone to missing the forest for the trees); motives are questioned (Yejide: “I now viewed his simplest actions with suspicion, wondering if some grand deception was motivating them.”); and the search for answers carries one to the bottom of a bottle. In all these, Akin is never as innocent as a newborn, even if he can claim to his heart being in the right place. (Barthes: “The heart is the organ of desire (the heart swells, weakens, etc, like the sexual organs), as it is held, enchanted…”) It only takes two, we are told, to tango; so that when we have three as in a love triangle, there is bound to be, as we have here, missed steps, slips, the odd rhythm, and the eventual tangle of legs and falling on one’s face when the music comes to an end.
A radio comes to life with the broadcast of the recording of the national anthem of Nigeria at the beginning of this book. And throughout the duration of this novel, the sound of that nation’s political atmosphere— in the eighties, today a coup, tomorrow an assassination—can be heard. On the whole though, the sound remains low as if the radio has been placed in the next room, except when it is occasionally retrieved by a character seeking news of recent developments, who turns up the volume. The sound remains low, but its effect is evident. The atmosphere of protest propels a wedding proposal. (Upon hearing about the death of three students in a protest they had been part of, Akin says to Yejide: “Marry me now. Life is short.”) The last political news to be heard is the infamous Nigerian elections of 1993. Infamous because a free and fair election is annulled, in the aftermath of which the winner and his wife both lose their lives. The election features and plays a pivotal part in the plot of another contemporary Nigerian novel, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. That election is still spoken of today as a rued chance by Nigerians. Theirs is a country where the young who want to lead decry the lack of chances; and the old maintain that they would only be carried out of office on their backs. (Barthes: “To make someone wait: the constant prerogative of all power.”). But as a Nigerian in Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland says: Nigerians, “are the happiest people in the world.” Happiness, she rightly notes, that comes from faith in the future, and from the steady solace of religion, its promise of a heaven filled with the happiness that solely and sorely eluded them here on earth.
And so, a period of waiting encircles Stay With Me, becoming its inner clock whose round dial runs and turns for twenty-three years. The book begins in the distant future, with Yejide’s proclamation that she has waited more than a decade to see Akin again. (Yejide: “I must leave this city today and come to you.”) Absence, whose consequence is waiting, then marks this book from its first line. In that line, an attempt at a close of years of separation which had been precipitated by another absence—that of a child. Absence here, too, is related to grief, which Yejide feels and is familiar with, first as a motherless child, and later as a mother who has lost a child. Stay With Me, in its claim to being a perfect tale, has for it the fact that no part of it ever pales; our attention—sustained for the majority of the novel by Adébáyọ’s talent for dramatizing events— neither flags nor wanes. In the synthesis of the book’s multiple points of view is a great tale of love, and one that she has achieved in a narrative with no lulls—no mean feat. (Barthes: “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little). The material of her novel, too, does not seem as old as time, and the folklores contained herein take us into another time that is coterminous with this one. Her remarkable style and ear for speech has managed a presentation of dialogue and dialect that the reader seems to recall each voice. There are also the images that retain a strong impression even after one flips past its page: there is the initial confrontation between Yejide and her in-laws; Yejide’s visit to The Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles; Sesan saying to his mother, “Mummy smelling bad,” on waking up after six days without any sign of life; all of the scenes at Yejide’s salon that hummed with life; Akin hoisting his ailing daughter above his head like a flag—an especially memorable image among many. We might forget the thunderclap but are forced to remember its reverberations. After all is said and done the bard of the beginning gets the last word. An election is annulled but a marriage is not. The last word is one that seems to promise happiness—and of a kind that stupefies Yejide and Akin enough to appear not to know how to embrace or face it, whether to calmly walk up to it, or to run. At this book’s final full stop, time no longer tocks.
*Cover image is Twist, 1963 by Malick Sidibe.