Reading into Motherhood – Stay With Me, Ayòbàmi Adébàyò

As promised, this post will set out some thoughts on Ayòbámi Adébàyò’s startling novel of motherhood, marriage and masculinity. Also shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize, on the face of it, Stay With Me could not be more different from Naomi Alderman’s The Power which eventually won. Alderman’s novel is an audacious story of speculative fiction using key players to narrate large scale calamity; Adébàyò by contrast is intensely focused on the intimacy of the family. That said, both novels present clear challenges to societal assumptions about gender; one of the most interesting aspects of Stay With Me is the toxicity of expectation, not just of women and motherhood but of masculinity and what it is to be a son, a father, husband.

Set against the turbulent politics of 1980s Nigeria (about which I know precisely nothing and now wish to learn), Stay With Me unspools the story of Yejide and Akin who, after four years of marriage, are unable to conceive a child. Despite Yejide’s protestations, a second wife is provided for Akin by his family in the hope that children will follow. Aspects of the story are familiar: it is assumed that the “problem” is Yejide’s. It is she who seeks treatment, is subject to interrogations and humiliations at the hands of the family and she who feels the childlessness they share most acutely as hers. Adébàyò, though, offers dual first person narratives that work to reveal the complexity of familial pressure, not only on a childless woman, but on a man in this position. The desire to fulfil a powerful and oppressive version of masculinity leads Akin into terrible and unforgiveable manipulation of his wife. There is throughout a pervasive sense of entitlement to the female body and to its reproductive power which, in the context of the #metoo campaign just this week and the Harvey Weinstein revelations, feels especially pertinent.

There is great beauty in the writing too. The language is lyrical in its bell-like clarity. Adébàyó’s skill is not only in the creation of voice and character but in the distillation of emotion at its most complex. And in what context is feeling more complicated than within the family?

“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It is strange and unnerving to read a novel so focused on children and their absence at six and a half months pregnant. It is not too much of a spoiler to share that Yejide experiences a phantom pregnancy soon after wife number 2 appears. Sections of the novel left me holding my bump, a tightness in my chest when the little one hadn’t kicked for a while.

I came to the book completely blind and wonder if my emotional response would have been substantially different had I read the novel before I was pregnant or indeed after the little miss was born. I suspect it would have been. Adébàyò’s subject and her rendering of it are devastating in equal measure. Reading this book into motherhood with all the anxiety that entails I realise now that the title is a sort of mantra. During those first anxious weeks through the long nine (and a half in our case) months to the tiny little person currently asleep on my chest, the mother in me unconsciously whispers to her: stay with me.

Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

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So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

Graphic Grief: Tangles and Fun Home

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I’d like to preface this post by pointing out that I know next to nothing about graphic novels. It’s a form I’ve come to recently, initially through Alan Moore’s Watchmen (my fiancé was reading it on holiday a while ago and I found myself reading over his shoulder) and want to learn more about. These two could not be more different from the school of superhero Watchmen sits in. Both Alison Bechdel and Sarah Leavitt use the graphic form to record memoirs that are structured, each in their own way, around the death of a parent. There are other similarities between these texts too, both explore lesbian experience and both articulate the profound impact of parents on the discovery and formation of personal identity.

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Fun Home excavates the complex relationship between daughter and father in the wake of the father’s suicide. Bechdel weaves her own sexual development around the realisation and acceptance of her father’s own sexual complexity. The plot resists linearity and instead derives from the fluctuating emotional distance between father and daughter. It is variously funny and raw in its interrogation of this central relationship and the dynamic of “butch” and “sissy” with which Bechdel characterises it. It is wonderful in its frankness, not only in laying bare such a complicated and at times painful personal relationship but in the anecdotal material Bechdel shares. These details and rounded images lend warmth to her story and perhaps belie the deep affection between father and daughter that underpins the state of conflict they often appear in.

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Leavitt’s Tangles is starker. It is more intensely focused on illness and a family’s experience of Alzheimer’s. It is unforgiving in its portrayal of the condition and it is hard to read in places as a result. The pictures have less detail, are drawn in clear harsh lines and place the deterioration of Midge, Leavitt’s mother, at the centre of everything. There is less emphasis on the past except to draw harrowing comparisons with the present. Loss is a gradual erosion of person and memory and Leavitt is uncompromising in her portrayal of this most devastating disease. This book has sharp edges. It is extremely difficult to read in places and I found myself having to put it to one side at times while I stopped crying. It’s not just the bastard impact of a brain shutting down that is rendered so painfully here but also the fracturing responses of a family having to deal with it. Leavitt conveys the intensity of pain, confusion, frustration and utter bewilderment that she and her family feel in the outright cruelty of her mother’s death; mind first, body later.

Tangles cover

The graphic memoir is growing as a genre. There is something about a page full of images that replicates human memory and invites autobiography. The power to redraw moments of the personal past and comment on them must offer a sort of catharsis, reading them certainly does. It affords a space for self-analysis and augments the emotional intensity of experience. It lends itself especially to examinations of parental relationships: the images we hold of our parents shift and blur as we grow up and the graphic form affords the flexibility to explore and explain these images in fullness and depth. I am keeping Tangles on my bedside table at the moment and I intend to revisit it; it moved me and; a year after a comparable personal loss in my own life, I’m unwilling to put it back on the shelf just yet.