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Adebola Rayo

You press your face against the window and stare as you try to make out the species of fish as they swim past. When you were younger, you used to tell your mother that the fish were calling to you as the train went by. You remember saying it once when Grandma was on the train with you. You smile now as you recall the look on her face that day; the speed with which her jaw dropped, then the panic as she grabbed your mother’s hand and told her, “Eh, Iya Tola, this is erm, erm, how do you people say it in Oyinbo (English), erm, abomination, yes, this abomination, fish talking to her? Is she Obanje (Spirit Child)? They want to take my only granddaughter away, eh? Olounmaje (God Forbid).”

You remember how she would not stop talking and clicking her fingers together until your Mom switched seats with you so that she was between you and the window and you could no longer see the offending fishes.

It’s been sixteen years since you made this journey; the same number of years since you last saw your father. You wonder how he will look; you know he will not be as tall as you remember because you will no longer be looking at him from eyes in the head of a four-foot-tall ten-year-old. You shake yourself out of your reverie as the train pulls into the station at Lagos island. You step out and walk briskly to the bus that will take you to Obalende.

From "Coming Home," in Lagos 2060

Adebola Rayo is as passionate about mental health as she is about writing. I interviewed her at the 2016 Ake Festival.

Adebola: “I would not say that I have expertise in the area of mental health. But I talk from my own perspective as someone with a diagnosed mental health disorder. I write from that perspective. It finds its way into my stories from time to time whether I like it or not.”

I had not been able to make her panel that day on mental health issues in fiction, so we talk about the issues raised.

Adebola: “Writing about mental illness in African writing—I often find that people write from the extreme, coming from a place of a lack of understanding. People are either writing about the extreme in terms of our cultural prejudices, and seeing it as a spiritual affliction. There’s no nuance to it. People are not thinking of it in terms of the different disorders. It’s all lumped under one word: ‘madness.’ Most African films from earlier and some of the older books have approached it like that.

“Some of the younger writers who are writing about it either from personal perspectives of their own understanding of it from up close in extended families. I think their content makes up for what the old content lacked in sensitivity.

“It probably reaches a wider audience. People can say, ‘Oh I can relate to it. Oh! I understand it better.’”

I ask for examples.

Adebola: “The short story that won the Caine Prize this year (2016) by Lidudumalingani, who was on the panel with me. And also another story that was nominated this year, Tope Folarin’s ‘Genesis’?”

I talk a bit about another story nominated that year, a speculative fiction view of neurological difference by Abdul Adan, “The Lifebloom Gift.” I then ask her to tell me about her own fiction.

Adebola: “Yeah, my own fiction a lot of the time veers into the topic. I don’t directly think of it as that I’m writing about mental illness, no. For me I’m just writing a story and it happens to address that. I don’t decide that or think I’m writing a science fiction story or a story about crime. I’m just writing a story. And if it happens to fall into the genre … (Smiles and shrugs).

“I never started out thinking, ‘Oh I’m writing to change perceptions of mental illness.’ It’s never been about such lofty ideas. I’m not speaking for everybody, I’m not saying this is the text to end all texts, this is just me writing about this thing, this one time.

“I don’t publish very often. I haven’t felt very comfortable about publishing so far. It’s really just been I’ve put out things on request a few times. Saraba magazine has one of my stories on mental health, not that it started out as that. It’s titled ‘When I Was Writing My Bones.’ It’s a long title.

“It was really just a chronicling of this character in different places at different times and the thoughts in those place and times. It chronicles the descent into a nervous breakdown.

“There were bits and pieces from my journals over time. Each paragraph starts with the name of a place and what was going on while I was there. Sometimes it was just a few lines about thoughts in my head, or an email I’d sent or received. Whatever was going on.

Saraba had an edition on Solitude. One of the editors asked if I would like to send in work. I thought that story fit the purpose and they came back with a lot of editorial suggestions that made it better in the end.

“There’s a really old story from five or six years ago. It’s on a Kenyan blog called Wamathai, a story called Re-Memory. That was about a girl in her twenties who goes back to the house she lived in when she was a child. She lived in that house with her mother and grandfather until the day that her mother disappeared. It was really just her walking through a place of memory, and remembering her mother, remembering the life of her mother who was mentally ill.

“I’ve got a story coming out that’s noir, though. I’ve written it for an anthology being published by Akashic. I don’t know what the final title will be as it’s still in the editorial process.”

Adebola was one of the contributors to the pioneering science fiction anthology Lagos 2060, the brainchild of Ayodele Arigbabu. The idea was that architects collaborate on stories set in the city a hundred years after independence.

Adebola’s elegant low-key story was about the reconciliation of a father and his grown-up daughter who had not seen each other since she was four years old. They meet in a Lagos of underwater trains, and enduring traditional belief, a Lagos that seceded from Nigeria by threatening to use its nuclear weapons.

Adebola: “Working on the Lagos 2060 project in 2010 was the first time I worked collaboratively and had to write with a specific theme in mind, so the workshops stretched me as a young writer. I'm glad I got that experience early on. It broadened how I thought about storytelling, which helped a few years later when I started working as a writer/editor.

“When I think about the story now, I cringe a little. It could have been so much more. But then again, considering flip phones were still a thing at the time, I probably didn't do badly.”

L to R: Adebola Rayo, Ruth Ajonye, and Chinelo Onwualu at Ake 2016

I ask about how she got into writing.

“All I know is that my sisters found a notebook one morning when I was about twelve years old and they showed it to my dad and he was like, ‘Oh, you write poems,’ and I was like, ‘OK, is that what this is? They’re poems. OK, cool.’

“I got my love of books, of literature, from my father. He has a lot of books. He just likes books; he reads a lot. He used to buy us books and had his own books. I was saying to someone earlier today that I keep remembering books my father had which are out of print, which I would love to read again. Today during the panel on crime, I remembered Cyprian Ekwensi’s books Restless City and People of the City, which are fantastic books. I ‘d love to read them and confirm that my memory hasn’t played a trick on me.

“I find him the perfect writer from that time (early ‘50s on). Now, I appreciate Soyinka, but when I was a child I didn’t. Mostly because I remember trying to read The Interpreters when I was ten or eleven years old and thinking ‘Oh my God, what is this? It’s hard to read.’ And then a friend convinced me to reread it in my early twenties and I was like, “Oh my God, this is such a fantastic book.’ But Ekwensi was a writer I simply loved, from Drummer Boy to Iska to Jagua Nana.

“I’ve been trying to find some of them for years. I remember reading a book by Naiwu Osahon. I can’t remember the title or much about the story. Did these people really exist? Because I can’t find information about him online or his books anywhere.

“Two stories I’ve started to write in the fantasy genre. But then again, like other stories, I didn’t start out writing them thinking … you know?

“For one of them, I went to an art collector’s house. And he was showing me all these artworks that he had, talking about them. And he showed me some paintings by a painter who had another painter sit for him for portraits. They were really majestic.

“I went back home thinking to myself what would happen if the guy who has been painted wakes up out of the portraits and wants to live the rest of his life and takes over the other painter’s body—his friend who has made a career out of painting him.”

I say that it sounds nightmarish.

Adebola: (Laughs) “It should be. The working title is `The Portraits’. Such a lazy title.”

We then talk a bit about Helen Oyeyemi’s writing, and then Omenana magazine.

Adebola: “I owe Chinelo a story. I promised I would send a story last year and I haven’t.”

GR: “Now that’s naughty. You should send a story so we can all read it.”

Adebola: “I will, I will.”

We start to talk about the word “African” and if it’s a meaningful description of a writer.

Adebola: “I just think of myself as someone who writes. I write the stories about things that niggle at my mind. Like I said earlier, going to the collector’s house and seeing paintings and thinking ‘What if?’ So I’m always answering the ‘what if?’”

GR: “You are a speculative fiction writer.”

Adebola: “I never start out thinking, ‘Oh, I need to write a story about these people or this place to explain this or that.’ No. Mostly I’m writing to tell my selfish story (Laughs).

“For me writing is also about trying to understand myself. The stories that are more autobiographical in nature, they are about trying to understand the way that I think, the things that happened to me. Nobody has written about me, so it’s about trying to read something, a story that I’d like to find and can’t find. I’d like to understand myself better.

“I was talking about this in relation to writing about mental illness, depicting it in film or in writing. So it’s usually the extremes in terms of maybe people have overly romanticised it or lumped all into ‘madness.’ In the Nollywood films you would see it as someone living on the streets, eating out of bins. Someone who has no home, who has completely lost touch with reality. Which can be the case. Sometimes. But there’s also this wide spectrum that nobody’s talking about. Yeah.”

I ask if it gets tedious having to be a kind of spokesperson.

Adebola: “No. No. Because at the end of the day, when I’m writing I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, I have to explain this properly; I have to make people understand it or I have to write it for the people who have it and it has to be perfect.’ I’m just writing about myself, about my experiences. So I don’t feel any burden that is external. I feel that what I’ve spoken about cuts across wherever you are in the world.”

I saw Adebola again at the 2017 Ake Festival. During the opening ceremony, she was given an award by the Vlisco textile company for her work in mental health awareness.

She gave me a quick update on what had happened over the last year.

Adebola: “Over the past two years, I’ve only published nonfiction and reviews in The Republic and The Book Banque. In June, a noir story is coming out in Akashic’s Lagos Noir collection edited by Chris Abani.”

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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