The INTERVIEW BY ADEDAYO ONABADE
Q: Congratulations on co-winning the SprinNG Women Authors Prize. With three previous books under your belt, how would you describe the writing journey that has led you to this point?
A: Thank you so much. My heartfelt appreciation goes to SprinNG and the 2022 SWAP judges for finding Rekiya & Z worthy of the honour. In truth, my writing journey so far has been a rather meandering road. For a long time, I wasn’t even aware I was on this journey, never thought of myself as a writer. But everything that has happened was leading me here--from the teenage years of writing for my school press club, national and state essay-writing competitions, and in lined notebooks, writing novella-length stories modeled embarrassingly on the Sweet Valley High series. (And no, I do not have any of those anymore, thank God!). . . To the two books I published in my “I am not a writer; I just saw a need” phase. And those Lost Years when I held on to my sanity only by scribbling profusely in my journals. The many online writing classes I somehow kept signing up for. Medicine. Motherhood.
Then there was the birth of Rekiya & Z… Those five years were the turning point. Now that I'm self-aware enough to appreciate being on this journey, I’m excited for what’s to come and trying to enjoy each moment without obsessing over what’s waiting at the next winding turn.
Q: Rekiya & Z brings Islam and Muslim life to mainstream literary fiction, spotlighting Muslim women's humanity and peculiar experiences. Why was this important for you to portray?
A: It feels like a good time to pull out my oft-repeated rhetorical question, ‘Have you met me?’ lol. I am the epitome of what most people picture when they imagine every stereotype of a Muslim woman. I look the part; I am often met with assumptions borne of those stereotypes. Until people actually engage with me, then I get hit with, ‘But you’re different…’
The truth, of course, is that Muslim women are not a monolith. We are as human, flawed, and besieged with life and experiences as everyone else. But we rarely get to tell our own stories. Too many people are too comfortable talking about or at us, never caring to hear or see the full extent of our humanity. In literature, academia, news, popular culture, on social media--until very recently, if you were reading about Muslim women, the odds were overwhelming that you weren’t reading from a Muslim woman.
Walter Mosley said in his Masterclass that ‘if you do not exist in the fiction of a people, you do not exist.’ My work is an expression of our being. Bringing our experiences to mainstream fiction is my way of affirming that we are here; we have stories worthy of being told. It is imperative that WE get to tell them.
Q: What starts as a providence meeting evolves into a defining relationship for both main characters. What was your intention for creating a story centered on a deep connection between an unlikely pair?
A: I know the popular saying is “Birds of a feather flock together," but that doesn’t take into account the so-many-of-us who, especially in our teenage years, feel alone in the hue of our plumage. Both major characters were not the “typical girl”--who is that, even, in the context of teenage girls? From Rekiya, we see that even the girls we consider popular sometimes are merely hiding deep-seated issues under the veneer of superficial gaiety. And Z, I cannot imagine what it meant to be that fully Muslim-presenting as a teenager.
My intention then was to explore our collective human need for, and the possibility of, that kind of connection, especially with people we would ordinarily dismiss as not similar to us. In Rekiya & Z, we witness the vulnerability that both characters had to display to get that connection-that is something we don’t often do in our relationships these days, and I wanted to highlight that.
Q: Rekiya is a complex, hurting character, as we see through her words: 'I was numb, a gaping void of emptiness that I could not imagine letting anyone into.' In dealing with–and overcoming–traumatic experiences, what do you think a person must consider as they make their way to healing?
A: Not to style myself as qualified to talk about trauma and healing, but something I have learned in my years of engaging and studying psychology and mental health is that you cannot heal when you hide. The first step is often to open yourself to your own feelings. And vulnerability is hard. That's why we often need help; no one should be ashamed to seek help when needed.
Overcoming that shame spiral, though, is especially difficult in this age of mutual mistrust and victim blaming and in the context of a Nigerian environment. Therefore, it is imperative that we all learn to be a safe space for those around us; you never know who needs it and vice versa. Rekiya had resources--therapists, friends and families who loved her, work colleagues, and even strangers in the park--all of whom played roles in her journey once she opened herself up to the possibility.
Finally, and I’ve seen this played out many times, it’s important to remember that healing is neither linear nor is the experience identical for everyone. So forgive yourself; we’re all doing the best we can.
Q: Your depiction of parenthood in different religious, class, and cultural contexts shows the diverse manifestations of family life. With Mummy's maternal influence on Rekiya in mind, to what extent would you say that it is important to find family beyond blood?
A: Like most Nigerian kids raised in the 80s/90s, I attended a boarding school. Relationships beyond blood acquire significant importance early on under those circumstances. Unfortunately, I didn’t find myself--and thus my family outside of blood until university, when I made the most amazing group of women with whom I am still friends now, over two decades later.
Those relationships helped me put many of my earlier relationships into perspective, especially the horror of my high school/boarding school experience. Because how can people accept you and love you fully if you don’t know, accept and love yourself? And that blood is not always the most defining factor in determining your people. Sometimes, we’re tried by our blood family, not always due to anyone’s fault. Sometimes we’re blessed by them. But to find family outside of the bonds of blood is to be doubly lucky. Not everyone gets that.
Q: Rekiya & Z is a coming-of-age story and a transgenerational one packed with themes of love and loss, time and trauma, absentee father syndrome, and the search for identity, among others. How were you able to reconcile all these individual subjects to develop a cohesive story?
A: To be honest, I wasn’t exactly trying to. My approach to storytelling starts with my characters; that’s where I set out from. So I am telling this or that character’s story. Which means I spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know them. What makes them tick, what trauma shaped them, what brings them joy, what’s their life’s goal and minute idiosyncrasy? It’s an even more necessary immersion with a multiple POV book like Rekiya & Z where each character needed to have their own voice, story, and perspectives separate from the other, no matter how entwined their lives were.
As a writer, when you have delved that deeply into your character’s world, the themes write themselves. So all I had to do was decide which ones I wanted to keep, lose or highlight--for the sake of the cohesion you mentioned, so the book isn’t too bogged down with ‘issues.’ Otherwise, if the writing is not a natural evolution of the character’s life/backstory, you end up with a story where themes feel shoehorned and unnatural to the narrative.
With Rekiya & Z, I ultimately wanted to discuss Muslim women's issues, especially those issues we tend not to talk about much in the community--sexual trauma, parental abandonment, loss of faith, estrangement from the community, etc. The result is what we have now.
Q: You explore family and friendship, separation and reconciliation from a raw, up-close perspective. What was the intention behind this?
A: Once again, I was coming at it from the individual character. I needed readers to pause when next a Muslim woman--or any woman, for that matter--is in your sphere of influence, to wonder who she might be and what she might be dealing with.
There’s a tendency to assume a shared faith/culture means a commonality of experience. But, as we see in Rekiya and Zaynunah’s recollection of the events of their meeting, that is not always true. We have to collectively do better at accepting people to be flawed; human.
Q: Despite their unique family dynamics, Rekiya and Zaynunah navigate their relationships anchoring on abandonment and a sense of belonging or the lack thereof. What do you think this means for forging one's own sense of identity, individuality, and acceptance?
A: I think, sometimes, that the idea of identity and individuality versus acceptance and cohesion or conformity must be driven by the modern paradigm of focusing on the Self. I’m not saying that it's necessarily a bad thing. Just that some people are fine not standing out, with being part of a group. We shouldn’t always feel, or push people to feel, that they must define their identity through an individual sense of self, purpose, or achievement.
I’m not sure how well the message passed, but I was definitely going for that with Zaynunah’s story--she was a woman who was comfortable defining herself by the roles she played in the lives of those she loved and came in contact with. And that, as long as she was content with it, has to be okay, too.
Q: Like her friend, Zaynunah's character is also rich with its own peculiarities. From living through loss, a stormy marriage, and fully coming into her own (outside of gender roles), what one thing would you say that readers can learn from Z's journey to full bloom?
A: With Z, I wanted to explore what it feels like to be a woman labeled “good.” Too many people never delve beneath that label, afterwards, never acknowledge the real human behind that label. Her hopes, her fears, and the very real dreams she has for herself. For such a woman, it can be a truly lonely existence--and I wanted to say it’s okay. Especially in this world of “good women don’t make history,” it’s okay to be good, for yourself. To be true to your own values. But also to grow in a manner that serves you and to never be limited by anyone else’s definition of what “good” entails.
Q: Let's talk about femininity and agency in Islam. Several of your female characters show a deft balance between honouring the men in their lives and being resolute at pivotal moments. How, in your opinion, can Muslim women dismantle the societal perception that their religion stifles women and their agency?
A: I’ve come a long way from my younger days of thinking that Muslim women needed to dismantle societal perceptions about us, our religion, or our agency. That’s a zero-sum game; frankly, we do not have time for that!
The women I write about are the women I know, the Muslim women I have always known. Strong, opinionated, fierce. Gentle, patient, and supportive. Believing women, one and all.
These days, in my work and my interaction, I prefer to urge my sisters to live their lives. To claim the agency and autonomy that God has bestowed upon them as women within the framework of Islam--and run with it, doing the best they can. To strive to become that version of themselves they aspire to. And to let societal perception catch up. Or not; that's on Society!
Q: Having lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and experienced the interrelations of religion, culture, and the state, please share with us your thoughts on how the belief in a higher power offers respite from trauma, as we see with Rekiya's Umrah in her search for healing.
A: The thing with the aggressively secular lives we’re increasingly living in our present is that it leaves too many people hollow. And several studies have backed this; lower prevalence and better outcomes for mental health issues in populations where spirituality/religiosity was a significant factor.
For Muslims, faith is central to daily living. We are encouraged to maintain a relationship with God through several acts of remembrance at regular intervals every single day. That, the belief in something greater that is in control of all affairs, is a lifeline; that like Rekiya with her middle-of-the-night sessions, even when she felt lost, may be the only anchor in a life dismantled by trauma.
The Umrah scene was the big climax, maybe, but Rekiya had been holding on to that lifeline for years, with her barely articulated prayers and the tentative act of worship. That’s why it’s important that mental health resources should not be entirely stripped of spirituality for those who believe and are so inclined.
Q: Although sparingly, the main character voiced her first-person narrative as Ruqqayyah. Did you adopt this deliberately as a symbol of her journey and evolving identity?
A: Definitely. As a Muslim from South West Nigeria, I am fascinated with how our names evolve with our sense of identity. Most of us were called by different names/versions of our names at different points in our lives, and I almost always reflect that in some way in my work. For Rekiya, being the complex character she was, there were layers, even to this. Rukayat was her “official” name, the one no one but her Yoruba father called her--the name she loathed. Ruqqayyah was the etymologically correct version that Z and her family called her. That girl was hopeful, striving to be devout, tentative but open to love. It was a name Rekiya accepted passively in the years she was ensconced within the boom of Z’s family. But, as she said in the prologue, the Rekiya we met “hadn’t been Ruqqayyah in over a decade.”
Rekiya--the name she was called from childhood because Abuja, the name she chose herself when she changed her official name--encompassed the totality of who she was.
Q: In your use of language, you deploy profound, didactic, and reflective words that readers can adapt to their real lives. Were there any inspirational figures that influenced these wise and thoughtful nuggets incorporated into your story?
A: I am fascinated by words and the way humans use them. The pretty turns of phrases, the subtle meanings hidden in proverbs, how deftly we weave words to give myriad meanings. I’m not very particular about the status of the person, so I don’t collect quotes or anything like that. But when I come across phrases or sayings that touch me--and that could be for their meanings, yes, but it could also be just how pretty the words were strung together--I note it. And over time, I guess that has come to bleed into my work.
These days, I find a lot of it in Yoruba sayings, traveling back to my childhood memories and examining how the older generation used words. There's something almost poetic about translating Yoruba wisdom to English, I’ve found. A lot of them come from books, too, of course. And in Rekiya & Z, quite a number are from the Qur’an and the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Q: Rekiya & Z takes the reader through a roller coaster of emotions and a wildly unforeseen climax. What do you think this ultimately says about the search for meaning and identity, existentialism, and the inanities of life?
A: If there was one theme that was present from the beginning, from the conception of the idea that became Rekiya & Z (after friendship), it was time (hence that climax. It was always going to end that way!) Specifically how fickle time is, and how delusional our perception of it is. None of us is promised time. That seemed the nagging message that the idea propelled me with, even before I gave in to writing the book--the idea that everything we were battling with, all of the existential crises we go through, is ultimately useless unless we live while alive. Marking time, chasing hollow success, never engaging or committing to other humans, or preparing for an afterlife, if you believe in one, means all of it dies with us.
Once we reach this epiphany, each person will have to define what is meaningful for them.
Q: We would love to know. Is Noorah a real place? If not, what inspired it?
A: I wish! And I think it says a lot about what is available to Nigerian Muslims in the South West that this is one of the most common questions I get.
Unfortunately, Noorah--an elite boarding high school for Muslim girls in Nigeria--is aspirational, inspired by a personal ambition I had in those years when anything seemed possible. Anyone, who wants to embark on the project has my full approval, lol.
Q: You have written on women's issues in the past and interfaced with women professionally. Would you agree that society is improving in bridging the historical disadvantage that constitutes women's lived experiences?
A: On the one hand, I want to say “yes.” Because things have improved, especially compared to historical times. On the other hand, it feels like an erasure. First, of the women (and men) who did the work to bring about those improvements. “Society” didn’t miraculously improve. Women have fought through the ages for every improvement they bring about. And Society fought them every step of the way; Society is still fighting them. We see how Society talks about and treats women who question the status quo, don’t conform, and continue having difficult conversations…
Secondly, a blanket agreement erases from consideration the most vulnerable classes of women (the poorest, trafficked women, to mention a few) whose daily lived experiences have not seen any appreciable improvements--Society is just better at pretending they don’t exist--but also of the more modern versions of disadvantages that women have to contend with, compared with historical times. Finally, the current level of women-hating ideology fueled by violence against women (online, in real life, and as depicted in media) is concerning, especially as the laws governing their prosecution seem to be getting progressively more lenient.
All of these to say, there’s more work to be done, things could be better. Things should be better.
Q: As a reproductive health physician, how does your occupation impact your writing, your message, and your approach to storytelling?
A: In reproductive medicine, we tend to women at the most painful, most vulnerable times of their lives. As a result, I’m often privy to the most intimate parts of the lives of the women I see. That builds intimacy, no matter how both parties strive for boundaries. Being a witness to women’s lives--their pains and triumphs, too, in this manner makes me a witness to their lives.
I feel obligated to tell these stories, most happening outside my clinical areas. Because when a woman comes to you naked and in pain or trusting and vulnerable, her baggage comes with her. And there’s no escaping that, not for her nor you. You have to take the whole woman, the whole human.mThat’s how I approach my storytelling – I am telling stories of women. It’s why my work is always character driven.
Q: Outside of work and writing, what activities interest you?
A: Honestly, I’m looking forward to discovering that myself. I spent the last two decades of my life firing on all cylinders--between medicine, motherhood, and the never-ending demands of both, I barely had enough time for anything else, even sleep. That’s all I ever wanted to do with any spare time for so long: sleep. And read, of course, reading has always been a huge part of my life.
Since the pandemic, though, I am becoming more intentional about making time for joy in my life. I’m enjoying discovering activities and interests that I, in my previous life, used to be convinced I had no time for.
So far, I have discovered solo travel, long walks on isolated paths (and uncrowded beaches), lounging in serene coffee shops, and browsing bookshops (even when I am constrained from buying books). I’m waiting to be surprised as I discover more, lol.
Adedayo Onabade is a Nigerian essayist, fiction, and poetry writer. She holds a B.A. from Olabisi Onabanjo University and an M. A. from the University of Lagos, both in English Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for SynCity's 'Poetry in times of Corona' and #TwitterWritingContest.
Adedayo volunteers with STER (Stand to End Rape Initiative), a social justice organization that works to combat sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls, and vulnerable people. Outside writing, she is fascinated by NatGeoWild, art galleries, reading, and documentaries.