What is a word?

Book Chat: Ayobami Adebayo (Stay With Me) & Yvonne Owour (Dust)

Moderator: Dami Ajayi


A word, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, is “the copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds”. And perhaps we might hesitate to infer any finality of meaning, of truth, from something as uncommitted as the copy of a nervous stimulation?

Perhaps we should indeed, or what was one to make—what is one to make—of General Babangida’s iconoclastic appropriation of the word “president” in 1990s Nigeria? For Ayobami Adebayo, who burst into song at some point during her reading, this was a seminal moment in the Nigerian polity. Up till Babangida and indeed after him, Nigeria’s military rulers were known as Head of State. The military instinctively flinched from ascribing the implied legitimacy of “President” to itself. Legitimacy, as Zimbabwe has been proving in these past few days, is a word too. Were these leaders hoping to recast society in their likeness? Adebayo wondered.

For this book chat, the first of 2017’s Ake Festival, Adebayo was paired with Yvonne Oduor, author of Dust. Oduor’s native Kenya is currently coming to terms—once again—with the meaning of concepts: what is an election? “It's the continuation of all the elections we’ve never completed,” said Oduor. “Our dreams have been broken by home,” she continued later, now visibly emotional. “An ultimate and terrible betrayal.”


The first time I’d heard the word “spoiler” used in relation with a novel was in the lead up to the publication of an essay built around Stay With Me and  Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen. Ordinarily, a spoiler was something—a premature disclosure—you tweeted about Stranger Things. My essay, I learnt, contained a lot of these disclosures. Which was fine, I was made to understand, so long as I was fine with it.

I was.

I was once more confronted by the spectre of “spoiler” here, shouted from the stage as a member of the audience began to build the case for a question. This time, a mild unease. How to resolve this notion that language in motion can be prematurely disclosed? At a literary festival?

Nietzsche, naturally. What good is it to pin down the unpindownable?

Fame, an f-word, proved much less elusive. “Flash”, Oduor called it, the spectacular. It is nice, can be blinding, but “you stop believing the bullshit.” ‘Adebayo stopped reading reviews of her novel since March, and she’s saving reading Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times for when she completes her new novel. And this circumspection with acclaim is how a writer avoids stasis. To get on with it, “you need to step away from it.”

Kayode Faniyi



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