In Abi Darè’s debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, out this month from Dutton, fourteen-year-old Adunni fights for an education and the right to choose her own future. At the outset of the novel, Adunni’s mother, the primary breadwinner, has died and her father arranges her marriage to an older local man. Adunni’s owo-ori—her bride price—pays the family’s rent and provides food for her father and two male siblings. Adunni learns early that her chief role in her husband’s household is to bear the son her husband’s first and second wives have failed to provide.
It isn’t long before Adunni is forced to run away from her husband’s home and seek refuge in Lagos, where she finds work as a maid. Abused, Adunni must find her voice and a way to save herself from a life of servitude. Throughout her difficulties, both as a wife and an abused servant, Adunni she never lets go of her late mother’s words: “In this village, if you go to school, no one will be forcing you to marry any man. But if you didn’t go to school, they will marry you to any man once you are reaching fifteen years old. Your schooling is your voice, child. It will be speaking for you even if you didn’t open your mouth to talk. It will be speaking till the day God is calling you come.” She never lets go of her desire to get an education and determine her life’s course.
Daré won the Bath Novel Award—an annual prize for emerging writers—in 2018 for the manuscript of The Girl with the Louding Voice. I spoke recently with Abi about the prize, child labor and marriage, and the transformative power of education.
The Rumpus: I’m Jamaican and I find I am always going back to write about Jamaica. As a Nigerian living in the UK, do you find it easier to write about Nigeria or the UK?
Abi Daré: Honestly I find it frustrating. It’s been nineteen and a half years. It’s been a long time. But something always draws me back. Even if I write about the UK there will always be Nigerian characters. Instead of rejecting it, I am embracing it. I am using it to show the world who I am and where I come from.
Rumpus: And where did the book start for you?
Daré: I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. I used to live in a housing estate, which is like a community—the school was there, supermarkets. It’s sort of a middle-class neighborhood. Most of the families were middle class, which meant that practically every household had a maid or a houseboy. In my area alone, there were about two hundred families so I saw a lot of maids. I was about nine, ten and I noticed that many of these girls were not educated. The maids would stay back at home and do the housework. As a young girl, I wondered, Why am I going to school and they are not going to school? But it was the norm. It was nothing to anyone.
One summer, I met a young girl named Mariam. She lived with my neighbor. She was about thirteen; I was eleven. We became good friends but I didn’t know much about her. I started boarding school and by the time I came back she was gone and I never saw her again.
Fast forward a few years later. I had two daughters. I remember asking my daughter to do chores in the kitchen, to help me with the dishwasher. And she went on and on about how tired she was. I said to her, “Do you know that girls like you are working for families in Nigeria?” And I remember her response was shock. “What do you mean girls like me working?”
I understood the impact of it in that moment, understood that there was no mother or father anywhere that wanted that for their child. I went to bed that night and I started to think about Mariam and I thought she must have had dreams, she must have had hopes. I did more research that night and I realized a lot of that was still happening. And I said to myself that I had to write this story because I had to know the girl that was the maid.
I read an article that night about a thirteen-year-old girl who had been scalded by boiling water. The woman that employed her had poured water on her. She was badly burned. Her face in that article was blurred out to protect her identity. But for me it was that there are so many girls like her who were without identity, with nothing. Nobody cares about them. Who is the girl in the article? What are her hopes and dreams? Surely she must have had something she wanted to do with her life… and that night I made up my mind I was going to write this book.
Rumpus: Your daughters inspired you to start thinking about domestic workers in Nigeria, those young girls sent away from their families at a young age. Do you write for your daughters, then?
Daré: Yes, in a way. It is a way to show that this exists. It still exists. Young girls are working as maids and many of them are suffering. It was also a way to show that these girls are humans.
Rumpus: You grew up in Lagos, far from the village where Adunni grew up. What was your childhood like?
Daré: My parents were separated when I was quite young. But I was fortunate to have a mother who worked very hard. My mother did everything to put me in the best possible schools at that time. I had a relatively secure childhood. I went to an all-girls independent boarding school. So my horizon was broadened a lot more.
Rumpus: How much research did you have to do?
Daré: I did a lot of research and I spoke to a few friends who had maids. In terms of researching where Adunni grew up, because my mother traveled a lot on business she would take me. We went by road and we went through many of these rural areas. If you drive two hours outside of Lagos, you are in a completely different world. The child in me was taking all of that in. When I sat down to write where I thought Adunni came from, it poured out. I watched a lot of videos to validate that what I took in as a child was the same in 2013. I talked to friends to understand the situation right now versus what was the situation when I was growing up.
Rumpus: You incorporated some of the facts that Adunni learns, such as the income of Nigerian lawmakers, the fact that some of the oldest art sculptures in the world originated in Nigeria. Why did you think it was important to include those facts?
Daré: There were some that made me quite upset. The first fact is that there is extreme poverty and then there is this contrast. We have the most wealthy lawmakers in the world. Some of the senators earn a lot more than some of the presidents in the Western world. That really got me upset. It doesn’t make sense that a small percentage of a huge population is so wealthy. And no one cares. I was trying to tell myself at the point of writing that this is crazy. This doesn’t make sense. Something needs to change here.
Rumpus: One of the things that I admire is Adunni’s growth as a girl. While she is always an outspoken child, she gradually becomes an advocate for herself.
Daré: When I started one of the hardest things to nail was how Adunni would react to the adversity that came her way. The last thing I wanted was someone who just went along with the adversities. I wanted someone who would fight back. The only power she has is her voice. I couldn’t have her just crying and crying. I went back and made her a little bit stronger, a little bit more courageous. Sometimes she gets in trouble but it saves her, ultimately.
Rumpus: At one point Adunni says “Your schooling is your voice,” and she talks about how girls are often denied an education. The book is about the power of education.
Daré: I’ll tell you my own story. I was about fourteen or so—at that age where you’re having crushes on boys, and you want to do everything. I was trying to sneak out of the house and go out with my friends. I remember my mother saying to me, “Come back here. Let’s take a walk.” We went outside and I remember us leaning on the back of a car. And she said, “Listen. You think you are beautiful right now and you think you are fashionable and you think you are hot right now. There are going to be some that are more beautiful than you, more fashionable than you. The only thing that will keep you standing is the investment you make in yourself. Give yourself the best education so when everything around you fails you have something to hold on to. Calm down a little bit and make your education your priority.”
I saw her rise above the tides and as a single mother she was empowered economically, financially to be able to put me through school.
Generally, where we come from in Nigeria, education is extremely valuable. For most jobs, the minimum degree required is a master’s degree. So your first degree doesn’t mean anything. We put education on a pedestal but the government isn’t doing enough to make sure everyone has equal access to education.
Rumpus: One of the things that I admire is Adunni’s language. She doesn’t speak perfect English. Was that hard for you to write?
Daré: When I started, I had this idea that I didn’t want her to speak standard English. I tried very hard to write the first three thousand words. I had to submit it for my MA in Creative Writing. I sat up all night and wrote three thousand words that night. It wasn’t great. I did something I thought was enough for my supervisor. When I went to meet him in his office, I sat down thinking, Here it comes. Then he said, “I read your work and I think it’s really good. Do you think you can sustain it in the book?” I said to myself I would write in Tia’s story in the background and that was my plan. But my supervisor said, “I don’t think you should do that. I think you should stay in this. You have a daughter who is two. You have a daughter who is learning her vocabulary. Why don’t you listen to her?” I borrowed a lot of words from her. But I also did a lot of reading. It was important for me to write her voice in a way that did not take readers out of the story.
Rumpus: One of the haunting things about the book is the level of violence towards Adunni, and girls and women in general. As a domestic worker, Adunni is beaten for the least things—talking, dropping a plate of food, eating food inside the house. What do you think is behind her employer’s aggression? Is there some level of self-hatred underlying the violence toward the poor domestic workers?
Daré: I think it’s a little bit of everything. When I was doing my research, I tried to focus on stories of maids that had been abused. Some of the things I read were horrendous. Just last week, I saw an image of a young girl, nine years old, whose head had been split open by the woman who employed her.
Growing up I don’t recall one maid I saw at the dining table with the family. Most of the maids had their own cutlery, their own cups. The maid would sleep in the boy’s quarters, a house separate from the main house. A lot of [what is in the book] was based on my own research.
And as a writer, I wanted to try to build Madam’s character as well. She is deeply unhappy. She takes out her anger on this young girl. It disturbs her that she has this maid who refuses to bow. I honestly think the women and men I have read about doing these things to these young girls have to have something wrong to treat these young girls like this.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Big Madam. She herself is abused by her husband and she puts up with a lot from him. Why do you think that is? Is she conditioned to believe she is nothing without a husband?
Daré: It’s more about the fact that she is afraid of what people will say. She says that, forgetting that she is the one who feeds this guy. The way it’s conditioned traditionally in many parts of the world is that women are made to feel without a man they are nothing.
Rumpus: Some critics of literature from Africa decry the continued depiction of poverty, illness, war, and disease that is often shown in literature about or from Africa. Yet each of those things are part of everyday life on the continent and off. Is that a concern you share?
Daré: Part of why I made her move from poverty to wealth is to deal with that. Some of us born in Nigeria were not born in extreme poverty. I was hoping that I would try to show that, yes, poverty exists but there is also wealth. There is some good. It’s not all bad. There is a huge divide between the wealthy and the poor. I am hoping that people see that there is more than just poverty.
Rumpus: You tackled a lot of big subjects—child labor, education of girls, child marriage, domestic abuse. Do you think first of your work as serving a larger political or social purpose? Do you think this novel will lead to any type of change?
Daré: I certainly hope so. The power of storytelling, of literature, is that it allows you even for a brief moment to live the life of a character. It allows you to see what is truly happening. I hope it sparks a conversation in a way to effect the change in the laws around child marriage. There is a law [in Nigeria] but it’s not enforced. Every writer writes with the hope that what they are writing sparks a change within the readers. I hope something happens that’s more than just entertainment here.
Rumpus: You have a law degree. Has that had any impact on your writing?
Daré: I think so. Subconsciously it came out. It seeps through as you write. Every novel a writer writes is a reflection of who they are.
Rumpus: Your journey to publication started with the Bath Award. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Daré: First, do not neglect your craft. Even though I won the Bath Award in 2018 I had been writing since 2000 or so in bits and pieces. I had close to eighty thousand words in practice before I wrote Girl with the Louding Voice. Eventually, every writer will get their break.
Second, the process of trying to get published can be very daunting. I didn’t think I was good enough. I went into the Bath Award because I knew it was judged anonymously. Because it was anonymous I didn’t think anyone would say, “What is this you wrote?” So be open to entering competitions because it validates your writing. Even if you don’t get longlisted, it validates you as a writer.
The third thing is perseverance. Rejection is not personal. Every writer gets rejected. It’s so important to get feedback from people who understand the journey. If you can get a formal education, go for it. These days, there are many places you can get an education. And above all, understand that sometimes it’s not your first or second book that gets published. Let yourself be your first audience and see what happens after that.
Photograph of Abi Daré by Gazmadu.