For Her Debut, Abi Daré Confronts ‘Dreams and Intelligence That We Kill’

Writing “The Girl With the Louding Voice,” about a 14-year-old employed as a housemaid, challenged how the novelist viewed a common practice in her native Nigeria.

By Concepción de León | New York Times

The inspiration for Abi Daré’s first book struck when one of her daughters, then 8, didn’t feel like unloading the dishwasher. Daré, who lives in London but grew up in Lagos, told her that there were girls her age in Nigeria who did housework for a living.

“In Nigeria as a whole, education is very valued, but sadly there’s not enough of it to go around because of poverty, and so I wanted to drive that home,” said Abi Daré, the author of “The Girl With the Louding Voice.”
“In Nigeria as a whole, education is very valued, but sadly there’s not enough of it to go around because of poverty, and so I wanted to drive that home,” said Abi Daré, the author of “The Girl With the Louding Voice.”Credit…Ellie Smith for The New York Times

“She stopped and said, ‘But what do you mean, Mom? Do you mean like working, like doing the day’s work in an office, and they get paid? That’s really cool they get paid. Can I get paid?’” Daré recalled in an interview.


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The conversation gave her a new perspective on something that was common among middle-class families like the one in which she was raised: employing young girls as so-called housemaids.

That night, Daré started doing research. She searched “housemaids in Nigeria” and came across articles detailing the violence, mistreatment and low or nonexistent pay that are often part of their working conditions. One account of a 13-year-old girl whose employer scalded her with boiling water stood out. “The report was harrowing,” Daré said, “but what also made it quite painful for me was that her face was a blur, and it just felt like another statistic to report.”



Her debut novel, “The Girl With the Louding Voice,” out on Tuesday, gives voice to one such girl. Raised in poverty, 14-year-old Adunni finds work as a housemaid for a rich Lagos family, enduring abuse and exploitation while she yearns to go to school.

Daré, 38, who works in project management for an academic publisher, talked about the novel’s focus on education, writing about class in Nigeria and how she tried to find Adunni’s voice. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.



Why did you decide to write the book in broken English?

I felt that I needed to break her English down and break myself down in the process to understand her, so that she could be understood by anyone else who’s reading it. When I was writing it, I did not think it would get published. So I was really telling myself a story.

Many of the maids I knew or that my husband knew, they didn’t speak good English. I found that I couldn’t use any metaphors that I was used to, and I found myself constantly thinking of the character and saying, “How would she say it?”

How did you tap into that? What were some of the challenges of writing in that voice?

Nigerians speak something called pidgin English, and I knew I didn’t want to write in pidgin English because even the very educated people speak pidgin English. So I knew it wasn’t going to be that. I wanted it to be nonstandard English, whatever that meant. I thought by doing that, I could make it Adunni’s. It could be her own English, so to speak.


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So the first thing I did was to watch as many Nigerian movies as I could. I was watching these movies of people in the market, and they would describe the political situation in Nigeria with broken English but with frustration at not being able to get out what they’re trying to say. I watched a lot of that.

I looked through Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” over and over again. I know it’s not the same, but it was very helpful to see how Alice Walker did that, because I thought, “O.K., she’s very educated, so how did she get that out?”

Despite the broken English, you can really tell how bright and feisty Adunni is.

I wanted to explore the amount of talent and dreams and intelligence that we kill and waste when we don’t allow these girls to go to school, when we hire these young girls and get them to work. I wanted to show that this was a girl who dreamed. She is more than just a girl that needs to be up at 4 a.m. in the morning. She’s intelligent, and if she was given a chance, and other young girls in the world, they will shine and they will thrive. I really wanted her to come across as someone that was more than a girl that could not speak English. And this is why she makes that realization somewhere in the book that, look, it’s just a language. It’s not a measure of intelligence.

Abi Daré’s book “The Girl With the Louding Voice” comes out on Feb. 4.
Abi Daré’s book “The Girl With the Louding Voice” comes out on Feb. 4.Credit…Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

When Adunni arrives in Lagos, she has a hard time understanding class — she asks why she can’t talk to Big Madam, her employer, directly. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that class distinction, and why she might not have been attuned to what it meant?

She’s from a village where everyone is kind of the same class. Then once she gets to Lagos and sees this wealth, I mean, that was a huge chasm. There’s a huge divide between the poor and the rich, and I saw that growing up. The people that work for families would be treated as if they were second-class citizens. She couldn’t understand it because she’d only known a society where everyone could speak to everyone. It’s just very strange to her. And also her personality, as well. She loves to speak and she loves to be heard.

You used a fictional book called “The Big Book of Nigerian Facts” in the novel, and I found it interesting that Adunni has lived in Nigeria her whole life, but she was learning about it from a book. What do you make of the Nigeria that she knows versus the Nigeria that she’s learning about in this big book?

Nigeria is such a huge country that I have never even been to many of the states. There are things about Nigeria that I’m still discovering, and that’s just the vastness of the country. I wanted to reflect that, especially for a character like Adunni that has come from not being fully educated and being shielded by her village.

The book hinges on her desire for an education; it’s what drives her throughout the book. Can you talk about that particular choice?

I was about 14 or 15, I was just discovering that I was pretty, and I was getting a bit of attention, having crushes on guys. And one evening, I was going to meet up with one guy — I was meeting him downstairs. We had agreed to meet at a certain time, at 8 o’clock.

I took the dustbin, and I pretended to go empty the trash, and as I was going downstairs, my mother walked behind me. I was like, “Why is she coming with me?” And so I got downstairs, and then she said, “Come here. Let’s have a chat.” She said, “I know you’re not going to empty the trash. I know you’re going to meet a guy.”

She said, “Listen, all of this is going to pass away. You’re going to leave. You’re going to get older. Beauty will fade. Everything will fade, but the only thing that will not fade is your intelligence, and what is in your head, your education.”

She also said to me, as I got older: “The only reason why I’ve been able to educate yourself and your brother is because I invested in my own education and made something out of my life. If I hadn’t, you both would not be where you are today.”

That really resonated with me, the importance of education. I’d seen it in my mother’s life, and then I grasped onto it myself. I think that conversation that night was life-changing for me. In Nigeria as a whole, education is very valued, but sadly there’s not enough of it to go around because of poverty. And so I wanted to drive that home.

A lot of people are very educated and not all of them get jobs, especially in this day and age. But for someone like Adunni, education was the first step to anything else. I think that it is an essential foundation for any life, especially for girls.

Concepción de León is a staff writer covering news and culture for the Books section.

Read from source New York Times

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