In our interview, Abi Ishola-Ayodeji opens up about her debut novel, touching on how she incorporated her own experiences, and those of her friend's, throughout the story bringing this book to life.
Patience is a Subtle Thief is a coming-of-age story set in Nigeria in the early ‘90’s. As political tensions rise around her, we follow Patience as she tries to find herself—attending university and preparing for a career her father wants for her, while yearning for her true calling in fashion. She has also been forcibly estranged from her mother, who may live in America.
The story is both heart wrenching and generous. Abi paints the story of Patience, but also the lives of so many other Nigerian individuals trying to make a good life for themselves while facing struggle. You can tell Abi Ishola-Ayodeji's journalistic eye is interwoven into the fictional tale of Patience Adewale. It shines light on oppression, political turmoil, and the ache that can happen when estranged from a loved one.
In our interview, Abi Ishola-Ayodeji opens up about her debut novel, touching on how she incorporated her own experiences, and those of her friend's, throughout the story bringing this book to life. She speaks to Nigeria’s past, present, and how some people can be pushed into their circumstances but remain moral at their core.
Porchlight Book Company: As an award-winning journalist who has covered so many stories in different parts of the world including Nigeria and Ghana in a four-part television series, Enter West Africa, how did the story of Patience Adewale come into being? Did you take inspiration from your personal life or stories you have come across in your journalism?
Abi Ishola-Ayodeji: Over the years I’ve met Nigerian girls who’ve been raised by their fathers or their fathers’ family members after their mothers had been forced out of their lives. Growing up in America, I was so used to seeing mothers automatically gain custody of their children after a divorce or separation, but in Nigeria men hold that power. I found myself thinking quite a lot about a girl in that position and how that kind of trauma could affect her life. In many cases, these men were able to move on and have more children. So on top of having feelings of abandonment, what could happen when half siblings and other women come into the picture? Patience watches her half-sister Margret being raised by her own mother and this creates even more of a void for her and it magnifies the trauma she feels.
Another part of this book covers the early days of 419 in Nigeria before the internet boom. 419 is what Nigerians call fraud. This could be bank fraud, real estate fraud, or lesser crimes. Americans have come to know 419 in the form of emails that come from someone in Nigeria or other parts of the world asking for large sums of money to gain a larger sum of money that they promise to split with their unsuspecting victims. Over the years we’ve seen stories about people in America who’ve been swindled out of their life’s savings. Of course this is wrong. But in cases like this, I always ask, why. Why would some be desperate enough to do something like that? My goal was to humanize this issue and give it some historical context.
PBC: You went to school in Lagos, Nigeria: Did you adapt some of your experiences in the city into your book?
AIA: I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. My parents immigrated there from Nigeria in the late 70s. In 1993 they sent me and my sister to Nigeria to attend school there. We stayed for a brief time, but I was like a sponge soaking in everything I saw—the Pidgin English, the neighborhoods, the daily happenings as we drove through different parts of the city. There’s a scene in the book with the okada drivers (motorcycle cabbies) that actually happened a block away from my uncle’s house where I lived. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read the book ☺. My time there was an unforgettable experience. It was also the exact time that the political upheaval that I describe in the book took place. Nigeria was facing the dawn of its long-awaited democracy after years of military coups and dictatorships. The military had promised to step down and allow a civilian to take over as president. Chief MKO Abiola, a wealthy businessman, ran for the presidency with the campaign slogan, Hope ’93, which won the people over. I often think about how ironic it is that Barack Obama ran with the same slogan (Hope), in the U.S. many years later and won the election, just as MKO Abiola did in Nigeria.
To be there and witness how excited people were for change and how devastated they became based on the outcome was truly unforgettable. That election is now considered one of the most important events in the country’s history so I felt the need to include what happened.
PBC: Patience finds herself almost looking at the world with fresh eyes when she travels to the University of Lagos, where she discovers she has been incredibly sheltered from the outside world. When at UNILAG, she finds herself wrapped in the high tension of politics during this time as well as crime in the streets with her cousin Kash. Did you pull from your own or any close friends' university experiences to write these sections of the story?
AIA: When I lived in Nigeria, my sister’s friend from our secondary school invited us to her house during a short break from school. Her aunt who she lived with was a professor at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) so she lived on campus with her. When we got there I remember how the campus felt. There was an ease there compared to how the rest of the city felt.
I also consulted with friends who attended the school during that era. I wanted to know how the students lived and how they felt about the politics of the day. Everyone I spoke to seemed excited to discuss the good and bad of being on campus then. That really helped me decide how I wanted Patience to exist in a setting like that. Since she’s feeling a bit lost without her mom, it was easy to make the campus a place she wasn’t particularly fond of.
PBC: Patience’s mother was cast out of her family and her town when she was quite young. Unfortunately, this is something that happens in Nigeria and other places around the world, based on men having more rights than their spouses. Why was it important to you to highlight this aspect of the book as Patience empowered herself to take that journey to find her mother, Folami?
AIA: It was important to highlight because as a writer I think it’s important to touch on why your characters behave the way they do. I wanted her to be as human as possible because there are young women who experience this sort of abandonment along with the memory of how the trauma began. In sharing that Patience feels somewhat lost, I wanted readers to understand the source of her pain. It was also an opportunity to shed light on how damaging this sort of patriarchy can be.
PBC: The rising tension of Nigerian politics is heavy within this book. Patience and her boyfriend Chike experience the overwhelming hope and the heavy disappointment that a corrupt government can have on its people. One line of the book struck me, when Chike was visiting his friend Mayowa after he was hurt in a protest: “Chike sensed that shame had stolen its way into Mayowa’s heart, though he had done nothing wrong. In fact, he had done everything right. He had believed in the promise of democracy. What he got in return was three broken ribs and a dislocated jaw.” The reader can feel the pure defeat of these young people when they can taste the freedom of their country only to have it ripped away from them. I feel like this is a feeling so many of us have felt during our lifetime.
AIA: It’s very difficult to hope for something and be patient for something, only to have it stolen from you in the end. That is why I decided on Patience is a Subtle Thief as a title. We are told to be patient and that patience is a virtue, but it is quite human to resent the idea of patience when your patience doesn’t allow you to manifest the thing you worked for or prayed for or even sacrificed for. Nigerians had been promised a democracy for years. When the time came for it to happen, it was taken. My characters depict how the people waited in vain for change that didn’t come. Nigeria eventually got its democracy years later but not via the man they elected to steer the new democracy. On top of that, there are still so many things that are wrong in Nigeria and some of the hardships there are the same that I describe in the book from 1993. If the outcome had been different that year, how would Nigeria look in 2022? One can only imagine.
PBC: Patience and her boyfriend Chike are good kids who are struggling to survive. Patience has been disowned by her rich father because she wants to find her mother and live on her own volition. Chike, who has a petrol engineering degree, is finding it difficult to get a job, so decides to take people around for rides on a motorbike to get by and pay for his ailing mother’s expensive hospital bills. I feel like desperation is the feeling of most youths who are not given a chance or are born into a rough situation. Sometimes poor decisions are made, eventually finding themselves doing street crime, which drives them wayward from their original paths. Do you believe the government, or the situation people are born in, drives them to make desperate attempts to merely survive? In this case, steal money? It really shows how what is happening at a government level can trickle down to people's everyday lives.
AIA: That was exactly what I wanted to come across in this book. People are often pushed to do things they wouldn’t normally do when they feel they have no other choice. Patience is confused in a way because she’s supposed to be the child of a wealthy man, and the children of the wealthy aren’t supposed to suffer—so they say. But she suffers internally because her father didn’t want her mother and he treats her as if he doesn’t truly want her either. So money can’t even save a person from the circumstances of their life, which usually determines their choices.
PBC: I could not help but notice the stronghold the male characters have over the women in this book. Patience embarks on this quest because her father forced her mother out of her life and wants to control what she is allowed to do, who she talks to and what she studies at school, making her feel like a prisoner in her own existence. Female oppression throughout the book shows us how strong the gender roles are during this time in Nigeria. How do women claim independence in Nigeria, and do you think it has changed since the early 90s?
AIA: Nigeria is a modern society that is still rooted in tradition. A lot of that tradition comes from culture. In some areas like the northern region of Nigeria, that tradition is derived from religion. So while I do feel there are outstanding women in Nigeria who are doing amazing things, gender roles are still quite prevalent. The biggest way in which women claim their independence is through education and entrepreneurship. Nigerians are highly intelligent people. Both women and men hold education in high regard in many parts of the country. Also, since the government does very little to sustain the country, both men and women in Nigeria have become instrumental in cultivating the things that people need in society.
PBC: How does being a Nigerian yourself have an impact on the story you wrote?
AIA: Being Nigerian impacts the story I wrote because I approached it with a level of care and understanding that is needed for a story like this. My goal was to be as balanced as possible in telling this story. I wanted to show that there are different aspects of Nigerian society that are not all good and not all bad, but all unique and important to who we are. I think diving into Nigerian history as a Nigerian based abroad was also fulfilling. The more I learned about the political and social landscape of that time, the more I worked to fit it in into the story in subtle ways and in obvious ways. For example, one of the characters mentions how the government had finally allowed everyday businesspeople to start telecommunications companies and how he and his father were starting a company that would take over that sector. The government actually did that at the time and I found that to be so fascinating, especially considering all the companies that are now multimillion dollar companies. My uncle who I lived with in Nigeria was one of the businesspeople who got in on enhancing telecommunications through radio and cable TV. I remember him telling me that he got the contract to do radio and he held onto it for a while before he launched his brand. This sort of history is important to me because it gives the roadmap on how the people of Nigeria, not necessarily the government, did what they could enhance the country.
PBC: What do you hope the reader thinks or does after they close the pages to your debut novel?
AIA: It really depends on where people are in their own lives. I want people who are constantly faced with adversity or who live in tough environments to feel like their lives and dreams matter despite the hardship they face. I want people to think of young women and how young women need care but they also need love and space to carve out who they want to be. I want people’s hearts to open up to countries like Nigeria where there are people doing their best to thrive in societies that aren’t the easiest to navigate. I want Nigerians to see themselves or their neighbors in this story. I want people who were there in the 90s to feel a sense of nostalgia that makes them smile or think back.
PBC: Who or what inspires you as a writer and journalist?
AIA: I am inspired by Black women in America who have found ways to rise above the bottom rung of society’s ladder. Women in general have been made to feel less important, silenced, and victimized. Add to that being a woman of color in a society where race is so prevalent. And yet, Black women in America have figured out how to not only rise above that, but also uplift communities in amazing ways. I’m proud to be a Black woman and I’m proud to look to women like Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey, but also women who aren’t household names who have survived and thrived in America.
I’m also deeply inspired by Afrobeat artists. Afrobeat is the genre of music popularized by young artists in Africa. Nigerians are heavy players in the Afrobeat scene. The music is phenomenal and music is a big part of what motivates me to write, but the confidence, charisma, visuals, and genius of Afrobeat artists helped me maintain my desire to finish this story.
PBC: What are you working on currently? Is there a second book in the works?
AIA: I am working on my second novel. This time the story will focus on a Nigerian-American girl navigating life as a child of immigrants. I also want to focus on her parents and their experience as they work to blend into American society. So the story will mirror my experience and the experience of other Nigerian-Americans I know a bit more.
About the Author
Abi Ishola-Ayodeji is a multimedia journalist who has written for several publications, including Elle.com, Essence, Huffington Post, and Ebony. A project of which she is particularly proud is the four-part television series she produced for Channel 75 in New York City, Enter West Africa, which covered issues plaguing Nigeria and Ghana.
About Patience is a Subtle Thief
For as long as she can remember, Patience Adewale, the eldest daughter of Chief Kolade Adewale, has been waiting for confirmation that she is loved, that there is a place where she truly belongs. Patience lives a sheltered life within the secure walls of the family’s mansion in Ibadan, but finds no comfort from her distant father and stepmother Modupe. Her only ally is her younger sister, yet even Margaret’s love and support cannot overcome Patience’s insecurity and uncertainty.
More than anything, Patience wants to know why her father and uncle banished her mother from their compound years ago—and whether her mother is even alive. Determined to discover the truth, Patience embarks on a desperate search to find her mother. Answers begin to surface when she moves to Lagos for university and unexpectedly reconnects with her cousin Kash.
Kash and his friend Emeka are petty thieves with an opportunity to make a big score. To pull it off they need help—and enlist Patience and Emeka’s straight-arrow brother, Chike, to become partners in their scheme. The thieves’ plan is to quit after this job. But unforeseen events lead to unexpected consequences—and demand a price from Patience that may be too steep to pay.
Suspenseful and evoking the subtleties of Nigerian life in an fresh and unexpected way, Patience Is a Subtle Thief is a heart-wrenching story of one young woman’s precarious journey to adulthood, and the risks and sacrifices it takes to follow her heart.