Growing up in Nigeria, Abi Daré found fulfilment in creating fictional scenarios from a pool of truth.
“When I was four, I would pick the family album and write really detailed stories underneath each picture,” she remembers, laughing. “Because my parents were divorced when I was quite young, it was sort of my way of giving my father an identity.”
She moved to the UK to study, in 2001, and describes this transition as a shock to the system. “It was the first time in my life I realised I was black,” she says. “It was just knowing you were a different colour – there were few white people I knew growing up. And you know, people [would be] asking me, ‘why do you speak such good English?’ and stuff like that. Even just applying for jobs and having to tick a box for your ethnicity…” Her 11-year-old daughter was discussing the Black Lives Matter movement with a friend recently, and Abi reflects, “when I was her age it wasn’t anything I thought about.”
Her debut novel, The Girl With The Louding Voice, is a tour de force. A harrowing and heartfelt coming of age story about 14-year-old girl Adunni, who has become trapped as a domestic servant in Lagos and longs for an education. From drawing inspiration from real-life and finding her voice, to the art of discipline, Daré shares her advice for aspiring writers.
I was doing an MA in creative writing [at Birkbeck, University of London], and part of my thesis was to write 15,000 words of a novel. The inspiration came from a conversation with my daughter. I asked her to fill the dishwasher, she had a tantrum and I said: “you know young girls like you are probably working for families in Nigeria. You’re privileged.” She stopped and asked, “why would anyone send their child to become a maid?” It made me reflect on my childhood. I grew up in a neighbourhood where it was very common to have young girls as house maids, the most common age between 14-15. I noticed that many of those girls were not very well treated, sometimes you would see signs of abuse.
I came across a news story about a girl who had hot water poured over her body. She was just another statistic, there was nothing else to that story, other than this has happened. I said to myself I didn’t want to write another article, I wanted it to be about the girl. Many of these girls had their own way of navigating the English language, some were not fully educated, but because English is our general way of communicating in Nigeria, you’ll find these girls are forced to learn. I didn’t want to write another abuse story; I was after revelation [and] empathy. I knew I had to write it in Adunni’s voice.
I wrote the first 3,000 words in a night. I wrote the first draft in about six months of constant writing. I knew that if I let go of that voice, I would never get it back. I work full-time, so I would write in the morning from 5-6.30am, as well as on my lunchbreak, on the train home, and at the weekend. My entire weekend for a year was like lockdown. I enjoy writing in coffee shops, too, [but] now I’m forced to writing at home, often at night when the kids are asleep.
I was going to write the book in two voices. But when my MA supervisor read the first 3,000 words, he encouraged me to sustain that voice until the end. I thought, there’s no way I can do that! He said, give it a try. So, for me, it was really more about getting Adunni’s story out. I honestly did not think it would get published. I was just writing it for myself, it was about getting to know this girl. But then I was encouraged me to enter the Bath novel award for emerging authors (which she won in 2018), and that’s how I found my agent, who was judging the prize.
When I was first sharing my story, everyone said ‘your character vision is so bad!’ [laughs]. I took the feedback and started to read books that were more about the character – [and] some that were written in kind of dialect. When I was writing The Girl With The Louding Voice, I made a point not to read anything in third person, only first person. I loved The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, The Help by Kathryn Stockett and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
The most painful thing is when there’s talent out who feel the door has been shut, even before knocking on that door. I have a daughter who is trying to write and I say, “you can do this!” I was scared. Doubt is normal. But I would say keep going, because everyone’s experience is different, mine was unconventional and it happened. If you believe in your story, I believe it will be heard. It’s about not giving up. Don’t stop writing.
The Girl With the Louding Voice, £12.99, published by Sceptre, is available to buy here.