Gbolahan Adeola’s short story, “The Neighbor Woman Who Knew Things” appears in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Adeola read an excerpt of his story in our audio gallery here; read more about his process of crafting the story, as well as his own frightening neighbor nightmare, below.
Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “The Neighbor Woman Who Knew Things”?
Gbolahan Adeola: I came up with Antar’s character in a cycle of stories about death and grieving. My intention was to write several pieces from the points of view of family and friends who knew Antar prior to his death. In one story, his younger son Femi, now in his early twenties, reflects on his father’s death and the rituals that surround the funeral. Femi is five when Antar dies; when he recalls the role that Mama Ibeji played following the tragedy, he thinks of her as “a woman who knew things.” I don’t know that I’d planned to write a story about the neighbor woman before that, but I became interested in this characterization of her as a seemingly omniscient (and somewhat meddlesome) presence. It seemed like a good opportunity to tell a story about the unique ways that neighbors can know (and not know) one another. I found that her “knowingness” had unexpected ramifications as the story took shape.
KB: In this story, Mama Ibeji is referred to as “the neighbor woman” by the narrator; similarly, Samuel becomes “my husband.” How does naming operate in this story? What do these names, or titles, signify for these characters and the narration?
GA: Names and naming are really important in Yoruba culture. I’ll refrain from giving an entire lecture on how some names are thought to be “brought from heaven” so that babies born in certain circumstances get predetermined names. The names we choose (or are permitted) to call a person are strictly guided by status, age, or familiarity. Like all things preoccupied with status or position, naming can often have a relegating effect. For the neighbor woman, there was a sense of equality to call her husband by his first name, Samuel. Having then to refer to him as “my husband,” a “respectful” indication of his status, eliminated that degree of closeness. The narrative’s insistence on referring to Mama Ibeji as “the neighbor woman” functions in a similar way, I think. The refusal to address her by a name or title is a small act of marginalization, a reminder that, despite the influence that she would come to have on Antar’s family, she is still merely “the neighbor woman.” Hopefully this also highlights how bizarre it is that she should be so important in their lives at all.
KB: Both the narrator and the characters have various expectations that are upended by the close of the story. Did you always plan for this inversion in the story, or did it come naturally while writing and exploring these characters?
GA: A lot of it was unplanned. In my earliest conception of the story, Patricia was just as vacuous as Mama Ibeji believed her to be. But the story felt unfair to Patricia, and her character demanded more complexity. I was glad to see how a more nuanced exploration of Patricia forced the other characters in more interesting directions as well.
KB: What’s the strangest or most memorable thing you have ever witnessed a neighbor do?
GA: When I was a child I lived across from a huge duplex with an upstairs balcony that was visible from my house. One night, probably after eating too much sugar or watching some television show I shouldn’t have, I had this really strange nightmare in which there was a white-clad ghost sitting in that balcony. At some point in the nightmare, the neighborhood gets invaded by a horde of machine gun–wielding men who get into a fight with the ghost. I have this lingering image in my head from the nightmare of the ghost sitting in the balcony, bleeding, long after the men have left. I never actually met the people who lived in that house—they were probably perfectly nice people—and I suppose this doesn’t quite answer your question. But, if I’ve had any kind of odd neighbor experience that might account for my fascination and mistrust of neighbors, it’s that nightmare and the feelings the duplex evoked afterward.
Gbolahan Adeola is an MFA candidate in fiction at Brown University. His work has appeared in Transition Magazine and The Common. He was born in Ibadan, Nigeria.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.
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