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Sefi Atta: Something Good Comes to Nigerian literature

Ike Anya speaks with Sefi Atta on her recently published first book – Everything Good Will Come

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Congratulations on Everything Good Will Come. I thoroughly enjoyed it – it was so evocative of my memories of growing up in Lagos – the Ikoyi waterfront, the sights and smells of Sandgrouse Market, the Owambe parties. I am particularly excited that the stories of my generation of Nigerians are being told, in your work and that of Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Ike Oguine and Chris Abani. Was recording this slice of existence a conscious consideration for you? I suppose in a roundabout way I’m asking – Why did you write Everything Good Will Come?

Thanks very much. Compulsion is the answer to your question. It began with an image of the Lagos lagoon, a wooden fence and these two girls, Enitan and Sheri, on either side. I had a strong sense of their spirits and

Sefi Atta

nothing else, but I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Then I had to turn it into a story, moving to the next image and then the next. I consciously did not hold back as I wrote and ended up with this very personal chronicle of post-independent Nigeria.

Following on from that, I would have to ask, why write at all? You are a qualified accountant, that is not a profession usually associated with such “ethereal” practices as writing. How did you make that journey from the “dry” world of balances and figures and ledgers to this wispy writing

business?

My stories begin with daydreams. As an accountant, I often daydreamed because my work was so dry. I became a functioning daydreamer. No joke, because my mind has to wander and play in order to create and it is hard to justify sitting around looking like I’m doing absolutely nothing. These days, I can actually carry on conversations and daydream at the same time. Also, being an auditor is like being part nosy parker and part tell tale tit. That basically summarizes my writing life. I know there is an accounting principle or something called the true and fair view, but it would be bordering on pretentious to say that is what I’m trying to achieve when I write. I’m not sure what I would be writing about if I didn’t have a regular job for years. I took my first

writing class while I was working as an accountant in New York. I always say I drifted into the class, but I may have been looking for a creative outlet. I’d just sat my professional exams after moving to America and having a baby. Anyway, I couldn’t stop writing after that and it made sense because I’d always been fascinated by creative people, in awe of them. Sometimes, I’m an obsequious mess when I meet artists I admire. Some of my childhood memories are ethereal because of my association with artists. My mother’s sister Shade Thomas was a fashion designer. I still remember the smell of her boutique and her gold embroidered caftans, and I would get so excited whenever we visited Ben Enwonwu at his house by the Lagos lagoon with all his paintings and sculptors. He was my parents’ friend and to me he was like a great genie, with his beard and his laugh. I also remember going with my mother to a studio where Buraimoh worked and he had all these colorful beaded mosaics. The place was a magical grotto. I pay tribute to these childhood memories in the novel.

I love the title of your book “Everything Good Will Come” I’m aware that was not your original title. How did you come by this gem of a title? I know, it’s derived from the book, but what made you pick

that particular phrase, laden as it is with affirmation, which somehow feels very Nigerian.

The title was my editor’s idea. It comes from a phrase in the novel. Perhaps it sounds Nigerian because our names translate to phrases. Who knows? It feels a little foreign on my tongue: Everything Good Will Come? It had better bring me good fortune.

Everything Good Will Come tells an intriguing story, of two Nigerian girls and their growing up and the different choices that they make, or that are thrust upon them. In the course of the book, you highlight some of the contradictions inherent in contemporary Nigerian society, for instance with morality and sexuality – Sheri for all her traditionalism is basically a kept woman, and then you

have the men – pillars of society (and its institutions) with their mistresses and infidelities and half-hidden second families -which some would argue are still symptoms of a society caught between two cultures. Would you agree?

I think we choose to live between two cultures, traditional and western, and people get caught in the conflicts that arise. I also think that what we call traditionalism is really just patriarchy. This is not to suggest that western cultures are more progressive. Here in Mississippi where I live, conservatism is another name for patriarchy, perhaps because it’s harder to defend patriarchy. I would say my novel is narrated by a modern Nigerian woman who is in conflict with her patriarchal culture. She is an intimate narrator though, almost as if she is taking your hand and saying, Come and see.

So, sort of going back to the earlier question – did you set out to make a socio-political statement, to challenge some of these issues in writing the book? And have you braced yourself for the backlash that is likely to come if and when you publish in Nigeria?

No, I didn’t set out to do anything but follow the story to its end. I didn’t even want to expose any issues. I just had to. As for potential backlashes, I am argumentative. At the same time, I have a tendency to shy away from angry conflicts and I cannot bear malice, but I have a strong will. Whatever the reaction, I will move on to my next story. Writers don’t set out to create perfect works, or works that please everyone. Alice Walker said, Be nobody’s darling and I agree with her. So far, I’ve had positive reviews from men and women. A couple of writers I respect have commented on how I translated Yoruba expressions to English. I understand their irritation, but for me, I could either translate or use a glossary.

Reading your book, in the evocation of waterfront Lagos, I sensed echoes of the Deep South of the United States, in your description of the tang and marshy smells of the lagoon front. You of course, reside in Mississippi. Are there parallels or have I just imagined them?

I live in a regular suburban subdivision. There are no marshes around me and Meridian is a landlocked city as mall-erized as most of America. Most days I’m too busy shuttling my daughter to school and after-school activities to notice the views. I’m aware of the red soil and creeks with names like Sowashee and Hobolochitto, but then sometimes I imagine the horrors that Native Americans and Africans went through and then the landscape can appear sinister. Last year, I met an artist who asked if I knew the real Mississippi. I had to confess I knew it only from the highway, driving to New Orleans or to Atlanta. She offered to take me to Oxford and other places of character, the back roads and all. I was tempted because Mississippi has such a rich literary history, but then I became afraid. She was an elderly white woman and I thought, what if we end up in the wrong place and I get shot for trespassing? People in Mississippi use guns. The Pearl High school and Lockheed Martin plant shootings took place here, and I’m not just talking about headline stories like that. I’ve heard enough personal stories of fatal shootings in the community where I live. In Lagos, only the police, the military, or armed robbers mess with guns to that extent. But, like Lagos, Mississippi is much more than its negative headline stories.

Which brings me to my next question – Enitan, your heroine is sent to the UK to boarding school and then university and there she encounters the experience of being an outsider, of being different – of having to explain why she washed her hair only to grease it up again immediately after- does this and indeed the whole book draw from your experience? In other words how much of you is in Enitan? And is there a real-life Sheri?

Every Nigerian knows a Sheri. Ostensibly, she possesses power because of her beauty, “bottom power”, as we call it at home, but the reality is that she is an objectified woman, “a piece of ass”, and she suffers the worst consequence for this: rape. Enitan has intellectual power, which she often doesn’t exercise. Although I did not intend it, the prison scene is in a sense a metaphor for the state of her mind. I can relate to that, because in my own life I don’t always express my views verbally. In public, I can become tongue-tied or I clam up. I did go to a boarding school in Nigeria when I was 10. Queen’s College. I loved it. I was the class playwright. Then from age 14 to 18, I was in a boarding school in Somerset, England. Millfield School. That was a major culture shock. Then I attended Birmingham University. After I graduated, I lived in Nigeria for a couple of years. I returned to England in 1988 and I’ve lived overseas ever since. I moved to the United States in 1994 so I’ve spent about a third of my life in Nigeria, a third in England and a third in America. Someday, I intend to write a novel based outside Nigeria. I’ve been in the most unlikely places, especially after I married a Nigerian doctor. We moved from Wigan in England, to Hackensack in New Jersey to Meridian in Mississippi. It’s like being in a seriously under-funded diplomatic service without the immunity. But no, Enitan is not me. She is more vocal, more daring. Also, her family history couldn’t be more different from mine. My father was the son of a traditional ruler. He worked for the government and he died when I was eight, just after the Biafran war. My mother raised five children on her own. In her spare time, she played golf. She was stylish and fabulous and took us travelling. But I would also say she is a proud Yoruba woman who in some ways believes in “traditionalism”, even though she might disagree. For her, women must fulfill their duties as wives and mothers, no excuses. For me, this was a source of conflict. It still is. My in-laws are not like Enitan’s in-laws though. My husband is a Ransome-Kuti and they have a strong tradition of activism in their family. From their grandmother, to Fela, to Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, they have fought against oppression.

Your main character is a woman and there is a strong sense of the woman’s perspective running through the book, particularly in terms of challenging some of the chauvinistic aspects of contemporary Nigerian society and at the same time celebrating the strength of women like Alhaja, who without formal education, runs her family and business with an iron grip, successfully. Indeed in many ways I was reminded of the work of Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa. Do you see yourself as a sort of 21st century heiress to these Nigerian women writers?

In so far as men and women write from their experiences, I’d say there is such a thing as a woman’s perspective in a story. And yes, I have a woman narrator in this novel, but when people hear those words “a woman’s perspective”, they expect a domestic story. Clearly, family politics is not to be sniffed at. During the Abacha regime, women were more wary of their in-laws coming over than they were about state security agents bursting into their homes. I’m not trying to trivialize the politics of the State, but what sets our heartbeat racing on a daily basis, who stops us from speaking our minds? Not the State. The small communities we exist in, our families, our friends and the repercussions of not fitting in. I tell this story in my novel, but I also write about a dictatorship and Lagos society, not just domesticity. To answer your question though, Flora Nwapa published the first novel by a Nigerian woman in the year I was born, I think. She is an icon. Buchi Emecheta is still writing today. She is the most renowned Nigeria woman writer internationally. Her work is current and relevant so she can’t have any heirs just yet. I’m writing from the perspective of their daughters. I know that this perspective has rarely been seen in literature. I definitely don’t see myself as a 21st century anything. I can’t imagine being that egotistical.

In your response, I sense echoes of the feminist aphorism “the personal is political”… There is a long history of debates (which is still ongoing) about feminism and what it means in a Nigerian context. There was a recent article in the Nigerian media that argued that Nigerian women even when they lived the feminist philosophy tended to shy away from the tag “feminist” because of the negative connotations of the word. Would you regard yourself as a feminist?

Not the negative connotations, the negative reactions, and if these women are anything like me, they simply don’t have the time to get into arguments over the word. Seriously though, I don’t regard myself as any sort of feminist. It would limit my imagination in some way. But if people are interested in finding out what I think about feminism, I invite them to read my works.

As a Nigerian Igbo, born after the Civil War I am often struck by how little Nigerians of my generation who are not Igbo know about Biafra and the circumstances surrounding it. Enitan, who is not Igbo, talks about this in your book. What made you put that in? Did you research the war? Because I know it certainly isn’t taught in our schools as Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out elsewhere.

Yes, Enitan was ignorant about the Biafran war and she was questioning herself in that passage. I’m afraid I’m one of the Nigerians you’re talking about. My knowledge of the war was based mostly on anecdotes until I started reading books like On a Darkling Plain and Blood on the Niger. I was born three years before the war started. Apart from the propaganda announcements on television and the occasional bomb raid alerts, I wasn’t aware of the devastation until I found the Frederick Forsyth book with those terrible photographs in my parents’ library. I must have been about six or seven. I remember asking my mother about the war and I sensed her sadness, so I backed off. I didn’t even know that my aunt, also called Sefi Atta, lost her husband Christopher Okigbo during that war. As you know, he was a poet and he was killed fighting for Biafra. It is shameful what happened. I think that people of my parents’ generation are more silent about the war. It was a trauma even for those who were far from the battlefront. They still experienced a trauma of conscience. Granted, public discussions about the war are more like bitter brawls, and I can’t imagine how we will teach anything we still can’t talk about rationally. But it’s not just Biafra. Think about the atrocities that are happening in Nigeria now, in peaceful times: the mess in the Delta region with the oil companies and Sharia law in the north of the country. Before the international furore over Ken Saro-Wiwa and Amina Lawal, how many Nigerians knew or cared about what was happening in those regions except journalists and organizations like Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and Baobab for Women’s Human Rights? The premise of my novel is that Nigerians for the most part were silent during the Abacha regime. The people who actually spoke out were so few and they were not people like me who are safely writing novels today.

I have friends who argue though, that fighting for human rights is a luxury in a society where the vast majority do not know where the next meal is to come from. And where even the “middle class” struggle with day-to-day living. Don’t they have a point? Or is it another example of hypocrisy?

They have a point, but following their argument, then the Nigerian elite should have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights but they were not. How many wealthy bankers did we have fighting for human rights? Journalists played a huge part in the struggle and they were middle class Nigerians. Take a look at a cross-section of the members of our student unions in Nigeria, and you would be hard-pressed to find students from privileged homes. The grass roots activists in the Niger Delta are people who are living below the poverty line. I would say let Nigerians who don’t know where their next meal is coming from tell us what they think about fighting for human rights. I would also say that fighting for human rights is a sacrifice rather than a luxury.

Your short stories have garnered nominations and awards. You have also written a couple of plays, some of which have played on radio, and so I suppose, the inevitable question is – which is your favourite form – the short story, the play or the novel?

To be honest I feel it’s too early to tell. I haven’t put in enough writer years. I know these days there is pressure on writers to be literary sensations and talk as if they have mastered their craft, but I believe in long-term apprenticeships. I started writing short stories in 2002 because someone suggested I should. I had honestly never thought of writing a short story before. My favourite short stories were written by writers with strong voices like Milan Kundera, Edwidge Danticat and Grace Paley. I wanted to read shorts not write them. Plus, I didn’t know a thing about the literary marketplace. My first attempt at a short story was hacking a failed novel to bits and reshaping it. I sent it off to a magazine someone suggested. The story was published, so I wrote another and submitted to the first online magazine that appeared on the Internet when I did a search. Not only did they publish the story, they nominated it for all the awards: Pushcart, O Henry, and Best of American Shorts. I’d heard of the Pushcart, but that was the first time I’d heard of the other awards and of course I was surprised about the nominations. I still didn’t know anything about print journals, so I looked up contests and entered my third story for the Zoetrope contest, only because I liked the name and saw the reference to Francis Ford Coppola, so I thought, hm, that sounds interesting. I almost fell off my chair when I checked their website a few months later and saw my name as a prize winner. After that, I had serious performance anxiety. I guess that was where craft became necessary. I was trying to do too many things with my short stories, battling with form, taking risks. I did not want to be another lyrical voice. I wrote some dreadful stories even though I tried to convince myself that the journals were not ready for them. Novels give me space to fail, so I don’t feel so anxious writing them. I enjoy the time I spend with characters in novels. I’ve written two. Everything and a second novel Swallow about a Nigerian woman who is recruited as a heroin mule. I’m working on a third.

And the plays?

I have so much fun writing my plays. My radio plays have been broadcast on BBC Africa and worldwide. I love having that kind of access, that kind of contact with listeners. My plays are suited for community theater and I have had a couple of requests to stage them. One was from Joke Silva and Olu Jacob’s theater company in Nigeria. Another was from a theater company in Malawi. I plan to write more plays.

One of the issues that come up again and again when speaking to Nigerian writers is the difficulty of trying to get published. The recent controversy over the literature prize in Nigeria, which excluded Nigerians living abroad on the premise that they had more exposure and opportunities, underline this. What has your own experience been?

My publishing experience has been fairly typical for any writer: rejection, rejection, rejection, acceptance, elation, rejection. I’m more savvy about the literary marketplace now and sometimes it can feel like a club you’re constantly getting bounced from, and the only writers not complaining are those who are getting into the VIP lounge. It’s hard for all writers. I really can’t afford to dwell on the trials I face as a Nigerian writer. The book description on the cover of my novel purposefully refers to my voice as an important new one. If a voice is really considered important, no one needs to say it is. But the flipside of passion for art can be ugly and I don’t want to go there. Sometimes I whine. I’d rather be doing something about my situation or writing. For instance, with my novel, I’ve had to compromise and be more hands-on than I expected. I’ve had to reach out to other writers and people in publishing in order to spread the news about my novel. Some of them are my friends and they have been unbelievably supportive.

And following on from that, Amy Tan has recently spoken about the challenges that face the minority writer in America, where your work is always characterized as Asian American or African-American and never as just American. Similarly I recently heard David Leavitt speak of how the US publishing industry and the bookshops and media foster the impression that people ought to be reading about people like them – so an Asian woman should be reading books by Asian women and the books are marketed that way. What has it been like writing in America?

Writers are not protected from discrimination. When I worked as an accountant I dealt with discrimination and I’m still dealing with it now. It’s funny, looking back from my first writing class, it feels like I’ve been on one long audition, standing before an audience who is yelling, What have you got? Go on, tell us an African story! You can’t? How about an immigrant story then? What do you mean you don’t know what an immigrant story is? That’s my impression. America is big enough to embrace all sorts of writers and literature has to be genuinely inclusive. It must insist on the full dimension, range, complexity and essence of the human experience. It cannot accommodate writers because of what they contribute to the cultural landscape and be satisfied with that. But that is the publishing process. I’m more concerned about the impact of all this on my writing process. I have seen that in America there are rewards for writing under the Western gaze, you know, orientating myself towards the West, which could mean anything from making basic concessions like explaining every mundane detail relating to Nigeria, to making larger concessions like telling stories that fulfill stereotypical Out Of Africa expectations. Stories that simplify or distort the experiences of Africans. Stories that are racist even when they appear benign. For example–a simple example this is–it is rare to read about doctors like you who have worked in city hospitals and clinics as do most doctors in Africa, but look how often Dr. Ngongo operating in a missionary facility in the bush pops up in film scripts. Honestly, as a reader, you have to develop a sense of humor. Sometimes, you can’t even relate to some of these so-called African characters, what they’re saying or the situations they are in. As a writer, you also have to fight the temptation to slip in an African clich? or two in order to make your story more publishable in America. My tendency is to rebel and say no, I’m not going to refer to a single tropical fruit, exotic plant, spice, evil spirit, proverb, bare-breasted woman or whatever is expected in an African story. Then I tell myself, just tell the story. It has to come back to this: storytelling. At the revision stage, I try to make sure all elements are in context and there is an overall sense of perspective. Integrity is essential. I look to Fela as an example to follow. He took his native influences, foreign influences and developed an expression that was uniquely his.

I loved Peace, the gum-chewing secretary who presents a sick certificate with “General Body Weakness” as the diagnosis. I’m sure I have known a hundred Peace’s turning up in my consulting room demanding sick papers because “their bodies are paining” That must have come from real life experience?

In 1986 I worked in Citibank in Lagos. I was in treasury operations with four men and we’d be at work from about 7.30 in the mornings until about 9.30 at night. One of them was always popping pills. I asked why and he said it was for his GBW. So I asked what that meant and he explained General Body Weakness and then he showed me his doctor’s note. Sure enough.

There are several different portraits of Nigerian women in the book – from Enitan’s mother driven by grief to the white-garment churches, to her mother-in-law put upon by her brood of sons, to Sheri’s stepmothers to Enitan and Sheri negotiating their way through contemporary Nigerian society. Was it very difficult painting these various shades?

Yes, it was. I was concerned about portraying characters that Nigerians could recognize, not the stereotypes that others expect. Enitan’s mother in particular worried me. I had her wearing those white church gowns and acting superstitious. I could see Nigerians rolling their eyes at me and saying, you had to go and bring that up. The fact is that there are women like Mrs. Taiwo in my neighbourhood in Lagos. Yes, they are driven to churches by grief, but they also have some semblance of power and freedom in these churches. Their churches are communities outside the communities that failed them. Exile communities. Enitan’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Franco, was a challenge too. She may be put upon but she gets sympathy from her sons and husband because she is so obliging. She also sets standards Enitan cannot meet.. Sheri Bakare was another challenge. She is not a character that shows up often in literature and I could see feminists dismissing her. But she is a better negotiator than Enitan, less vulnerable and she doesn’t seek approval. I was surprised to read a book description that referred to her as lower-class because she was raised in a traditional home. They misunderstood her situation. You mentioned Sheri’s grandmother Alhaja. She is a highly celebrated character in African literature, the strong matriarch placed on a pedestal. Nigerian men just adore her. I see her as a woman who has survived our culture by becoming a soldier of the chauvinists. On one hand I admire her, but on the other, she keeps other women in check. I wanted these characters to reveal the power conflicts between women and between men and women. It’s now that I see that the story itself is a study of power and the characters that Enitan interacts with are like landmarks on the route she takes towards empowering herself.

And when exactly is this book coming out? Are there any plans to publish in Nigeria?

It’s available right now through online retailers like Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. My publishers, Interlink will launch it over the next couple of months as part of their spring 2005 catalogue. Farafina plan to publish it in Nigeria. They will approach my publishers and hopefully come to an agreement. Farafina published the Nigerian edition of Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus.

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on something now?

I’m travelling for readings and revising my second novel Swallow. I’m waiting to see how readers will respond to Everything.

Thank you for talking and I hope Everything Good comes.

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