“The Title Of My Book Is The Opposite Of Things Fall Apart – Sefi Atta, author of EVERYTHING GOOD WILL COME“
WA: Let me confess straight away that I was drawn to reading your book by listening to Odia Ofeimun’s incessant and sensational verbal reviews on a recent journey to Nigeria. I had to ask him to let me have a go at his advance copy. I found that no serious person would have only a go at such beautiful prose that captures the contemporary, complex social experience in Nigeria. How much of these complexities did you experience yourself before you translated them into fiction?
SA: Thanks. It’s great to have support from a writer like Odia Ofeimun. While I was writing the story, I was informed by what I call generic experiences. For instance, everyone knows what it is like to have a childhood best friend and everyone knows what it is like to disobey their parents and get caught. Nothing in the story happened to me. I was not interested in using my own specific experiences and doing that would definitely have pulled me out of the imaginary world I created.
WA: I was thinking of Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of the “paradox of the triple present”, as I read your narrative. What he calls the present of the past, the present of the future and the present of the present. You seem to counter and perhaps, negate, our regrettable and dastardly national past and present with a ‘present future’ – one in which everything good will come. How can the future add up for good with such past and present history of infamy? Is the future not now? Is a gloomy future not already present given the realities that surround us?
SA: The title comes from a declaration that my narrator, Enitan, makes at the end of the story. It is a triumphant moment for her, a personal moment, and has nothing to do with the situation in Nigeria. It is true that the political climate in Nigeria deteriorates one (military) dictatorship after the other, but Enitan is celebrating her father’s release from detention and her own freedom from her domestic prison.
WA: Let me return to Ricoeur who argues that we apprehend the ‘pastness’ of the past in two ways, as something that no longer exists and as something that still exists, as an encore. If we locate your voice within the spectrum of earlier narratives of the Nigerian condition, does Nigeria’s history not begin to read like an encore of sorts? Just take the encore of the individuals that have shamed our political history, the one that has already returned and the ones that are threatening to return, and the circulation of the ruling and ruining elite, the exhuming of foul-smelling relics from our political history. How will everything good come? Where is the basis for your optimism? Given the title of your work, aren’t you joining those incurable optimists, the perpetual Pentecostal ‘hope-sellers’ and the “e go better” lot, endlessly waiting for Godot?
SA: People choose to be optimistic whether or not there is a basis for it, soldiers at war, patients in hospitals, lottery ticket holders. Stock markets are driven up by positive expectations for the future after a depression. Heaven is a highly optimistic notion. I agree with you, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the optimism that abounds. Nigeria is running on the fuel of optimism, no matter how much we complain about our country. We complain because there is still a chance to redeem Nigeria. But Enitan’s journey is the story here, not Nigeria’s past, present or future. Her independence is the basis for her optimism.
WA: I like the subtle manner in which you represented and refigured the condensed evil that has triumphed in the corridors of power in Nigeria. But it strikes me that in spite of the wonderful attempts from different literary genres, Nigeria remains largely unexplained as a social totality. Do you think literature can help solve the Nigerian riddle, given that the country itself often comes across as a great fiction, even if a violent one?
SA: Our country, like many others, has a long history of emotional violence and literature exposes this, because unlike the history books and the journals, literature chronicles emotions. You read a story like Everything Good Will Come and you feel what it is like to be a Nigerian woman like Enitan. Every work of literature is part of the puzzle and the more published works we have, the more robust the representation of Nigeria is.
WA: Fiction mediates our understanding, appreciation and even evaluation of social reality. How do you think this work will help in understanding, appreciating and evaluating the postcolonial condition?
SA: The understanding, appreciating and evaluating always has to begin with the writer. For me, the challenge was to have enough distance from Nigeria, enough to observe it as an outsider, and then come close enough to portray it as an insider. Readers will have to decide if my novel helped in any way. The great novels get it just right and you read them and you are overwhelmed by their honesty. They affirm what you already know.
WA: One thing that comes out in your novel is that, in terms of how they work through the great odds of life and survive everyday, the ordinary people, for me, seem like the real heroes of society. Can you transcend fiction and suggest why they never get the national awards? Or have the fictive heroes taken them all?
SA: Yes, isn’t it unfair that the Okonkwos of this world are more famous than real heroes? Perhaps because fictive heroes are immortal and capable of reincarnation. Okonkwo commits suicide at the end of Things Fall Apart but every time a reader picks up the novel, Okonkwo is reborn. You know, it’s just occurred to me that the title Everything Good Will Come is the opposite of the title Things Fall Apart. I’m not sure what to make of that.
WA: You write that Yinka was born in a motherland that treated her children like bastards. Could this be because the motherland herself was conceived in some form of bastardy or vagabondage, if you will? How else could the Lugardian project have turned out?
SA: It’s necessary to look back, study and acknowledge the trauma of colonization and to remember it, but I don’t see how blaming Lord Lugard for our problems helps our progress. Plus, we’ll never know what would have happened to Nigeria had we not been carved into a country by the Brits.
WA: You address the question of alienation in different forms in your narrative. But, you stopped short of considering the ‘exile’ form. Yet, you, like many others in our generation, are in some form of painful exile, because Nigeria, like many African states, is no longer able to provide what we need to live decently and approach our manifest destinies as individuals. It is indeed worse than that. As Ato Quayson argues in Calibrations, the postcolony is a space of violence and death. Was it a conscious thing for you to avoid explicit confrontation with this dimension of violence and death that predisposes the best and brightest of the younger generation to run to Europe and America?
SA: What I avoided was the story of alienation and exile overseas. It doesn’t belong in Everything Good Will Come, and I deliberately left it out because it would have been a huge distraction. I’ve lived overseas most of my life though, and plan to write a novel that’s based in Europe or America. There’s so much to tell.
WA: I imagine many Africans who read your book will know many people in real life sharing coherence with your fictional characters. Who are these people in your own life?
SA: I’m not telling!
WA: There is so much reality in your fiction. All that happened under Buhari/Idiagbon, June 12, 1993 presidential election, Decree2, Abacha regime, NADECO, Constitutional Conference, even Kudirat Abiola. Why did you turn facts into fiction, or decided to put facts in the service of fiction? Is it a realization of the fuzzy grounds for division between fiction and fact, particularly in the Nigerian case? Or is it that you think the reality is far more interesting than fiction?
SA: Actually, I didn’t want to turn facts into fiction. Nigeria is real. If I use her name then I should at least try not to make libelous statements about her.
WA: I like the passage where one of your characters say that, “‘Maybe it is sport”- the military boys deliberately trying to ruin the country. I find that a powerful insight. Maybe the country is like polo, which only people in their class play? Maybe Nigeria is sport, after all, if you really stop to consider how they play in and play with Nigeria, these guys on the horse? Maybe Nigeria is even a game, in two senses, a game like polo, or a game as in one they can hunt and shoot? They kill Nigeria for sport?
SA: Yes, we’ve had more than a few nefarious political players in Nigeria, people who seem to despise Nigeria and Nigerians. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to destroy the country in which they live, in which they have to live and want to live. It makes no sense.
WA: You address religion and religiosity in different ways. I think it was Enitan who says, “God was the light towards which my tree grew? Those who challenged Him were free to. I’d been burned before, on one finger, or the other, and I did not want to feel that all over my body for eternity.” Is it the fear of Hell – wherever it is – as the representation of the Ultimate Consequence that should drive religion or just love, which has been succinctly described as the Ur Miracle?
SA: I believe in God and must admit that I don’t have a clear understanding of God. I would like to think that love should drive religion but who knows for sure? Love is too amorphous a word, I think, and hard to grasp. Hell is a firmer concept to hold on to because everyone understands fear. I’m not scared of going to Hell, but I thought that Enitan, with her particular family history, would be.
WA: You address in the book the issue of how children are disciplined in Africa. Parents beat their children out of love, elders beat, teachers beat, neighbours beat, sometimes mercilessly, all in the name of discipline. It was tough for a child to retain his or her individuality and originality under these circumstances. “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, they say. As a ‘postmodern’ mother – if I can be elastic with the term – do you think this wisdom should be read too literally?
SA: I don’t hit my daughter, is all I will say, and she’s wonderful, brilliant, intelligent, caring and she reads like no man’s business and she also writes. She’ll probably resent me anyway for the time I spent writing when I should have been paying her attention. It was difficult for me to write about a woman who desperately wanted a child and suffered complications like miscarriages because I never went through any of that, and there I was, with a child of my own, and I was writing when I could have been playing with her. I felt guilty. I was guilty.
WA: The way you handle the issue of sex and sexuality is a bit explicit. To take one example, you write that, “For all I cared, he could take my hymen, stretch it out, and hang it on the wall next to Mike’s?” Chimamanda is less explicit because she speaks through a 15 year-old – although I would hazard a guess that the average 15 year old today in Nigeria is unlikely to be as innocent as Chimamanda’s Kambili. What are you saying with the manner in which you treat sex and female sexuality?
SA: I’m writing what Nigerian men have been writing about for years and they never have to define male sexuality or explain the manner in which they treat sex and sexuality. Enitan herself is reacting to this type of double standard in that passage. She has just discovered her father has a son who is almost her age. She is about to walk out on her father and he forbids her to go to her boyfriend’s house. Her anger is justified and the metaphor is appropriate.
WA: Domestic violence is another issue you address that interests me; that is the tyranny in the home as opposed to the tyranny on the streets. You seem to suggest that the former is often overlooked by those who canvass or organize against the latter. Can we deal legally and in an organic manner with the tyranny of the home, if we don’t stop the tyranny on the streets? Is the former not in a sense encouraged by the latter, in terms of the absence of legal protection against domestic violence – particularly violence against women?
SA: The point I was making is that violence is violence, wherever it occurs. I know women who have been victims of violence and it makes me sad, especially as I still hear about mothers who advise their daughters to stay with their abusive husbands. The example that parents set, how mothers especially, raise their daughters and support their daughters is the key. The best legal system cannot offer women full protection, because women may be too scared of their husbands or they feel responsible for betraying their husbands and for breaking up their families.
WA: Your critique of Enitan’s father’s generation is challenging. They had so many opportunities. Yet, they didn’t stop the soldiers in the early years when they started leading us to a black hole. By the time we woke up to it in the late 1980s and 1990s,the soldiers had entrenched themselves everywhere to the eternal damnation of the country. I can see this reality in your novel, which is why I don’t see where the salvation lurks in all these. The hyenas have captured most of the space, and we are more or less like sheep to them. Where and when will everything good come?
SA: I don’t agree with Enitan’s indictment of her father’s generation. I know it’s a common view that people of my generation hold but I’m more forgiving, perhaps because I haven’t lived in Nigeria long enough to be resentful. In twenty years, that entire generation of post-colonial pioneers will have passed away. I think that every generation needs to take responsibility for what they have done, better still, for what they are doing in Nigeria, then good things should follow.
WA: The very name of your protagonist, Enitan, literally, ‘one of history’, or ‘an object of history’. That is narrative itself; your principal character already carries the baggage of untold, or silent history. Do you agree?
SA: Yes. Enitan answers the question, “What was it like?” for a woman of her generation, a Nigerian woman like herself. I don’t think her story has been told before. I read somewhere that writers write the same story over and over in different ways. Well, I write stories about ordinary Nigerian women living in extraordinary times. This is my first.
WA: Following on a question Ike Anya asked you, you guys in our generation, I mean, published writers like you, Chimamanda, Helon Habila, Akin Adesokan, Chris Abani, and so on, are picking it up in a way, where the generation of Achebe and Soyinka and then the generation of the Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa left the story. Do you think we are done with the story of those periods? Can we close the narratives of the periods that the Achebes and the Soyinkas, on one hand, and the Buchi Emechetas and Flora Nwapas, on another, chronicled?
SA: Literature can turn history into news. Ake, Things for Apart, The Joys of Motherhood, Efuru, they are all definitive novels of their generation. Many more stories can come from those periods and regardless of the period in which it is set, a story has to be fresh in some way: its language, characters or ideas.
WA: I am aware that there is considerable power in telling. I remember asking Chimamanda if the telling of her story healed her too, as one who had to live through the reign of those terror-mongers and vampires in power. Does the telling also constitute some therapy for you as a ‘child of the system’?
SA: I’m a child of a system that stifled individuality. For years, I used to rant about this. Writing has made me less inclined to rant, and I’m sure the people closest to me, my husband in particular, appreciate that.