Taciturn and tentative would be apt descriptions of Sefi Atta’s attitude when it comes to talking about her works. The prolific author and playwright whose third novel, A Bit of Difference, has just been published to rave reviews is one of the least self-promoting writers one would meet so it was a bit of a surprise to have her agree to speak about her works to six people; early readers of her new novel and people drawn from disparate fields; law, writing, publishing and social works. In the interview, Sefi responds to questions from her six interlocutors on subjects that range from her motivation for writing to the place of Lagos in her works as well as deeper issues that come up as you read the book. The interviewers included Chika Unigwe, author and winner of the Nigerian Prize for Literature 2012; Tade Ipadeola, poet and President, PEN (Nigeria Centre); Toni Kan Onwordi, author and critic; Funmi Tofowomo-Okelola, Social Worker & Photographer; Marla Kunfermann of Africa Book Group as well as Jide Bello, lawyer and activist.
Reacting to Chika Unigwe’s question regarding the motivation for her new novel, A Bit of a Difference, Sefi avers that she has been writing, right from her debut novel, Everything Good Will Come, about members of her generation whom she describes as having been “born in the 1960s and grew up in Lagos. I call us the oil boom generation. Our childhood was marked by the civil war, our adolescence by military coups and we graduated into a recession. Some of us stayed in Nigeria while others went overseas. My motivation for all my works has been to chronicle our experiences in fictional form.”
Sefi notes that this novel, her third is not different.
“A Bit of Difference brings the story of the oil boom generation up to date. It is set in Lagos of the early 2000s. My character is a Nigerian expatriate in London who works for an international charity that supports NGOs in Africa. At the age of 39, she is single and childless. She comes to Lagos for work and meets a single man. She is an accountant and the daughter of a banker; he is a businessman and the son of a lawyer. They are ordinary characters in ordinary circumstances that Nigerian readers can relate to. I have written about extraordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, but I am making a case for ordinary moments in my writings now.”
Sefi who has lived for long stretches in Nigeria, the UK and the USA in responding to Tade’s question about the diasporic nature of contemporary African fiction and “A Bit of Difference” which is set in 3 continents, notes that “I have lived in Nigeria, England and the United States for 14, 16 and 19 years respectively. Africans in general have a history of travelling and living overseas. A Bit of Difference is a continuation of my story of the oil boom generation not a departure. In my books, I explore my relationship with each country I have lived in. Everything Good Will Come is set in Nigeria. Swallow, too, is set in Nigeria, though it is in part a parochial story. News from Home is all over the place: Lagos, the North, the South-South, England and the United States. In A Bit of Difference, I have a main character that is based in England, and I am currently working on a novel about a Nigerian man in the United States.”
Her comment about her sense of place and how she explores them in her novels led naturally to a question about her “fascination with Lagos” as Toni Kan put it in his question.
Sefi freely acknowledges that “fascination” with Lagos which she describes as “the place I return to most. It is the beginning of memory for me and the seat of my imagination. It is also a storyteller’s city. We have extremes and contradictions here, and most of all we have conflict.”
If her novels offer explorations of where she lives, how much of her person is reflected in her characters, say in Deola, the protagonist of A Bit of Difference who is an accountant and an expat like the author.
Sefi says Deola is all fiction. “I draw on my life and experiences only to get an accurate sense of place. My narrative is entirely made up. At the age of 39, I was living in Mississippi and writing full-time. I was also married with a child. Deola and I don’t have the same biography.”
Deola is an educated and cosmopolitan woman yet she is apprehensive about marriage and family life. Funmi Tofowomo-Okelola wanted to know why that is so and Sefi locates the answer in Deola’s psyche pointing out that “She is apprehensive because she sees how difficult marriage and family life can be. She has a brother and sister who have problems in their marriages. Her brother is bored with his wife. Her sister is dealing with a philandering husband. Her cousin is living with a married man. These situations are not out of the ordinary, but Deola has been away from home so long that they spook her. She does n’t know if she could cope with domestic conflicts as they occur in Nigeria. Her age also contributes to her apprehension. The older women get, the more they are pressured to get married, but the less likely they are to put up with marital arrangements that don’t suit them.”
Sefi defends a charge of reticence when it comes to passion and romance in her works by pointing out that “My work is very much rooted in social realism. I don’t write about passion, love and romance; I write about physical attraction, courtship and domestic security.”
She goes ahead to fire her own question at Marla Kunfermann by asking “Who determines if passion is real, though? No one’s concepts of passion, love and romance are universal. In my teens, I read Mills and Boon and Harlequin paperbacks, which can be described as light Shades of Grey, but they had very little to do with my reality, so I was never a great fan of them. I knew other girls who were, and can only imagine that they had rude awakenings later on in life.”
A Bit of Difference tells the story of 39 years old Deola, a Nigerian expatriate living in London who works for an international charity that supports NGOs in Africa so it was only natural that someone would ask a question that would dwell on that.
Responding to Jide Bello’s question about the place of NGOs in failed states like Nigeria, Sefi says that an NGO “shouldn’t be an alternative to insisting on and fighting for good governance.”
She goes on to share her views on the NGO industry and a need for control and regulation. “I’m not sure that people who set up NGOs are necessarily progressive or agents of change. I would like to think that most of them are, but one of the observations I make about NGOs in the novel is that they are not always well run and sometimes they are set up simply to give their organizers salaried jobs. I have also seen NGO organizers end up in questionable government and political positions. I believe NGOs are necessary so long as governments fail their citizens, but they should be vetted and monitored.”
• A Bit of Difference is set for launch by 1pm at the Glendora Bookshop, Ikeja City Mall, on December 29.