By Anote Ajeluorou
Sefi Atta’s first novel, Everything Good Will Come, came with a startlingly conversational and reportorial style that fed its readers doses of daily events in Nigeria that foreground her narrative. It was her own way of keeping abreast of events back in Nigeria from her base in Mississippi, United States. There is no doubting that the style worked as it did not only endeared her to readers, she has several awards to show for the work.
However, the lifestyle of the protagonist tended to have given Atta away in certain respects, as most readers felt she and her protagonist are one and the same. Like her protagonist, Ata schooled in England and had her early haunts in Ikoyi neighbourhood. This was a price she was to pay for writing a successful novel. But unassuming and even shy Atta felt somewhat outraged at being one and the same with her protagonist.
Her use of the first person narrative and many readers’ inability to separate the fictive character from the author, Atta found herself at the receiving end of conversations amongst some of her peers. And she said she felt exposed at being so regarded. Her strong, sexiest stance also did not help matters as her protagonist shows.
“When I wrote Everything Good Will Come, I felt exposed,” Atta said at a reading she held as part of The Life House’s Christmas event last Friday in Victoria Island, Lagos. “People thought I was the main character. It was annoying. So, for my next book, I felt I had to step out of myself.”
The yet-to-be titled new novel, although set in Lagos and New York, has begins with the life of a woman at mid-life, who is just starting out life anew. In this new work, Atta has kept faith her old style of dredging up bits and pieces of Lagos (and hopefully, Abuja) life to foreground her narrative. It is her way of keeping up with activities and events back home here in Nigeria even while she lives abroad with her family.
As Atta said, “I write about Nigeria when I’m out of Nigeria. I’m living abroad because I love it; my husband works over there and my daughter is schooling there. But I’ve always been connected to home. I’ve never stayed away from home for a long time. It’s the who I am”.
Perhaps, it is Atta’s penchant for staying in touch with home and visiting often that separates from the other band of writers pander to the stereotypical whims of publishers abroad that have a nose for negative stories from Africa. Atta is not flattered by such writing, which she takes a personal exception. Her path in insisting on the correct mode of writing about country and continent has pitched her against publishers who often insist on offensive nuances Atta finds irritating.
She told her audience, “My path has not been easy as a writer, especially in finding a publisher in the U.S. If you’re doing something the right way (that portrays Nigeria, Africa the way they are), you’ll have a hard time, you will have a hard time as an African writer. I often find myself asking difficult questions that others just ignore… I’ve had difficulties but I’m grateful for what I have become. Editor, publishers want us to talk about dictatorship, terrors and bad governance in Africa…”
Atta’s sexism and her attempts to right whatever wrong men have inflicted on women (in the raging war going on between men and women) is unmistakable in her writing from Everything Good Will Come, Swallow and News from Home (Lawless and Other Stories). However, she would not be drawn into the penis-bashing portraiture of men argument in her works, as it seems all too evident in contemporary society, saying, “I don’t feel the need to defend myself on this issue”. Nevertheless, Atta said she was cutting a different posture in her yet-to-be published work from which she read an excerpt.
In her yet-to-be published work over which she and her publisher are still agonizing over a suitable title, Atta returns to England, where she schooled. For Atta, England holds a certain fascination; it is the reason she said, I wanted to write about England, my experiences in boarding school. That is why it’s easy for me to about England. I wanted to write about U.S.”
However, Atta stated that her preoccupation in the coming season would be to revise what she had written.