This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: An Afternoon With Sefi Atta

Novelist Sefi Atta shares glimpses of her well-received work with the Lagos literary community.

In an intimate, teeming, albeit poorly air-conditioned space -that is the Glendora Bookstore, Ikeja City Mall - prolific, award-winning author and playwright, Sefi Atta held court. She sat centre-stage, surrounded by coffee brown walls lined and rowed with words of some of the world's most critically-acclaimed writers, creators, thinkers and the cognoscenti of Nigerian literature and story-telling in film and television.

The occasion was the book-reading and launch of her most recent novel, A Bit of a Difference, which has been aptly described by fellow author Nii Parkes as "an up-close portrait of middle-class Nigerians exploring the boundaries of morals and public decorum...that explores the problem of how to look like you have no problems when you have abundant problems..."

A Bit of a Difference tells the story of Deola Bello, a single, 39-year old, Nigerian expatriate working for an international charity organisation in London, a situation with which she has grown disillusioned to. She is witness to how her country is being sold abroad, the Western attitudes that cling to her African friends. Her job then takes her back home in time for her father's memorial service which squares her up to her troubled family and the legacy her father has left behind. This, amongst other things, forces her to examine the realities of modern African life.

Hardly had Atta laid out the flesh of the book and the emotions pregnant within than it became crystal clear to all present that they were watching a budding literary luminary at work in her natural habitat. And with rapt attention, unflinching eyes glued to the woman of the hour, they listened. For the period that Atta spoke, all present journeyed with Deola Bello, across continents, on the road to self-discovery. The scene could not have been more appropriate.

Reading over, an allowance for questions was made and a deluge of questions poured in, with eager fingers shooting up near in unison. It was more than apparent there were a lot of people that were anxious to pick Atta's brain. It was also apparent to one seeing Atta being engaged in public for the first time that there were a few people that held her in something that had a reverent quality. Such was the manner in which the questions were posed. One interviewer particularly sounded awestruck.

Answering the many questions, Atta came across as very unassuming and revealed some things that were hitherto unknown about her. Replying to a particular question whether there was a point when she felt like giving up because she was not getting the recognition and attention she deserved or commensurate financial remuneration, she asked rhetorically, "What is fame, what does it even mean?"

She then went on to explain that as with other authors she wanted recognition for her work but stated emphatically that a true author wouldn't pen words for the money. In answering another question, she admitted that more often than not, she is embarrassed by her own work, going back to it months after writing it and that she sometimes has to re-examine it, to see whether the plot can be expanded, more feelings espoused.

She then revealed as the session went on that she started her career in plays not novels, that she is more known and recognised for. She explained that for her, writing plays was easier than writing novels but she took to writing novels because she was at a loss as to how to produce her plays, some of which have now been broadcast on the radio all over Africa. She then went on to say that her plays were usually very minimalist, "kitchen sink" drama that did not have any political undertones, for instance, or involved having many people on stage.

Reacting to comments about her motivation for this latest work, Atta stated that as with her other books she has been writing about members of her generation; "the oil boom generation", she calls it. "Our childhood was marked by the Civil War, our adolescence by the military coups and we graduated into a recession. My motivation for all my works has been to chronicle our experiences in fictional form. A Bit of a Difference brings the story of the oil boom generation to date. It is set in Lagos of the early 2000s." She then went to talk about, with nostalgia, her fascination with Lagos, where all her novels have been set including A Bit of a Difference. "Lagos used to be a very green city with about 500,000 people. Everybody knew everyone else. It was a beautiful city to live in. It was nothing like this present concrete monstrosity."

The book talks about issues of marriage and being that the lead character was a single unmarried woman in her late 30's, something frowned upon (or even deemed shameful) in African society, one curious interlocutor wanted to know Atta's personal take on the matter. Must a woman be burdened with the finality of marriage? Must marriage be put on such a high pedestal, akin to a career aspiration? Atta said, "That is down to the woman herself. I do not believe it is my place to give such direction."

With that, the interview session and the launch were declared over. For an author famed for minuscule self-promotion and who shies away from the public's eye, the time spent with her felt like a rare opportunity, a chance to delve into the mind of the woman who has been described as "one of the most original, imaginative and gifted fiction writers in Africa and arguably the best of her generation." An afternoon well spent.

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