"I write to process the world gently" Sefi Atta in conversation with Ike Anya
t's good to talk to you again after so long, and congratulations on the publication of Swallow. How has life been since Everything Good Will Come? Has everything good come?
Thank you so much. It's been three years and I'm a little grayer. Everything Good is being translated into other languages. Farafina has published Swallow and they are releasing my short story collection, Lawless, next month. My life in Mississippi is fairly quiet and peaceful. I still ask myself, "What am I doing here?" whenever I travel for readings and I still get teary over encouraging email from readers. We thank God, as we say in Nigeria. It's also good to talk to you again. You gave me my first interview and I have since had one or two that were so weirdly edited I couldn't figure out what I was meant to have said. Yours are official.
It's almost as if in Swallow you picked up the story of Rose, the gum-chewing secretary, she of the general body weakness, and made her the central character?
No, that wasn't Rose. They are different women. Glory was gentle and tired. Rose is indefatigable.
Swallow is very much a story of the poor and disenfranchised in Nigeria, laying bare their lives in all its complexity, sorrow and stubborn hopefulness. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the more middle class focus of your first book?
Yes. I wrote my first draft of Swallow in 2001, just after my M.F.A. I'd finished an okay draft of Everything Good and needed to get away from Ikoyi, where that story was set. I didn't want to be known for writing "Ikoyi women" stories. I had not encountered one before I wrote Everything Good.
Swallow and Lawless, which I wrote between 2002 and 2006, were inspired by newspaper articles. I basically read the Nigerian online newspapers and created stories out of articles that fascinated me. Swallow began with articles about drug mules. I don't think Tolani would describe herself as poor and disenfranchised. She would say she is broke and struggling.
I love the ear you have for the language of the Nigerian street- with phrases like "today, today, she will see my red eyes", "his whole life will spoil" and "mouth like Oxford dictionary" How do you capture that voice so unerringly?
I speak many Englishes. I also mimic people well. I get that from my mother. I never thought it was a useful gift until I started to write. The biggest challenge for me was writing English in the voices of people who speak English as a second language.
The pictures you paint of Lagos are so vivid, yet I know that you haven't lived in Nigeria for a long time, which suggests that your memory must be powerful. Did you live through the times that you describe? How much of a role does memory play in your work? Does the sense of being away from home heighten the nostalgia, sharpen the memories?
I lived in Lagos during the time the story is set and my long-term memory is better than my short-term memory. I'm not nostalgic about Lagos. I try to be realistic and write without being whimsical, exotic or grotesque. There is no need to embellish. In Everything Good, I attempted a panoramic view of the city because I was writing from the point of view of Enitan, who knew the city by air-conditioned car. In Swallow, I am contained because Tolani knows the city by bus, by taxi and by walking. She is always in crowded spaces. In all my stories I draw attention to the humorous, ironic signs on buses and on boards like "Who Knows Tomorrow?" because that is the way the city speaks to me.
There's a line where you talk about "Andrews who lived abroad, who were not good Nigerian citizens like those of us who stayed and suffered". That brought back memories of the Andrew don't check out adverts on Nigerian television in the 80s. Is this a charge that has been thrown at you?
I am fascinated by the way that you capture Nigerian office politics and dynamics- the squabbles, Godwin the resident pastor, Franka, the saucy gossip, Mr Salako the lecherous boss- they are all immediately recognizable to anyone who has worked in a Nigerian office….
I have encountered all the office workers in Swallow. As I said, I lived in Lagos in the mid-eighties. I was there for national service. I worked at the Nigerian Stock Exchange for six months and taught English at a free-ed school for another six months. Then I spent a year working in a bank.
There's a thread that runs through the book, at least in my reading of it, where it appears that you yearn for more individualism, almost suggesting that the much-vaunted communalism of our culture, comes at a price- often stifling individual creativity. Is this reading an accurate reflection?
That's accurate. Readers explain my stories better than I do. It is hard for me to because it takes the fun and magic away.
Another example is Sanwo who is expected to act as a conduit from his rich uncle to the rest of the family, especially his sisters. And then there is the detested socialite wife of his uncle who is hated by the rest of the family, yet who wields considerable power as the rich brother's wife…
I love Mrs. Odunsi. Isn't she great with her bleached skin and snooty attitude? Sanwo disliked her and I didn't blame him. He wanted to be an entrepreneur, but his sisters were constantly harassing him for money and he needed an initial investment from his uncle, Chief Odunsi, to start his own business, which he never received because Mrs. Odunsi kept getting in his way. I think another point to note about Sanwo's dilemma is that if you're a poor relation in Nigeria, you will probably remain a poor relation until the day you die. The so-called safety net of the extended family doesn't always work.
On one hand you are fairly critical of Nigerian cultural traditions, and then on the other, you appear to be fairly nostalgic about the village life in Makoku, the moonlight tales. Isn't this somewhat contradictory and couldn't you be accused of romanticizing the past?
Tolani was being nostalgic, not me. She had just been through a terrible experience in the city. She gets to her hometown expecting to find peace of mind and her mother immediately disabuses her of any notion about an idyllic life there. An albino man has gone missing, he has presumably been murdered and there are malicious gossips in the compound. Peju, the young girl in the compound, didn't want to hear any silly folk tales about tortoises, remember? Tolani very quickly readjusted her expectations, which prepared her to accept what she had always suspected about her mother. I provided balance by giving unsentimental descriptions of Makoku. I don't romanticize.
You play on some of the common Nigerian ethnic stereotypes- the untrustworthy Hausa man, the cowardly and sycophantic Yoruba man, the money-loving, country music loving Igbo man - were you keen to explore these, and wasn't that fairly brave on your part, knowing our country?
I knew an atmosphere of ethnic distrust belonged in the story and I ignored any fears I had about how readers would react while I was writing it. I don't set out to offend, but a story is worth writing only if I raise inconvenient questions. That doesn't always earn me approval.
Swallow shows how absurd ethnic stereotypes are even when you know people who verify them. Tolani loved money, so did Rose, Violet, Sanwo and Johnny. They all loved money, which was why they got into trouble. Rose was not very trustworthy. Neither was Mr. Salako, Mrs. Odunsi and Mashood, Sanwo's business partner. Sanwo was a bit of a coward. Johnny was a bloody coward. He fled when Rose attacked him.
Ethnic stereotypes are absurd to me because I was raised in a part of Lagos that was unusual in the sense that almost all my friends and family had parents who were from different ethnic backgrounds. Most of us could only speak English. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of that. In retrospect, we were parochial because we rarely went beyond our little social circle, but we were not parochial in an ethnic sense, so I've never understood that. I was shocked to encounter tribalism in Nigerian literary circles. People who support you only if you're one of them and if you're not, they ignore or cast aspersions your work. Here I am with an Arabic name. My father was Moslem and Igbirra and my mother is Christian and Yoruba. Where do I fit in? Actually, I'm glad I don't fit in.
There is a strong sense of Yoruba cosmology in Swallow and the effect of the past on the present. And it's interesting that that's often accepted but less so than western psychology. Were you consciously trying to draw parallels between the two?
Yes, I was. I don't understand the Yoruba cosmology so I didn't dare delve into that. As Tolani said, only a babalawo is sophisticated enough to explain it! She makes the comment while trying to understand what determines her fate. Is it predetermined or driven by her own behavior?
The scene where Mama Chidi tackles the grief-stricken Mrs Durojaiye is classic- our way of mourning- with noise and plenty of drama…where did you draw inspiration for that scene from?
The wailing scene is in practically every book by an African writer. I kept it short because it wasn't fun to write. Tolani was put off by the drama and so was I, but that is how we mourn.
Tolani struggles with foreign religion and yet finds it difficult to articulate what it is she believes in. Is this the dilemma of the educated questioning African?
It is a dilemma I face. Don't most people? I always have protagonists who are struggling to understand religion. Growing up, I was exposed to Christianity and Islam so religion has always been terribly confusing for me.
You parody the Nigerian obsession with all things foreign- the hairdresser Violet with her Italian pretensions and her client with her designer labels- this is obviously something that bothers you?
It amuses me, especially when you juxtapose all that glamour against a decrepit hair salon in Lagos. I know Nigerian women like that. They have to have their Prada or whatever. I don't see any real harm in it, but I wonder why anyone pays these designers so much money to become walking adverts for them. They don't design their clothes and accessories with Africans in mind.
Reading your work always makes me nostalgic- the chewiness of Goody Goody sweets and puff-puff hawked on every street corner in glass fronted boxes. And of course I must thank you for immortalizing the Ghana High bukateria in literature….were you also an aficionado of Ghana High? Now if only someone would do the same for the late lamented Iya Modinat in Obalende…
I did not know Iya Modinat, but I have eaten Ghana High food once or twice. I love Nigerian food. Whenever I go to Lagos, people take me to foreign restaurants to eat this one au gratin and that one in a béchamel. No. I don't want food with dairy. I want jollof rice and fried meat. I want banga stew with pounded yam, pepper soup and suya.
In Swallow, as you did in Everything Good, you use the personal to illustrate the political - the nurses' strike, Tolani's one woman strike against Sanwo, and so on- is it important for you that your work has a message?
I don't think about messages while I am writing. I find it interesting how the personal and political converge and readers might recognize my preoccupation with that. People are motivated to take political stances for personal reasons. Matron Durojaiye gets involved in the nurses' strike because she is a divorced mother raising three sons and she needs more money. Personal relationships can get political. Tolani goes on strike against Sanwo (meaning she doesn't sleep with him) until he agrees to set a wedding date.
Family can be a source of tyranny and it can be just as hard to challenge the people close to you, as it is to challenge the state. The repercussions are powerful. They can be physical, monetary or emotional. Politics is the individual's desires or needs expressed in a public arena-or should I say on a macro level. So you have leaders who become tyrants simply because they were bullied or spoiled by someone in their family. Every dictator we've ever had was surrounded by family members and friends who didn't have the courage to tell him he was doing wrong.
Questioning authority is a strong theme - Tolani urging the crowd on the bus to question soldiers, Tolani again urging Godwin to question his church's prosperity doctrine. Is questioning something that you feel we do not do enough of, as Nigerians?
I sometimes feel that way, but I don't always question authority when I ought to. I have never felt comfortable about telling Nigerians how to live. I don't think I have the right to just because I'm a writer. Writers often stand on moral platforms and I'm not sure why because our behavior is not exemplary.
Your story about the crowd at the bus-stop turning on Tolani instead of the soldier who was the real problem, reminded me of a friend's experience at the French Embassy in Lagos, where after complaining about the rude treatment they were receiving, the other Nigerians in the queue turned on her for upsetting the "white man" and putting him in a bad mood, instead of supporting her valid concerns. Why do we find it so difficult to confront the unacceptable?
I have seen that pattern worldwide. It's an innate need to protect the order even when the order is detrimental. Look at what happens to whistleblowers. Nigerians do not always question authority because we are treated so badly by public officials. It leads to fatigue and a loss of self-respect. I was at the Nigerian High Commission in Atlanta last week and the line was short, but within a few minutes of standing there, everyone around me was begging the officials, "Please attend to me," "Please help me call Chinelo." I thought, why are they begging? We were only about five people in line. After a while, I almost started to beg. It was a learned collective response. People usually protest individually and the rest of us might eventually get on board and call them heroes or martyrs.
The woman's perspective is very strong in your book- your description of Tejuoso market and the harassment of women by the traders there, for example. I'd been going there for years, and it wasn't until a few years ago, listening to some female friends describe their experiences that I realized what a nightmare it must be for young women. Is it important to you to record these perspectives?
I see the world from a woman's perspective and I can't help that. I went to Tejuoso market several times and the male traders harassed me. I was intimidated, but I yelled back. I even got into an argument with one of them who threatened to rough me up. I would rather not have these experiences, but it's all good material and I use it.
There's also a strong sense of anger, of exasperation almost- at the unnecessary deaths, the avoidable deaths, African deaths- are you angry about the African condition? And how can things improve?
I am not angry, just sad, but I don't dwell on the problems that Africa faces. That is not a solution. We need good leaders and we need to make them accountable. So far, I don't see that happening.
In both books, you often write about the smell of burnt beans, almost as a symbol of poverty. Now I must ask- what's with the burnt beans? I LIKE burnt beans…
I wasn't aware I wrote about burnt beans more than once. Mama Chidi smelled of burnt beans, but I didn't intend that as a symbol of poverty. Her beans were burnt because she was always doing crossword puzzles while she was cooking. I can relate to that because I'm an absentminded cook. I often burn food and it drives my husband crazy. He says he is concerned about fire safety.
When you talk about someone not being poor enough to beg, yet teetering on that fine edge, I was reminded of a friend whose child needed life-saving surgery abroad, but he couldn't afford it. I remember him saying to me that perhaps it would have been easier for him to deal with, if he was an uneducated farmer in the village, but with his education, knowing what was possible and being unable to provide it made it all the more painful. Is this the dilemma of many Nigerians? Or just special pleading from a relatively privileged minority?
That is a tough one. The difference between poverty and financial distress is the degree of need. So, poverty is when your basic need for subsistence and shelter are unmet and financial distress is when you need cash flow to pay your rent and medical bills. In Nigeria, you can easily cross the line into poverty. Yes, it's a dilemma for Nigerians who are between poor and wealthy. Mind you, here in the United States, most people are a hospital stay away from financial bankruptcy and homelessness.
Why the fascination with drug mules- your Caine Prize shortlisted story was about a drug mule, as is Swallow…
I had done so much research on drug trafficking and it was just lying there. I'm a pragmatic person. What I couldn't use in Swallow, I used in Last Trip. It is a clandestine trade so I also had to use my imagination and read between the lines.
In Swallow, I examine the element of greed, which is often ignored in court for legal reasons because drug mules are presented as victims. Last Trip, my Caine Prize story, is about a woman who smuggles drugs to pay her handicapped son's school fees. I follow her from Lagos to London. I don't make the journey in Swallow, but both stories answer the question I asked myself when I read articles about drug mules: what would make a person swallow drugs?
Reading Tolani's first attempts to "swallow" actually made me feel nauseous. How did you recreate this so vividly? Did you have any "expert" advice?
No, I didn't have advice. I did have severe nausea during the first three months of my pregnancy with my daughter, who is now 13. It was so bad I had to be hospitalized for a couple of days. It is very rare for pregnant women to have nausea that bad and it was debilitating. I was in a ward for women with cancer. They were trying to cheer me up and I felt like a fraud because I couldn't tell them I was just dehydrated. For the entire three months, I couldn't take a sip of water without wanting to throw up. I used that to create the scene.
In the end, the central character, Tolani is stubborn, going against convention and society's demands, a characteristic she shares with Enitan at the end of Everything Good Will Come. You have described yourself as stubborn, to what degree do you identify with these women and is that your enduring message?
I am stubborn and determined. I identify with both women and with other people in my books, even the lecherous Mr. Salako in Swallow. I love him. I didn't care for some people in Everything Good, like Enitan's mother, and it showed. Now, I only write about people I care about. The hardest part of my short stories in Lawless was detaching myself from them and immersing myself in the next story.
Someone wrote that I was having an argument with myself in Everything Good and I think that is true of all my stories. I have recurring preoccupations with power, politics, women and their relationships with one another and with men and children. I take different positions while I am writing and in the end, it is obvious which position I am sympathetic to. I don't write to spread messages. That is a prophet's job. I'm not trying to champion any causes either. I'm not an NGO. I think I write to process the world gently; otherwise I would just shut down, as most people do, and think about my next paycheck or whatever. The messiness, complexity and the magnitude of the beauty and sorrow in the world are too much for me to take in. So much trouble in the world, as Bob Marley sang.
What can we expect from you in the future?
More novels. Short stories earned me some recognition, but I'm glad I've put them to rest. It is challenging in a marketplace that seems to prefer stories that resemble the Western headline news about Africa. I can't speak for anyone else, but that has been my publishing experience overseas. I recently read a Nigerian newspaper article that gave the impression I'd spoken on behalf of other writers. Not true. Even if I were privy to their experiences, I would not share them publicly.
May I also add that my name is spelt Sefi Atta? I have only four letters in each name.
Sefi Atta's second novel Swallow is published by Farafina Publishers and available on Amazon.com. Lawless is forthcoming this month.