By Anote Ajeluorou/Guardian, Nigeria
Award-winning Nigerian novelist living in the U.S., Sefi Atta has come out with her fictive work entitled A Little Bit of a Difference. It’s launch, a reading and interactive session, was held last Saturday, December 29, 2012 at Glendora Bookshop at Ikeja City Mall, Alausa. It was one of two literary events that ushered out the outgone year, the other being CORA party held in Festac Town.
The small bookshop, with a poor air-conditioning that caused the audience much discomfort, was packed to capacity, with many attendees standing outside the glass door just to catch a glimpse of the much-loved author, whose heroines are everyday Nigerian women seeking out their own salvation in a country that can be brusque with its womenfolk. Atta’s wasn’t the typical Nigerian launch of a book, with a long line of protocols.
After being introduced by fellow female author, Lola Shoneyin (author of The Secrets Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives), Atta took over her and first read excerpts from the new book. Then she gave a background to her story, the chief character, Deola, another heroine, who must navigate her way through social the complex contours of her society, with its many unwritten rules governing it, the life of a single woman at 40 struggling to come to terms with the demands of her society, a society still conservative in its traditional outlook.
Although she does not see the pressure to get married as hindrance to women’s personal development and aspirations, Atta said however that there was something to be said about continuity and conformity, which her new book is about. “I don’t believe the pressure to be married hinders women as such,” she said. “I’m just saying what happens to women clocking 40 and not yet married? Others see them as threat to their marriages. All I’m saying is, ‘look at the complexities of marriages in today’s Nigeria.”
Although Atta does not see herself as a feminist and says she doesn’t even know what the term means, she is nevertheless preoccupied with ways of empowering the women in her works for self-realisation and self-actualisation, including Deola. She noted, “Nigerian women find ways in which to have power through social independence; my characters find ways to show power. My characters have a sense of pride and social freedom”.
Oscillating her characters between the Ikoyi and Mushin types of Lagos women, Atta has shown a remarkable degree of social mapping in the Lagos she grew up in, and noted that the Ikoyi she grew up in back then had a very conservative outlook that exercised certain constraints on marriages, as it wasn’t as free as elsewhere. She said the women couldn’t marry outside Ikoyi, as such “marriages created all sorts of problems and complexities; marriages within Ikoyi had their own problems also”.
ON the protagonist Deola, Atta said readers would respond to her story the way they would in real life, a strong indication of how socially realistic A Little Bit of a Difference is. She stated, “Every story I have comes from around me, as social reality; the imagination just pieces them together. I just put them together in a way I can control”.
However, Atta also said Deola would be responded to differently in the West because of the sense of entitlement she exudes, a notion the West believe is alien to African women, which she said hadn’t been explored before in African fiction the way she has now done it.
Known for contemporary social commentaries on Nigerian life in her works, Atta said she just couldn’t quit doing so, noting, “How can I not record how Nigeria is changingAlso, on how her living abroad impacts on her writing and if she would have written differently if she were residing at home, she said, “It’s hard to tell; I’ve never had another experience. I do think it has some bearing on the way I write. Difficult question to answer; if I were living in Nigeria, I would probably be writing different kinds of stories. I don’t write like other African writers residing abroad. I’m grounded in Nigeria”.
Living in Mississippi as she does with her medical practitioner husband and her daughter, Atta noted that there are interesting parallels in life over there, and her native Nigeria, which makes living abroad bearable. According to her, “There are interesting parallels with Nigeria, especially the religiosity and hypocrisy; all the extremes and contradictions are there, of people pretending to be one thing and another. There is similarity among the women in Mississippi and Nigeria”.
For the 49 years old author (with two previous novels - Everything Good Will Come and Swallow and a collection of short stories News from Home), writing non-fiction is something she just can’t handle, saying, “I do rely on things that happen to me, to people around me. I just can’t write non-fiction; I just use what happens around me”.
Atta started out writing plays and has written several and staged same in Lagos and elsewhere. Her plays include The Cost of Living, Zamfara and An Ordinary Lagacy. She said she turned to writing fiction when she didn’t know how to put her plays on stage. According to her, “I’ve always thought of having an audience in mind, a Nigerian audience. Writing abroad means you’re constantly fighting to have an audience in view. My plays don’t give me that. Writing novels isn’t easier than writing plays; I find writing plays easier, which I started out writing first. I started writing novels because I didn’t know how to put my plays on stage”.
Atta testified to having last year as her most productive one but counted her daughter’s admission into a prestigious college in the U.S. as her best achievement. Although she said every author craves recognition, she said she didn’t see herself as being famous, saying, “What is fame anyway? Every writer needs recognition for his works. I don’t know if there’s a happy writer or artist; something keeps happening to them writing”.