The African Book Review’s editor, Etinosa, had a conversation with renowned Nigerian author, Sefi Atta about her new book, A Bit of Difference, the changing roles of women in Nigeria and the unique position of young Nigerians growing up in the diaspora.
ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE seems to take a moment in Deola’s life and use that as a lens for exploring a host of social issues. What inspired the book and did you have a goal when you set out to write the novel?
ATTA: I was inspired by the poster I described at the beginning of the novel. I saw it at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta, where I catch my connecting flights to Nigeria and England. My goal was to return to the territory of my debut novel Everything Good Will Come. I had stayed away for a while but I felt the time was right to revisit it.
ARB: One of the things that stood out to us in the novel was how astute the protagonist was in both noticing and maneuvering how other people perceive and categorized her. Is Deola symbolic of Nigerian youth caught between the varying (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of western and Nigerian societies? (Do you think being in that position is more difficult or advantageous than say, being a Nigerian born, raised, and residing in Nigeria?)
ATTA: Deola is tired of failing to live up to other people’s expectations, but I don’t know that her predicament would be any different if she’d never left Nigeria. She might not have to deal with the perceptions of foreigners, but she would have to deal with the perceptions of other Nigerians. I live in Nigeria, England and the United States. I have my working life in Mississippi, my social life in Lagos and a bit of both in London. I enjoy being able to escape from one country to another when I can.
ARB: To a fair extent, the female body is often regarded as social property to be regulated not just by the woman, but by society at large under the guise of morality. However, Deola stands out (and was truly inspiring) in her willingness to be comfortable and assertive with regards to her femininity and sexuality. Is this a reflection of modern Nigerian society? And what ideally, do you want the future of the Nigerian girl to look like in terms of the choices society affords her, and the choices she can make for herself?
ATTA: I would be lying if I said I thought about any of these issues while I was writing the novel. I will say this, though. We express our femininity and sexuality differently, depending on the generation to which we belong, our religions and cultures. The growth of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has also radically changed how we see and project ourselves. It has increased our choices, but not necessarily in positive or empowering ways. I see Nigerian girls who are sexualized too young, who model themselves after celebrities and hip-hop video girls. My thing is this: Use your brains, whatever you do. Nigeria is not forgiving of anyone who makes stupid decisions. Thankfully, I see Nigerian girls who are enterprising, hardworking and smart.
ARB: The novel cuts across many layers of Nigerian society, specifically noting how gender sweeps through these layers. What do you think about the differences that prop up between women in the novel (the difference between a white wife and a Nigerian wife, a wife and a prostitute, a single mother, and a wife with a cheating husband), are they representative of a larger problem?
ATTA: They are representative of reality. I refer to and portray a wide range of women characters in the novel. It happens naturally, through Deola’s encounters and preoccupations, and I’m glad for it because it gives a sense of perspective. You can’t read the novel and end up with a stereotypical view of Nigerian women, not when I have a central character like Deola who rails against that.
ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE read to us as one of those novels in which we find lessons on every page and keep finding lessons with each read. What is one thing you want your readers all over the world to take away from the novel?
ATTA: I’m back to having a big old argument with myself in this novel. I have opinions, but I don’t set out to prove them in the novel. In fact, I try to disprove them by asking questions. I hope that readers are willing to keep company with Deola and that they finish the novel feeling that they have met a real Nigerian woman.
Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria. A former chartered accountant and CPA, she is a graduate of the creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her debut novel Everything Good Will Come was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. She lives in Mississippi with her husband Gboyega Ransome-Kuti and their daughter, Temi. Find Sefi on Facebook.