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.
Who: Deola Bello
What: Exploring what it means to be a contemporary African woman.
Why: Female, thirties, working for international charity, soon pregnant, single, Nigerian. Nothing is unusual, nothing is as it should be.
Should I read it: Necessary for women everywhere and all the men in their lives.
Qq: “[Deola] gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory” – Pg 97
A Bit of Difference presents a commentary on African femininity, specific to Nigeria, yet easily applicable to women worldwide. The novel is assertive in its exploration and insightful in detailing the complexities, limitations, joys, and paradoxes of being a Nigerian woman, living within or outside the country. Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and indeed African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations. A Bit of Difference, much less a novel than a brilliant portrait, successfully achieves what all good poetry strives for; it picks a moment and explores it. Atta offers no comfortable narratives or righteous solutions; instead her honest voice challenges the reader’s understanding of what it means to be Nigerian, African, British, European, American, but above all, what it means to be a woman inhabiting the battle ground that is the female body.
Who: The Sai family, a loosely knit yet inexplicably bound group, each facing different directions yet somehow holding on.
Why: Failure, Success, Expectations, Betrayal.
Should I read it: On a cool day with lots of time to spare
Qq: “It was the reason, he thought they built churches so big, and investment banks so impressive. To dazzle the faithful. Arrogance by association. The machine was in control, and so he was in control who belonged to it” Pg 69
The women of Ghana Must Go, are creatures who exist in a manner that few other writers have captured. Many times excuses are made for the humanity of characters, banal characteristics used to code and justify their existence. Selasi however, grants her women an existence that does not need justification. They are because they are. Yet they somehow remain intangible to the reader, vessels suspended in the space between critical consciousness, and intimacy. Selasi’s writing style maintains a distance that sometimes successfully works emotion and tenderness into the tale. At other times, the narrator’s distance is much too far and the reader feels as though in a Brecht play, too conscious of the fourth wall, unable to grasp the humanity of the characters, or view them as anything other than threads succumbing to Selasi’s convulsing attempts to weave an intricate tapestry. Intricate it might be, but a complete tapestry it is not. The reader is therefore left with convoluted knots, spaces with unraveling threads, coupled with brilliant patches that underscore Selasi’s genius and force one to keep reading in the hopes that the rest of the narrative maintains such illusive brilliance. It therefore comes as a surprise when a grey character exudes a contentment that is critical to, yet almost overlooked in Selasi’s tapestry. Her contentment weighs as the anchor of the book, the place towards which each character is destined, but never quite arrives. It is audacious in a way that echoes the unfulfilled aspirations of Ghana Must Go.