Wednesday, December 25, 2013

273. A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta*

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the discourse or specifically the debate in African literature currently is about the poverty-porn (death, more death, disease, hunger, war, famine, and anything with shock-value) and Afropolitanism. This debate came about when it became obvious that the only stories by Africans that gain headlines and about which all the buzz is made are those that deal with the former. Most often the quality of the prose is sacrificed for the macabre theme, sidelining authors who write differently. However, irrespective of which side of the debate you stand, the fact that "Africa now has the fastest-growing middle class in the world [with] some 313 million people, 34 percent of Africa's population, spending USD 2.2 a day, a 100 percent rise in less than 20 years" [The Network for Doing Business] means that one story cannot represent all the complexities and contradictions the continent poses, like the abject poor and the super-rich occupying the same space and time. Consequently, there are others on the continent whose lives are antithetical to the stories churned out by their country men and women. They are unable to relate to these stories which have come to represent the continent. Hence, the need for variety. 

It is this necessity for variety, for a different narrative - not to replace the nailed-down narrative, which would be written out of usefulness, but to add on and enrich literature coming out of Africa - that makes Sefi Atta's latest novel A Bit of Difference (AAA Press, 2013; 221) such an important novel. With her control over language, her beautiful prose, the author dissects the lives of middle upper class families, exposing their apprehensions, inadequacies and achievements; she writes of their ordinary everyday lives in a way that shows the complexities in life. 

The story is about a well-educated Deola, a lady who lives and work in London. At thirty plus, she is not married and her mother is getting worried, requesting that she come home to Nigeria, just like her siblings have done. However, Deola having lived in the UK for some time likes the kind of quietness and independence it offers, unlike Nigeria where personal problems are communal, where every elderly person has a reserved right to advise you on how to run your life and where you are not allowed to retort to such statements and questions of advice no matter what you feel about them.

Sefi's story shows that ethereal change that is sweeping over the lives of many Africans resulting in a kind of unconscious selective cultural osmosis: the middle class leaving behind certain traditional trappings whilst hanging on to others with all the strength that could be mustered. These changes are taking place both in Nigerians at home and those abroad. She shows the difference in opinions and values between the western-educated middle class and its Nigerian-educated counterparts; in most situations, like the quest to be independent, the difference subtle almost nonexistent, in others like the zeal for progress they are marked. Families are now difficult to categorise: they are European in certain lifestyles and very traditional in others. For instance, though weddings could be taken out of from the pages of an English magazine, it would not be considered complete until the traditional parts are added; married couple could maintain a nuclear family, but cannot live in isolation of families and friends. A Bit of Difference also points out the changing gender roles, so no more are women docile and described as if all they have is their sex. Here we meet men who keep families and women who travel around the world and who do not allow the lives of their husbands to oppress them. Here we meet the usual sexual escapades that adolescents and even married folks indulge in. The Africans in this story are either ambivalent about church or are very religious. They are not dumb, sitting somewhere and waiting for help to come from abroad. They are very well educated, after all data shows that Nigerians are the most educated group in the US.

Generally, Sefi wrote about life - the natural flow of life: love, sex, child-bearing, fear, religion, and more. Most stories from the continent make it seem as if the African could not have sex nor be sexually daring and independent. In this story just like in the real world you will meet educated ladies who become pregnant without marriage, who make their own decisions; you will meet gay Nigerian men who are hiding their little secret from their families. Still you will meet families who demand of their daughters marriage and children, and who believe that it is normal for a man to have extra-marital affairs; ladies with sugar daddies or men with area mummies. You will meet the unstable homes arising from cheating spouses, and ladies who do not mind being mistresses to rich politicians. In effect, you will meet real characters taken from life, not phonies trying to live in novels. Sefi captures all of life's dissonances, the contradictions of living, the imperfections, the everyday fears and struggles.

This story breathes, it lives, it has nerves. Sefi's keen sense of observation brings everything to life. The characters are such filled with life that one could just close his eyes and picture each and every one of them in detail. Even in the end, when it seems there is going to be a 'happy ever after' type of ending, Sefi threw in a tiny spanner (the toilet seat incident), providing us with a glimpse into how the Deola-Wale relationship will likely look like.

Another theme in the story, but which actually is a consequence of the whole story, is Sefi's indirect take on African fiction. This book seems to teach new (and possibly old) writers other ways to write, not necessarily about Africa but writing in general. Bandele, discussing African literature with Deola after he had entered a literary competition, described those trite stories that keep on winning awards as 'postcolonial crap'.
"Oh, who cares? Coetzee's a finer writer than that dipstick can ever hope to be. What does he know? He writes the same postcolonial crap the rest of them write, and not very well, I might add."
Deola laughs. "Isn't our entire existence as Africans postcolonial?"
"They should give it a rest, the whole lot of them. African should be called the Sob Continent the way they carry on. It's all gloom and doom from them, and the women are worse, all that false angst. Honestly, and if I hear another poet in a headwrap bragging about the size of her ample bottom or likening her skin to the color of a nighttime beverage, I don't know what I will do." [34]
And when Bandele lost out on the prize to this writer whose story checked correctly all the requirements of an African story set out by the establishment, he blurted out:
'Original, ay? I wonder whose bright idea that was. I still can't get over it, but I suppose this is what they want. I suppose this is what they're looking for these days, from those of us of a certain persuasion. The more death, the better. It is like literary genocide. Kill off all your African characters and you're home and dry. They certainly don't want to hear from the likes of me, writing about trivialities like love.' [140]
With this story Sefi shows that Africa and Africans are not always eking out their lives in extreme poverty; that there are trivialities like love; that our happiness is more than mere romanticism of our past and our bushes; that we are more than what we are in books. And even if this novel, like Bandele's, win nothing, its importance would not be judged by it but by how much it achieves within its just over 200 pages. This book is truly refreshing. My only problem is with the publishers; the font size was small.
_____________________
About the Author: Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She was educated there, in England and United States. A former chartered accountant and CPA, she is a graduate of creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her short stories have appeared in journals like Los Angeles Review and Mississippi Review and have won prizes from Zoetrope and Red Hen Press. Her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC. She is the winner of PEN International's 2004/05 David TK Wong Prize and in 2006, her debut novel Everything Good will Come was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Her short story collection, Lawless, received the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. Lawless is published in the UK and US as News from Home.

She lives in Mississippi with her husband Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, a medical doctor, and their daughter, Temi. [Source]

*I have scheduled this to be published on Christmas Day, it is therefore appropriate to wish all readers of ImageNationsMerry Christmas. Thank you for reading and for your encouragement; your presence, your comments, your suggestions, have all been helpful. 

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