Sefi Atta, winner of the 2006 Wole Soyinka
Prize for Literature in Africa for her debut novel Everything Good Will Come,
is a Nigerian-born author and playwright, recipient of PEN
International’s 2004/2005 David T.K. Wong Prize, among other awards.
She is a graduate of Antioch University’s creative writing program.
with Sefi Atta
"I don’t think that’s what
education is," she said, "something to hang on a wall."
"Listen," I said, "I know what I’m saying. What is in your head might
not save you. Hang your education on the wall of your husband's house,
so that whatever happens you can say to yourself, 'This is my
education,'and no one can take it away from you."
Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau
There’s a risk, with constant and often sensationalistic media
coverage, for readers and viewers to be desensitized to—or to know just
enough to make sweeping conclusions about—what’s going on in different
parts of the world. Another bombing. Another civil war. Another child,
woman or man suffering or dying from illness, poverty, crime or the
heroic and frequently horrific attempt to cross the border into what’s
seen as a better life.
That’s why when I came across award-winning author Sefi Atta’s News From Home—a
debut collection inspired by news headlines—I jumped at the chance to
get a deeper look at the issues affecting Nigeria today.
Atta doesn’t shy away from the heavy stuff. In Hailstones on Zamfara, a woman accused of committing adultery with an invisible man is condemned to death by stoning under the Sharia law. In Spoils,
a non-governmental agency with a Hollywood has-been as patron helps
young girls escape from arranged marriages by giving them educational
scholarships. In Last Trip, a
mother who has made a living by smuggling drugs overseas takes her
mentally retarded child with her on what she vows would be her final
trip. Meanwhile, Twilight Trek, Green, A Temporary Position, and the title story, News From Home, looks at the personal toll of immigration, legal and otherwise. And so on.
As she said in an interview in Per Contra
magazine, Atta didn’t intentionally set out to write fiction based on
news reports. Heavily influenced at the time by Nigerian musician and
political activist Fela Kuti, she wrote each story in the controversial
and confrontational spirit of "afrobeat," as a form of social criticism
and protest. And Atta certainly had lots of material to draw from,
having witnessed the civil war and succession of military coups in
Nigeria as she was growing up.
The challenge, of course, when
writing protest stories is to avoid appearing preachy, and for the most
part, Atta succeeds. Writing with a deft and subtle hand, she is
neither defensive nor apologetic, and portrays characters that are
flawed and conflicted, but who nevertheless have a say in their own
fate, even if their choice is to do nothing, as in the condemned wife
in Hailstones on Zamfara, or to do something that ends in unfortunate results, as in the overly trusting protagonist in Twilight Trek, or the band of theatre actors turned criminals in Lawless.
In fact, Atta’s work seems to advocate against political or
authoritarian submission, fatalism and helplessness—especially when it
comes to women’s rights.
In Spoils, for
example, the protagonist, who was betrothed and widowed at a very young
age, feels threatened that her friend wants to earn an education and
live a life different from the one they have always known:
she know? What further education does a woman need? Can education push
a baby out? When Binta is crying out from labor pains, how perfect will
her English be?"In Madness in the Family,
a mentally imbalanced teenager asks her mother why she doesn’t confront
her bigamist and domineering husband, who has been largely absent from
their household: "You should ask him, Mummy. You should. Why don’t you?
Why don’t you call him and ask him what he is doing there?"
also takes jabs at the idea that Nigeria, like the rest of Africa,
needs "saving" by external forces like, say, Americans. In the novella Yahoo Yahoo, one of the characters justifies Nigerian Internet scams as follows:
were not only fools, he said, but they were also the victims of their
own vices. Those who sent money in response to our begging letters were
somehow relieving their guilt about how extravagant their lives are, or
were prejudiced about Africans and believed we were all desperately in
need. Those who sent money to claim lottery proceeds were plain greedy,
and anyone who responded to transfer-of-funds letters had to be corrupt
as hell."Taken as an ensemble, Atta’s stories can be quite a
weighty read, however, and the few relatively lighter pieces provide
much needed pause. I particularly enjoyed The Miracle Worker,
a parable-like story about a mechanic who finds religion against his
will. I also liked the tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrator in A Temporary Position, an accountancy graduate who worked as a temporary receptionist at a firm in London:
was predictable in a different way, in a ding-dong sort of way, like
Big Ben making all that noise that impressed hardly anyone but
tourists; a way that was causing me to spend the money I was earning as
a receptionist. For instance, I would walk into Selfridges at
lunchtime, like a zombie, and emerge with shopping bags, just like
that. That was London’s fault."
News From Home offers one novella and 10 stories, eight of which have been published elsewhere and have won awards in places like Zoetrope, Red Hen Press, PEN International, Caine Prize for African Literature and storySouth Million Writers. The book itself, which was first published as Lawless and other stories in Nigeria, won the "Noma Award for Publishing in Africa" in 2009.
While I wouldn’t necessarily read it multiple times, I do think News From Home
has something to say, and is worth a read. It puts Atta, who has the
writing chops to make her message palatable and even entertaining, in
equal footing among other notable and promising writers of the African