I want to be a successful novelist and playwright – Sefi Atta
Sefi Atta’s plays are about Lagos, about death and dying, about family and their petty squabbles, but they are above all about modern life and how we navigate it. The author of the critically acclaimed novel, Everything God Will Come, will launch her first book of plays “Sefi Atta: Selected Plays” on Sunday May 7, 2017 at Freedom Park, Lagos. In this interview with TONI KAN she talks about her process as a writing, her fascination with Lagos and why family is important to her plays.
Death and decrepitude seem to feature a lot from ‘Last Stand’ to ‘Absent Times’ to ‘Lengths to Which We Go’ to ‘The Death Road.’ Would you agree to a reading that assumes you harbor a morbid sensibility?
No. I’m just terribly scared of death and I don’t know why anyone accepts it as a natural part of life. It’s dreadful.
Are you familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s work, especially ‘A Doll’s House’ and if yes, does he have any influence on your work especially about the subject of marriage, family, their secrets, women’s rights etc?
I’ve read Ibsen’s works, as I have the works of Chekhov and Brecht and other masters, and I’m sure I’ve been influenced by every play I’ve seen and read, but I wouldn’t say my work is specifically influenced by Ibsen or any of the masters. I would be setting myself up for ridicule. I prefer to talk about playwrights I admire, and at the top of my foreign list are the great American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. I’ve recently fallen for August Wilson. Modern American classics examine family conflicts that are very similar to those I have observed in Lagos.
JP Clark gave you a rapturous blurb and I know you consider his ‘America their America’ which has been dubbed an ‘autotravography’ a classic. In terms of plays, he was steeped in the traditional, while you are very modern. I can’t even recall seeing a proverb in your plays not even with Alhaja in ‘Lengths to which we go.’ Aside being a family friend while you were growing up, has he had any influence on your plays?
J. P. Clark was a good friend of my father’s and I met him again, as an adult, at the Garden City Literary Festival. He gave me what I would call a poetic nod for Selected Plays. He also gifted me his books. America, Their America is a work of genius, written when he was only twenty-nine. I still can’t get over that, and how pertinent the book is today. It is a thoroughly modern story. Some of his plays, too, such as The Hiss, are modern. His traditional plays, such as Ozidi, speak to the richness of his experience. For the reason I’ve given, I would never claim to be influenced by a playwright of his calibre. You can’t duplicate the content that made J. P. Clark, so why bother mimicking him? The same applies to Wole Soyinka. By the way, I invited each of them to one of my plays in 2011 and they both came to see it, on separate days. I was so nervous. I didn’t trouble them again until last Christmas, when I was distributing review copies of Selected Plays. It’s not unusual for them to attend performances and support younger writers, but getting acknowledgement from both of them is special.
Successful novelist and successful playwright, choose one?
I would like to be successful at both, but I don’t focus on that. Right now, I’m working on my next two novels, The Bead Collector and Made in Nigeria, and just enjoying the process. I must admit that novels are more tedious than plays. They demand your absolute and exclusive attention. I feel as if I neglect everyone in my life to write them. I don’t feel that way about plays, which is why I will continue to write them.
Describe to us your process. Do you write the plays out first as a story; do the characters come before the dialogue or do you imagine the whole scene in your head before you start writing?
I usually have a vague idea of where my play is going. Then I get to know my characters until I can hear their voices clearly. At that point they take over and tell me where the play should go, right down to the final line. After that, I revise for years. I have adapted a couple of short stories for the stage, but I don’t do that as part of my process. I write plays as plays and short stories as short stories. They are different forms and I treat them as such.
Seven out of the eight plays in this book are set in Lagos? Why Lagos and what place does Lagos occupy in your imagination and world view?
I begin my novels, short stories and plays in Lagos settings before I venture to other parts of the world, and that parallels my own journey. I was born and raised in Lagos and lived in England for a while before I moved to the United States. Lagos continues to be the seat of my imagination and where my primary audience is based. It is where I can speak directly to that audience. I intend to write plays set in England and the United States, which will come in time.
Finally, why eight plays and not more?
If I’d included the other seven or so plays I’ve written, the book would have been unwieldy and I’d have been guilty of doing what playwrights should never do: boring their audience. In fact, I recommend that readers take a break in between plays because I’m pushing the limits with eight. However, as I’ve said, my plays deal with family conflict, so Nigerians should find them easy to relate to. I hope all readers will enjoy them and I also hope directors and producers will use them – subject to the usual permissions, of course.